'It's kind of like a nail biter': As Iowa caucuses near, voters say it's anyone's game


DAVENPORT, Iowa — Just days before the critical Iowa caucuses, it appears many voters in the state have yet to agree on second- and third-choice candidates, in a race already fraught with indecision on who might pull ahead and win it all.

At events for middle-of-the-pack candidates, Yahoo News spoke to dozens of Iowa caucus voters who were not able to articulate consistent choices, which might be bad news for presidential hopefuls who need an Iowa headline to stay afloat.

The caucus voting process is not as simple as primaries. Within each caucus precinct, any candidate must clear a 15 percent “viability” threshold. If there aren’t enough supporters for a certain candidate, they would have to defect to another camp. And with a primary as unpredictable as this one, campaigns know being second or third choice will be a critical indicator to Democrats in other early states. Yet throughout the state, supporters for candidates at risk of falling below the threshold show little consistency in who their second and third strings may be.

This is part of why candidates or their surrogates have been crisscrossing Iowa to plead with voters that they are reasonable enough to be considered in caucus-goers’ top roster. Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who’s considered one of the in-state frontrunners, sprinted across 40 events in 18 days, while entrepreneur and mid-tier candidate Andrew Yang netted 50 events across the state in just over two weeks. Campaigns are hoping that just a few more events will give them the boost they need.

When asked where his supporters might move if he’s unable to clear the bar, Yang told a roundtable of reporters that he has a feeling they’d move toward Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s currently at the top of some Iowa polls.

“I think that Bernie and I do have a lot of overlap in support, so it wouldn’t be surprising to me if many of our supporters head in that direction,” Yang said. “I think most people are going to show up on caucus night with a few top choices in mind, and I imagine if I’m not viable at their caucus that they know exactly who they’re going to go to.”

But Yang’s assumption that his supporters are unified might be off-base; at a town hall in Davenport Wednesday evening, locals weren’t close to making up their minds.

“I’m torn between Yang, Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar,” said Joe, a 30-year-old Iowan who did not want to give his last name. He will be caucusing in Davenport but still wasn’t sure about his first or third choice. His second choice is locked down: former Vice President Joe Biden.

Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar is welcomed at a campaign town hall meeting in Mason, Iowa. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

But 64-year-old Brian Nagle, another Davenport resident who last caucused for Bill Richardson, a Biden-style moderate, back in 2008, thinks someone like the 77-year-old Biden is far too “mature” to be anyone’s first or second choice. A bit of an anomaly in the mostly younger crowd, Nagle says that he attended the event at the suggestion of his wife, an ardent Yang fan who will be caucusing on Monday. So, due to some marriage obligations, he jokes, he’s considering the tech entrepreneur, but he’s also “a fan of Pete Buttigieg.” He doesn’t know who his third choice would be.

Another Yang-Buttigieg crossover voter is Hannah Breitbach, a 28-year-old who will caucus in Cedar Rapids. Like many others across the state who spoke to Yahoo News, she’s undecided. Breitbach, who seemed intrigued by Yang’s $1,000-a-month universal basic income platform, says that she’d consider the more moderate mayor too. She’s also typical of the demographic of many Sanders supporters — young, engaged, leaning progessive — yet says she “can’t put my finger on what it is about Bernie that unsettles me.” She’ll move with the rest of the Yang pack if need be.

Yang volunteers from out of state assisted in the last-ditch Iowa pitch. At least that’s what motivated Dallas small-business owner Angela Hildenson to fly to Davenport and attempt to convince Iowans who trickle into this event to caucus for Yang. While not able to participate herself, Hildenson hopes to convince the Iowans she meets to get behind Yang — and reluctantly admits that she would “probably support” another candidate if the tech entrepreneur were not viable beyond the early states. She says, however, “that’d be really unfortunate.”

