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Many Iowa Democrats are paralyzed by fear of choosing the wrong candidate to take on Trump

Jan 11. 2020
Voters listen to Democratic presidential candidates speak at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, in August. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Voters listen to Democratic presidential candidates speak at the Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, in August. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
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By The Washington Post · Isaac Stanley-Becker 

Many Iowa Democrats are paralyzed by fear of choosing the wrong candidate to take on Trump. DAVENPORT, Iowa - Susan Dreyer, a Catholic nun, left her monastery one day this week in search of an answer to a fateful question: Is Elizabeth Warren "strong enough to kick Trump out?"

"I'm still deciding," Dreyer, 72, told volunteers for Warren's presidential campaign when, after the Massachusetts senator spoke here, they asked the nun if she would commit to backing Warren in the state's crucial Democratic caucuses next month.

Iowa voters are famous for taking their time every four years to decide which candidate to support, often insisting on a dutiful process of meeting several contenders in person before making up their minds. But this year is different - with many Democrats here so paralyzed by the fear of choosing the wrong candidate in the first-in-the-nation nominating contest that they are finding it impossible to make up their minds.

The uncertainty goes deeper than the already-vexing decision about which contender voters like more, and it is complicated not merely by this year's crowded field.

Rather, for many here who remain uncommitted, the dilemma presents a whole new calculation - a search for an elusive set of qualities seen as necessary to defeat President Donald Trump, the most unpredictable opponent in modern history.

The question is taking on new urgency fewer than four weeks before the Feb. 3 caucuses. Polls show at least four candidates remain in the hunt, each with perceived strengths but potential vulnerabilities against Trump that give likely caucus-goers pause. The consuming quandary is whether experience, charisma or preparedness - each complicated by questions of age and gender - is the best asset in taking the fight to the November general election.

So pronounced is the uncertainty that some say they may attend a caucus with the intention of deciding on the spot, after hearing in-person arguments from friends and neighbors.

"The feeling I'm hearing most is, 'If we could just Frankenstein together everybody, we'd have a super candidate,' " said Elesha Gayman, the Democratic chairwoman in Scott County, which includes Davenport.

Every day, the ideal seems to change.

As tensions flared in the Middle East following the drone strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, Sheri Carnahan, a 66-year-old retiree whose husband served in the Vietnam War, was yearning for someone with experience on the world stage. That drew her to Joe Biden, the former vice president, but she also values the military credentials boasted by Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana - and thinks they could prove useful in facing off against Trump.

On a recent Monday, she found herself at a meet-and-greet with Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and former tech executive. Unable to make up her mind, she is considering caucusing undecided, which is an option open to Iowans as their neighbors split off into other factions.

"It's the first time I haven't been able to make a decision," Carnahan said. "I'm really struggling."

The Trump factor only adds to the pressure voters here say they feel to vet the candidates. As anxiety grows over the prospect of putting wind in the sails of the wrong contender, Iowa Democrats have responded by continuing to consider just about everyone.

"I could go through the whole list," said Wayne Nieland, 71, who used to work at an aluminum factory.

The apparent reluctance to coalesce around a clear front-runner raises the possibility that several contenders could emerge from the contest trumpeting a victory of sorts. That's especially true in light of the Democratic National Committee's requirement that the state party release raw vote totals in addition to delegate numbers, creating grounds for two distinct claims to triumph in Iowa.

Only 31% of those with a first choice said in a CBS News poll released Sunday that they had definitely made up their minds, while another 57% said they had probably made up their minds. By comparison, a Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll released about three weeks before the 2016 leadoff contest showed that 59% of likely Democratic caucus-goers had made up their minds.

The CBS survey this month showed Biden, Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in a three-way tie. Warren, who has slipped in recent polls, was still favored by many as a second choice, upping the ante in the final weeks for her campaign, which is widely viewed as among the best organized in Iowa, said Gayman, the county chairwoman, who has not made an endorsement. Warren's campaign has more than 100 paid staff and more than 20 offices across the state.

Although the expectation is that next month's contest could break turnout records, Gayman said she has also spoken to Iowans planning to stay home rather than making up their minds, wary of the intraparty squabble and preferring to back whichever Democrat emerges victorious.

