On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, Democratic presidential candidates hustled across the state on Sunday trying to fire up voters and make one last appeal to those struggling to make a final decision about their choice in the crowded field.
Campaigns and voters acknowledged a palpable sense of unpredictability and anxiety as Democrats begin choosing which candidate to send on to a November face-off with President Donald Trump.
The Democratic race is unusually large and jumbled heading into Monday’s caucus, with four candidates locked in a fight for victory in Iowa and others still in position to pull off surprisingly strong finishes. Many voters say they’re still weighing which White House hopeful they’ll support.
“This is going to go right down to the last second,” said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden campaign.
Polls show Biden in a tight race in Iowa with Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang are also competing aggressively in the state.
Many campaigns were looking to a final weekend poll to provide some measure of clarity. But late Saturday night, CNN and The Des Moines Register opted not to release the survey because of worries the results may have been compromised.
New caucus rules have also left the campaigns working in overdrive to set expectations. For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will release three sets of results: who voters align with at the start of the night; who they pick after voters supporting nonviable candidates get to make a second choice; and the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate gets.
Despite the late-stage turbulence and confusion, the candidates spent Sunday making bold pronouncements. Speaking to several hundred supporters in Cedar Rapids, Sanders declared “we are the campaign of energy and excitement” and said “we are in a position to win tomorrow night.”
Warren, who is also rallying progressive voters, pressed her supporters to “fight back” if they ever lose hope.
Meanwhile, the 38-year-old Buttigieg talked up his newcomer status, telling a rally in Coralville that when Democrats have won the White House in the past, “we have done with it someone who is new in national politics.” But Biden, emphasizing his decades of Washington experience, told voters there’s no time for “on-the-job training.”
Biden’s campaign appeared to be trying to lower Iowa expectations, cautioning against reading too much into Monday’s results. Biden is hoping to sustain enough enthusiasm and money coming out of Iowa to make it to more diverse states where he hopes to draw strong support from black voters. His campaign is particularly focused on South Carolina, the fourth state on the primary schedule.
“We view Iowa as the beginning, not the end,” Symone Sanders said at a Bloomberg News breakfast. “It would be a gross mistake on the part of reporters, voters or anyone else to view whatever happens on Monday – we think it’s going to be close, but view whatever happens — as the end and not give credence and space for New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.”
Still, the closing hours leading into the caucuses signaled challenges ahead.
NBC News reported that former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of Biden’s most prominent supporters, was overheard talking about what it would take to launch a 2020 run. Kerry, who won the 2004 Iowa caucuses, later tweeted that he was “absolutely not running for president” and used an expletive to describe reporting to the contrary. He later issued a tweet without the expletive. But the episode was a sign of possible unease in Biden’s orbit.
Trump’s impeachment trial has sidelined Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar for most of the last two weeks. They used Sunday to fan out across the state, eager to make up for lost time.
In a conference room in Cedar Rapids, Klobuchar appealed to caucusgoers by asking them to think about the voters who won’t be caucusing — moderate Republicans, voters who swung from Barack Obama to Trump and voters who stayed home in 2016.
“They’re watching all of this right now,” Klobuchar said. “We have people who want to come with us. And we need a candidate who is going to bring them with us instead of shutting them out.”
Klobuchar retold her joke about slowly winning over former Cedar Rapids Mayor Kay Halloran, who once told Klobuchar that she was “78 percent with you.”
“We don’t have time for that!” Klobuchar said. “She got to 100 percent and so can you.”
But many voters, too, are still making last-minute moves. According to a Monmouth University poll in Iowa in late January, 45% of all likely Democratic caucus-goers named a first choice but said they were open to the possibility of supporting another candidate, and another 5% did not indicate a first choice.
Indeed, talking to Iowa Democrats can be dizzying. Many can quickly run through what they like — and what worries them — about the candidates in rapid fire, talking themselves in and out of their choices in a matter of minutes.
“There are just so many candidates,” said John Kauffman, a 38-year-old who works in marketing in Marion.