Caucus voting has begun across Iowa, with voters set to declare which Democratic presidential candidate they believe is best positioned to beat Donald Trump in November.
Hundreds of thousands of Iowans – many of them still undecided – gathered in gymnasiums, libraries and churches to participate in the Iowa caucuses, the first official nominating contest of the 2020 primary.
Eleven candidates remain in the race, but it remains fluid with no clear frontrunner. Recent polls show four of the 11 remaining candidates knotted together at the top – the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the former vice-president Joe Biden, the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.
At one caucus in Colfax, about 20 miles east of Des Moines, about 60 people gathered in Colfax-Mingo high school to have their say. Nancy Rowe said she was going with Warren. “I think at 71 I should start caring. I don’t have too many caring years left,” Rowe said.
“She’s for us, and that’s what we need – somebody for the people.”
After more than a year of campaigning, ideological clashes, policy debates and tens of millions of dollars spent, this will be the first chance to see what support each of the presidential candidates actually has among voters.
Winning Iowa matters because it can give candidates a huge boost in momentum and name recognition before the other states cast their votes. Underdogs can triumph, and frontrunners can fall. Since 2000, every Democratic winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone on to win the party’s nomination.
On the final day of campaigning, candidates blanketed the state, speaking to overcrowded rallies, overflow rooms and packed campaign offices in a final push to persuade the nearly 50% of caucus-goers who say they may still change their minds.
“I respectfully suggest, not because I’m running, but because of the man who’s president, you’ve never had a greater responsibility than you have today,” Biden told more than a thousand people his at his final rally on Sunday, in a Des Moines middle school gym.
Across the state there was a growing sense that Sanders had taken the lead while the other frontrunners were locked into a battle for second. A highly anticipated Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll that might have shed some clarity was canceled on Saturday night due to concerns with its methodology.
“Our politics is the only way we can beat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in modern American history,” Sanders told volunteers at a field office in Newton on Sunday. “And the only way we can be him is if we have the largest voter turnout that this country has ever seen.”
Sanders’ strength has alarmed some Democrats who believe nominating a self-described socialist would be a disaster. One group spent nearly $700,000 on television ads in Iowa questioning Sanders’ electability.
Biden has pitched himself as a steady pair of hands and the strongest choice against Trump, a view polling suggests is shared by a large constituency of Democrats, particularly among African Americans, who play a critical role in later contests. But he faces competition for moderate voters from Buttigieg, 38, who has risen from relative anonymity.
“The good news is you don’t have to choose between the best way to govern well and the best way to win big,” the former mayor told a crowd of more than 2,000 at a closing rally in Des Moines. “At a moment like this, history has taught us we cannot take the risk of meeting a fundamentally new challenge by falling back on the familiar. We can’t be afraid of moving to the future and new voices in our leadership.”
Warren, a former public school teacher and Harvard law professor, has pitched herself as an unabashed liberal with an arsenal of detailed policy proposals for “big structural change”. But in the last days of the Iowa race she has also sought to emphasize what her allies argue is her unique capacity to unite and excite Democrats from the party’s ideological factions, even as she confronts doubts that a woman can beat Trump.
“We will – we must – come together as a party and defeat Donald Trump,” Warren told voters at a gymnasium in Cedar Rapids on Saturday. “And I’ve got a plan for that.”
The Senate impeachment trial added an additional layer of uncertainty to the already unusual Iowa caucuses, pulling Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar – and the long-shot Senator Michael Bennet – back to Washington in the final weeks. Republicans are poised to acquit Trump on Wednesday, leaving the fate of the presidency in the hands of the Democrats running to defeat him.
“We better not screw this up,” Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota who has staked her candidacy on a strong finish in Iowa, told supporters on Saturday.
If Klobuchar fails to reach the 15% viability threshold, her supporters could play a decisive role in voting for other candidates. The same applies for the tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who has predicted that he will “shock” the nation.
The former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg is not competing in Iowa, having spent more than $100m on a gamble that he will win big in later contests. Trump has fixated on Bloomberg and on Sunday their campaigns aired dueling TV ads during the Super Bowl.
Republican caucuses will also take place on Monday night, but as Trump faces no serious challengers, all eyes will be on Democrats. White House officials, cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and Christian evangelicals were dispatched to the state on Monday to offer voters a stark reminder of who and what the Democratic candidate will be up against.
“This will be the strongest, best-funded and most organized presidential campaign in history,” Brad Parscale, Trump 2020 campaign manager, said last week. “We are putting the Democrats on notice: good luck trying to keep up with this formidable re-election machine.”
David Smith and Adam Gabbatt in Des Moines contributed reporting