DES MOINES, Iowa – Presidential politics move fast. What we're watching heading into a new week on the 2020 campaign:
Days to Iowa caucuses: 7
Days to general election: 281
After almost one year of primary drama, the Iowa caucuses are just a week away. Expect to hear a frenzy of expectation spinning and closing arguments focused on electability. At the same time, simmering tensions within the Democratic Party are apparent. Establishment officials are struggling to mask their concern about Bernie Sanders' strength with polls showing the self-described democratic socialist running strong in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Joe Biden seems to be strengthening his bid to emerge as the establishment favorite, yet he continues to struggle to generate excitement on the ground. Nobody knows how this will shake out.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Can the establishment stop Bernie?
We've seen a rash of establishment-minded Democrats speak out against Sanders in recent weeks, but polls suggest it's done little to stop his rise. The Vermont senator was at or near the top of several early state and national primary polls over the weekend. We've heard everyone from Pete Buttigieg to Rahm Emanuel raising concerns about Sanders' ability to beat President Donald Trump and help vulnerable down-ballot Democrats this fall, even as passionate progressives rally behind him. For now, establishment Democrats are girding for a fight. And the ghosts of 2016 are screaming.
Will she find a spark?
Elizabeth Warren's seemingly stalled campaign raises the serious possibility that the only remaining women running for president in 2020 may be forced from the race before Super Tuesday. It would be silly to write off Warren at this point given her national following and strong organization in key states, yet it's difficult to ignore her current status in the progressive primary compared with Sanders. Those looking for another woman to step up have Amy Klobuchar, who seems to be generating some buzz but remains an underdog with little money or organization to sustain a campaign should she exceed expectations in Iowa. If the glass ceiling is to be broken in 2020, things need to change quickly.
What are the expectations?
Winning presidential primaries has as much to do with expectations as actual vote totals. And with new rules raising the possibility of three separate winners this year, the expectations game will be more nuanced than ever. Backed by inconsistent polling, Biden, Warren and Buttigieg have been careful not to let expectations surge too high, while Sanders' team seems unafraid to predict outright victory. The Des Moines Register final pre-caucus poll will go a long way in setting the political world's final expectations once it's released.
When will the senators be released?
Trump's impeachment has already made history. It's also made life difficult for three of the strongest Democratic presidential candidates heading into the Iowa caucuses. Buttigieg and Biden have essentially had the state to themselves for much of the last week. When will it end? The Senate trial could be over by week's end, but that's still long enough to give the non-senators almost another week alone with Iowa Democrats — at the most important time of the yearlong process.
What is Trump's message?
Perhaps we should be used to inconsistent messaging from the Republican president, but we were struck over the weekend when the Trump campaign attacked Sanders as “the godfather” of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' “extreme socialist agenda and socialist vision for America.” This comes after Trump made repeated overtures to Sanders and his supporters in recent days, siding with the Vermont senator in his feud with Warren and suggesting establishment Democrats were intentionally hurting his campaign with the impeachment schedule. Of course, few believed Trump's concern was genuine, but it's another reminder that the president's vaunted political machine has yet to determine its messaging relative to the leading Democratic candidates.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
Democrats insist they have learned the lessons of the 2016 primary and will come together behind the ultimate nominee. It may not be so simple. Tensions are rapidly escalating between Sanders and the Democratic establishment. At the same time, gender-based tensions between Warren and Sanders threaten to alienate female voters if the women are pushed out of the race early. There's no doubt that opposition to Trump will heal some wounds, but we're inclined to believe smart Democrats who tell us that opposition to Trump alone is not enough to unify the party and win in November.
2020 Watch runs every Monday and provides a look at the week ahead in the 2020 election.
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