The Davenport event attracted some rival campaign interlopers too. Beth Wiley, a 45-year-old from Park View, a village about 15 miles from Davenport, sat toward the back of the ballroom, listening intently to Yang’s call-and-response stump about Amazon and automation, in search of a realistic second and third choice. She supports Sen. Amy Klobuchar, but her ideal second candidate is Sen. Michael Bennet, who is officially still in the running for the nomination. But “nobody knows him, he’s a nonstarter,” Wiley said.

Andrew Yang
Andrew Yang campaigning in Nevada, Iowa, earlier this week. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

If Klobuchar, who’s hovering around 10 percent in some Iowa polls, doesn’t have the steam, Wiley would rather give her support to another fledgling campaign rather than a frontrunner — probably Yang, who faces a similar challenge to cross the 15 percent threshold, or a more mainstream choice, like Buttigieg, but she isn’t sure in what order. As long as that choice doesn’t include Sanders, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg or Biden, who she sees as “old white guys who need a hobby.”

Certainly not all of Klobuchar’s supporters share that view, however. Several attendees of a Klobuchar hot-dish house party, held the next day in Prole, Iowa, found those candidates just fine.

Barbara Allison, a 75-year-old Klobuchar precinct captain in Norwalk, is admittedly charmed by many of the frontrunners — septuagenarian white guys included. “I can just look at each one and say, ‘Here’s a good one.’”

But that same indecision makes her nervous. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, what’s Iowa going to do?’ So, we want to get it right.”

Her first choice is the senator from Minnesota, but if she’s not viable, Allison is going to Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

As Allison was answering, Liz Webster, a 67-year-old caucus-goer and Klobuchar organizer in Warren County, interrupted and challenged Allison: Why would she go “so far left” from someone so moderate? Webster was dubious about Warren and Sanders’s “socialist” policies and urged Allison to consider her own rankings.

Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

So who is Webster rooting for? At first she reveals it’s Klobuchar, then it’s Biden, then it’s Buttigieg. Then she hesitates.

“But I don’t know,” she says, expressing concern about Buttigieg’s relative lack of experience. “But I just can’t stand Bernie Sanders.”

She cites, as her concern about Sanders, his energized, sometimes fervent, young base.

Heather Brown, a 47-year-old from Norwalk who cares about climate change and women’s reproductive health issues more than anything else, chimed in, saying she’s also one of the area’s undecideds. She doesn’t know who she is going to caucus for and believes that “the problem Democrats had three years ago was that Democrats couldn’t unite,” so she plans on making her decisions Monday evening for “whomever seems like the strongest entity” in the room.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen — it’s kind of like a nail biter.”

David Munoz, who knew the event organizer from the local Rotary Club, attended the hot-dish house party with his wife, who’s leaning toward caucusing for Klobuchar. A wayward Cory Booker supporter looking for a candidate to land on, Munoz says he’s still “pretty undecided” but likes what he’s heard from Warren and Buttigieg. Many of his friends — though not the Rotary Club folk, who he says overwhelmingly lean Republican — like the same candidates. But he’s not worried about factions within his own party; instead, he sees the process as a unique pleasure.

“It seems kind of last minute, but it’s part of the great experience of being in Iowa,” said Munoz.

Jana Erickson, 58, host of the house party in Martensdale, a hamlet with a population of 465, faces a challenge many rural organizers do: charming a small crowd in her candidate’s direction. She considers herself a moderate and hopes to use her skills working across party lines to sharpen her pitch to undecided voters in her group.

Though not everyone in her town is as understanding, she said that many in her neighborhood don’t publicly support a candidate or have signs in their yard. In fact, her “Amy for America” sign was stolen as soon as she posted it. But she’s not letting that deter her.

Erickson said that if Klobuchar doesn’t hit 15 percent, she’ll look around the room and try to make alliances with other underperforming groups. Essentially the name of her game is convince, don’t cave.

She still has a contingency plan, though — Biden is her second choice and Buttigieg is her third.

“I always go where I can make a difference,” said Erickson, as she made a fresh batch of white peach sangria for her guests. “I don’t know what I’m in for, but I think I’m ready.”


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