The stakes feel especially high in blue-collar towns along the Mississippi River like Davenport, where Warren and Biden held dueling town halls on the first Sunday of the new year. The counties arrayed on Iowa's eastern border were once Democratic bulwarks in the Midwest before many of them defected to Trump in 2016. Only Scott County remained blue.

In 2007, Tina Gillispie, who works in child care, was prepared to throw caution to the wind and back Barack Obama, the charismatic first-term senator from neighboring Illinois. A little over a decade later, and with Trump in charge, she is proceeding more cautiously. The 61-year-old, who came to hear Biden tout his government experience at a town hall at a minor league baseball stadium, is not sure how to weigh the risks involved in her decision.

"The president is really going off the tilt," Gillispie said. "We in Iowa try to steer the rest of the country in the right direction, but I don't know what the right direction is yet."

Bill Neidhardt, deputy Iowa director for the Sanders campaign, said towns like Davenport are dense with persuadable caucus-goers - working-class voters who can be convinced that they should desert Biden in favor of a left-wing alternative. The campaign, which raised $34.5 million in the final quarter of 2019, has more than 250 paid staff and more than 20 offices across the state.

But Biden's campaign has a different theory of the case. Jesse Harris, a senior Biden adviser in Iowa, said the campaign's data show that undecided voters hold more moderate views, and prize electability above all else, followed by health care and climate change. The campaign has worked to identify undecided voters interested in certain issues - and then to follow up with them following news developments on those themes.

An especially crowded field has stretched that process into the final days of campaigning, he said, while heightening the importance of surrogates, namely Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture. Biden's campaign has 145 staff members on the ground and 28 offices statewide.

"A very understandable position is to say, 'Well, there's a lot of candidates in this race. I'm not going to make a decision until I have a chance to see each one of them and hear what they have to say,' " Harris said. "So if Iowans traditionally make their decisions relatively late in the game, I think having this number of candidates has also fed into that a little bit as well."

The top choices listed by likely caucus-goers regularly defy neat ideological lines, depending instead on their perceptions about what personal attributes are required to oust Trump. That factor has made it difficult for staff to predict where in the state undecided Iowans are concentrated and what sort of messaging will convince them.

There are self-identified liberals who remain stuck between Warren and Sanders. Dave Fuller, a 67-year-old retired from a job at John Deere, is one of them. There are also centrists attracted to Biden but still interested in Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. That describes Philip Bertenthal, 73, a retired public interest lawyer.

But Susan Grove, a retired teacher in Bettendorf, is deciding between Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has been rising in recent weeks. Jane Rudback, 70, is still looking at Warren and Biden, hopeful about a female nominee but fearful about the prevalence of sexism.

The CBS poll not only revealed a statistical tie for first place but showed the top candidates bunched together when likely caucus-goers were asked about their second choice, as well. The signs that voter preferences are soft place a premium on ground-level organization in Iowa, which has selected the eventual Democratic nominee every cycle since 2000.

Although Warren's campaign showed muscle right out of the gate, according to voters and party activists, Buttigieg supporters have increasingly woven themselves into the fabric of everyday life in communities across the state.

"They're everywhere," Bertenthal said. "Not just knocking doors but attending local environmental events, just being present." His wife, a rabbi in Davenport, said campaign staff contacted faith leaders when they set up shop in town.

Buttigieg has 30 field offices and more than 100 paid staff across the state. Organizers have prioritized inviting undecided caucus-goers - identified through canvasses and phone banks - to the candidate's town halls, according to the campaign. The invite typically happens over the phone or via text. Volunteers also send online sign-up forms to undecided caucus-goers in their networks, such as neighbors or co-workers.

Last month, the Buttigieg campaign activated some of its key endorsers and supporters in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, to invite 100 undecided caucus-goers in a particularly delegate-rich precinct to a meet-and-greet. The campaign says the event resulted in dozens of caucus commitments.

Those commitments are valuable, said Bret Nilles, the Democratic chairman in Linn County, who has not endorsed a candidate.

"But it all boils down to the last month," he warned. "It could even come down to caucus night itself."


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