The countdown to the Iowa Caucus of February 3 has begun and if some of the media spotlight is absent, much of this can be attributed to a circus in the name of impeaching a President taking place in the United States Senate over the last two weeks. If this had not happened, three important Senators would have been in the Caucus trail — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar.
In ways more than one, Iowa was a much better option for each of these Senators: Bernie Sanders is close to edging off the former Vice President and former Senator Joe Biden; Elizabeth Warren is a long way from being written off by pundits; and Amy Klobuchar is seen to be picking up momentum. These three law-makers would only be hoping and praying that the impeachment process does not drag on indefinitely: a possibility if Democrats manage to rope in four of their Republican colleagues for calling in witnesses like John Bolton, the former National security Advisor. And that could be the start of a long-drawn legal tussle that will not favour the timelines for the Democratic hopefuls in the Senate.
Ideally, one would think that Biden would be the favourite at the Iowa Caucus for the simple reason that he is nationally known. He has been a Democratic Senator, on the Foreign Relations Committee, and has been a Vice President under President Barack Obama for eight years.
But indications from the ground in Iowa is that this is not the case — the former Vice President is fighting for the top spot, if a raft of local and national opinion polls are anything to go by. In five surveys, Senator Sanders gets the top spot in three of them; and Biden stands first only in two. In each one of these surveys, Senator Warren and the young former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana alternate for the third and fourth spots. And Senator Klobuchar has been slowly making ground and gradually making the double digits.
Drawing the first blood in Iowa will invariably have its impact the following week in the primaries of New Hampshire on February 11; and thereafter in Nevada and North Carolina.
It is only after this first round that one can expect a shrinking of the Democratic field, leaving about four or five slugging it out for the Super Tuesday of March 3 that sees contests in as many as 16 states including Texas and California.
If the current cluster of Democrats are said to have spent about US$ 40 million in advertising in Iowa, it is generally believed that only the deep pockets can duke it out through Super Tuesday. And for a person like Michael Bloomberg who has assiduously stayed out of the First Round, the thinking is that he can still be relevant as he is making a big push for Super Tuesday. If cash for advertisements alone were to count, Bloomberg can be hopeful; but American Presidential politics is such that money alone does not do the talking.
The finishing at the Iowa Caucus will give the first indication of a thinking that need not necessarily hold true for rest of the contests; but it is important for the candidates for the simple reason they would have to line up potential donors to enable them to be in the race until such time the Party Convention is held in July.
Presidential elections are pretty expensive where a candidate not only needs and relies on fat cat donors but also those citizens who can afford a small token payment to the candidate of choice. The race for 2020 has clearly shown that Senators Sanders and Warren have come down heavily on the super rich and in turn has earned them the label of being leftists, an issue which President Donald Trump will eagerly seize upon. But even within the Democratic Party there are those who believe that the money that could be raised through wealth taxes is not only overly optimistic but also lead to legal constitutional issues.
In fact, a Democratic candidate like Andrew Yang, a technology entrepreneur, has made the point that a number of European countries tried wealth taxes only to abandon the idea. “All those countries ended up repealing it, because it had massive implementation problems and did not generate the revenue they’d projected,” Yang maintained in a debate last October.
But the one candidate that the Democratic Party and the frontrunners cannot ignore is Pete Buttigieg, seen as a millennial candidate who is rising in the polls. In fact, one survey from November had the 38-year-old Buttigieg in the first place, Senator Warren in the second with Biden and Sanders tied for the third spot. But what is becoming clear is that along with this slow and steady rise of the former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, he is coming under sharper focus with some progressives making the point that he is too moderate to win even in the primaries.
Buttigieg has also faced some sharp questioning over his ties to Wall Street and his so called rocky record on race relations — the candidate has yet to show any marked improvement in how the African-American community has changed its perceptions of him. There is another argument that being openly gay and married to his ‘husband’ may not go down well with conservative Democrats including African Americans.
Iowa will hopefully lead the way to showing the Democrats what could take to defeat President Trump in 2020. Getting a conviction in the Impeachment trial at the Senate is seen in many quarters as a wildest of wild dreams; and hence the other option is to defeat the incumbent this November. A recent Washington Post-ABC news poll taken before the John Bolton Trump-Ukraine bombshell showed that the sitting President has improved his standing against potential Democratic contenders — Trump trails Biden by four points; Senator Sanders by two and Senator Klobuchar by one; but these deficits are said to have roughly halved since a similar survey at the end of 2019. And this essentially raises the biggest challenge to the Democratic Party and the front runners: can they avoid the divisiveness and bloodletting of 2016 and come up with a viable ticket in 2020?
(The writer was a former senior journalist in Washington D.C. covering North America and the United Nations.)