The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice (LJ) dinner is a marker in the nomination process as candidates have the opportunity to show off their organizations and message positioning. New polling suggests shifting allegiances. With just 90 days before the caucuses, the shape of the race matters more now than it did over the summer. Candidates are also adjusting their messages and positioning, with new interplay expected in the next DNC debate.
Certain thematics are contested by multiple candidates: At least Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar articulate that they can bring people together within the party and ultimately across party lines; both Booker in the past and Harris now claim the mantle of the candidate of justice; Buttigieg, in using language reminiscent of President Obama’s, is competing with Biden for the Obama meme, and both Buttigieg and Yang speak to generational change. Sanders, Warren, and maybe Harris support bolder change on health care, while Warren and Sanders seem to share the reform lane with some Buttigieg and Harris incursions. Buttigieg, Yang, and Steyer lay claim to outsider status.
I am not aligned with any of the nine candidates who now look likely to make the debate stage this month (although neither do I feel a need to adhere to strict neutrality). My thoughts on each begin with a recap, and what I will look for in the next debate from a message perspective.
I begin with the Iowa top four based on the New York Times/Siena poll. The Iowa caucuses are not the whole ball game but are likely to sort the “contenders from the pretenders,” as the role of the caucuses have been described. Additionally, delegate math dictates a smaller viable field as soon as voting begins. (See https://www.270towin.com/thresholds-for-delegate-allocation for a discussion of thresholds.)
The Top Tier:
Vice President Joe Biden – Biden’s message is not changing as far as I can tell. He is competing on both the capacity to bring unity and on his ties to President Obama. The sense that he is the candidate who would make the race a referendum on Trump and not on himself seems to be fading. Voters seem to perceive Trump’s own fortunes as weaker (although they may well be wrong, particularly given this poll released today: NY Times/Siena Poll ) and Biden seems less of a force than voters initially believed. In prior debates, it was enough for Biden to hold firm on message and stay out of the fray. If his Iowa and New Hampshire leads are as endangered as some polls suggest, he will need to fight back both to hold the Obama mantle and to be seen as a unifying force – morphing more to “strict father” than “Uncle Joe” in archetypal terms.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg – Buttigieg has had a very good week, with polling that shows him in a very competitive position in Iowa and with an impressive show of force at theLJ. His message, meanwhile, has shifted to a more moderate call for unity with an emphasis of his Midwestern roots, and away from some of his earlier progressive and values-based positioning. Sexual orientation, age, and talent likely save him from appearing too moderate for the primary electorate. Some of his tactics – character attacks on Warren (even with the disclaimer) and his campaign’s blaming African Americans for their lack of support for him are familiar and questionable tropes. I don’t know that they damage him but it will be interesting to see whether they are repeated, or whether he grounds more thoroughly in his vision of a “new era” as he did at the LJ dinner.
Senator Bernie Sanders – Sanders has the firmest support of any of the candidates and while it is not quite as broad as it was – and certainly narrower than it was in 2016– maintenance and turnout could produce a top three finish for him in early states. Being a vigorous and spirited Sanders, which comes naturally to him, is likely enough to hold his base. One issue for him in the debate, is whether he creates any daylight between him and Warren on Medicare for All, which could help them both.
Senator Elizabeth Warren – Warren has moved into the number two spot, and some would argue the number one spot based on state polls. Voters like her and her plans, and a shift in voters’ mood and her numbers has tamped down some of the concerns about her winability. Still, many voters as well as party leaders are reluctant to see a campaign in which Medicare for All is the lead issue. Her response is strong – that “hope and courage” win elections. Her jobs moving forward are (1) to be the candidate of hope and courage and not the candidate of a single programmatic idea, even an important one; and (2) to draw a connection for voters between who she is now and her roots in non-coastal America.
The Second Tier:
Senator Corey Booker – Booker’s message has seemed a bit transient and his positioning is not clear to me, unless it is in the personal appeal of his optimism. He also sometimes emphasizes criminal justice reform in ways that compete with Harris. Booker has a choice to make on whether optimism and emotionalism or issue comparisons with others will help move his candidacy forward.
Senator Kamala Harris – Harris has shifted the emphasis of her campaign to focus on Iowa and rolled out an altered message at the LJ. Instead of starting with “as a former prosecutor,” she broadened her message to talk about justice and that she has always been “for the people” in an effort to bring them justice. The messaging was very well received. It certainly gives her a broader palette on which to portray her concerns about people and her core values. Whether she can show the force of those values without appearing acerbic or tactical, remains to be seen.
Senator Amy Klobuchar – Klobuchar is competing with Buttigieg on Midwestern cred, and with Buttigieg, Biden, and perhaps Booker as a unifying or anti-divisive force. She has not thus far given a clear portrayal of what a Klobuchar presidency would look like, which may be her task in Debate Five. She stood out on personal appeal in the last debate; in this one I suspect she needs to look the contender by saying how her presidency as well as her candidacy would be distinctive in the field.
Tom Steyer – Steyer is running as an outsider and a progressive. But he entered late and his self-funding has both put him on the debate stage and is self-limiting. Democratic voters are not in the mood for self-funding billionaires. His efforts on impeachment have also been, perhaps, overtaken by the actual event. Following the old rubric of Message-Organization-Money as key to political victory, Steyer seems stuck on the third.
Andrew Yang – Yang has an enthusiastic if small core of support, and the question is whether he can broaden his positioning. The Buttigieg morph may give Yang a new opening to be more of the candidate of new ideas and a new generation, and compete with Buttigieg on those grounds.
Conventional wisdom – which is sometimes wrong – dictates that there are no more than three tickets out of Iowa – that only three contenders have a real chance of the nomination after Iowa. I suspect that whether there are three or four “tickets” depends on the rank order and level of support for the first three. Five tickets requires difficult arithmetic since there is a 15 percent threshold for delegates, although five candidates bunched together is possible. Additionally, particularly if Biden’s support fades in Iowa, South Carolina with very different demographics could have an especially important impact in making its own choice. In any case, the race is far from over but the field of seventeen candidates is shrinking rapidly to a far smaller group that has any real argument for viability. The November debate may be the last opportunity for the second tier to move up, and will certainly clarify message and positioning within the first tier of candidates.