Inside next 5 months of 2020 Democratic campaign

Maggie Willems loves Joe Biden, but with each passing month, she also likes Elizabeth Warren more and more.

“It would be fair to say that Biden is my head and Warren is my heart,” said Willems, reflecting on the Democratic presidential race at a Labor Day picnic here. “I do love Joe, but Biden would be my pragmatic choice and Warren would be a little leap of faith in my heart.”

Five months before the Iowa caucuses open the 2020 Democratic nominating contest, the decision weighing on Willems is one that rests at the heart of the party’s quest to win the White House. Democrats are united around the goal of defeating President Donald Trump, yet utterly uncertain of who can get the job done.

The Democratic primary campaign, which remained remarkably stable throughout the summer, is suddenly entering a new period of uncertainty. Many voters say they are just beginning to pay close attention to the race, signaling the potential for a far more volatile campaign season this fall.

Interviews with voters, campaign advisers and party strategists make at least one point clear: The race is likely far more fluid than most polls suggest, with decisions rooted in far more than ideology, and the question of electability looming over it all. Warning lights may be blinking for some leading candidates, and opportunities could still exist for other contenders struggling to break through.

“To be fair, I have not ruled almost anyone out,” said Willems, a high school social studies teacher and volleyball coach in Mount Vernon, Iowa. “Everyone told us Donald Trump wasn’t electable, which obviously wasn’t true, so I’m really struggling with the narrative that so-and-so might not be electable.”

Electability — and its many definitions — is one of the key prisms in which the next chapter of the race is viewed, but it’s also an incredibly subjective one, with little consensus among voters on whether a pragmatic or a progressive path is the best.

The dynamic between Biden and Warren is coming into sharper focus, as they prepare to share a debate stage next week for the first time. More than a dozen other rivals are also building up campaign organizations, winning over supporters and making their cases to voters.

Bernie Sanders is the only other candidate who routinely garners double-digit support in polls and remains in the top tier of contenders, with Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and others fighting to break into that group.

As the campaign turns a corner, a rising sense of urgency is hanging in the air for several candidates. These questions are among those that will frame the discussion for the next chapter of the Democratic primary fight:

Can Biden hold his lead?

Biden not only survived the summer, he also put to rest any question of whether the first day of his campaign would be his best one.

While he’s leading in nearly every poll, he hasn’t taken command of the race or settled an even bigger concern among Democrats: Is he really the strongest candidate to defeat Trump?

That premise, which lies at the core of his candidacy, faces a new test this fall as rivals increasingly try to persuade Democrats that he would be a risky nominee. It’s a delicate balance, given the affection many Democrats feel for Biden.

“I love Joe Biden,” said Lydia Wermager, a retiree from nearby Marion, who saw the former vice president at the Labor Day picnic here. “But I think we need somebody with a bigger vision and that’s why I’m looking at the younger candidates.”

Her vest was decorated with campaign buttons from years gone by, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Her current choice in 2020? Pete Buttigieg.

With an Iowa victory far from certain, Biden advisers say they are preparing for a lengthy Democratic primary battle, drawing on a deep reservoir of support among African Americans, particularly older voters. So far, at least, all of Biden’s rivals have struggled to erode his support among black voters.

So for all of the importance of starting off with a strong performance in Iowa, it’s the South Carolina firewall that Biden’s campaign is relying on to sustain him through what his advisers concede could be a challenging few months ahead.

Can anyone survive September’s exclusion?

Ten Democratic candidates — the same number that will be on the debate stage next week in Houston — are about to see whether anyone can survive being on the outside looking in on the third Democratic debate.

The prospect of missing the debate already contributed to the departures of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, all of whom factored the lack of media attention into their decisions to drop out.

But a number of candidates are pressing forward, arguing that the debates won’t matter and they can survive the exclusion.

“My overall plan is it doesn’t end until the early states have voted,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told CNN. “So I’m going continue to do exactly what I have been doing. Hopefully I’ll be on the October stage.”

He added: “These DNC rules, they might have been well-intentioned, but when you lose all the governors in this race other than me, it’s showing that something’s not quite working here. The debate rules don’t actually decide who’s going be your nominee or who will be the next president.”

For candidates like billionaire Tom Steyer and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, both of whom got close to qualifying for the third debate, the decision to stay in and hope to qualify for the October debate is easy.

But it’s an open question how long the candidates can go by missing the chance to make their cases to millions of voters in the television audience.

Voters are ready for some to say goodbye

Matt Spellman, a 49-year-old Democrat from Cedar Rapids, didn’t mince words when asked about the candidates who aren’t going to make the September debate.

“It’s too big,” Spellman said. “It really is. I’m ready (for people to drop out). It’s getting to be too overwhelming.”

His thoughts were echoed by Lee Clancey, a former mayor of Cedar Rapids.

“We are getting to a point where we need to start winnowing the field,” Clancey said. “I would like to see people who have not broken out of the pack take a back seat.”

A number of Democratic candidates are holding out hope that they, despite the odds, can rise from off the debate stage and win the party’s presidential nomination.

But is that best for the party? Voters certainly don’t think so and would like to see some of the least successful candidates end their campaigns.

There are plenty of upcoming pressure points that could force candidates to bow out.

It’s hard enough to explain to donors why you didn’t make the third debate in Houston, but it is infinitely harder to do the same if you miss the fourth in October.

The viability of candidates who missed the third debate will also be most apparent in October, when campaigns must release their fundraising numbers to the Federal Election Commission.

For many of these campaigns, financial viability could be the most real pressure point. A key example: After spending millions on TV and digital ads in the closing weeks of her campaign, Gillibrand ended her campaign — sources said — with $800,000 in the bank, a paltry number considering she entered the race with a more than $10 million war chest.

Booker and O’Rourke need breakouts

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas entered the 2020 race with high expectations.

Neither has lived up to the hype so far.

But both candidates qualified for the September debate and will look to use the prime-time stage — with all the front-runners together — to make their marks and break out.

Whether Booker and O’Rourke are able to create a moment is one hurdle, however. The second is whether they can seize the resulting momentum.

That is what Sen. Kamala Harris of California failed to do after the first debate in June. Harris scored what is now clearly seen as the high point of her campaign when she excoriated Biden for his past questionable positions on race, leading her to quickly jump in the polls.

But she has been unable to capitalize on that and has been on a steady decline since she landed a solid punch against the race’s front-runner.

Harris aides are unmoved that their candidate was unable to build on the first debate. The campaign has plowed millions into organizing, has spent money to stay on TV in Iowa and has begun to build an operation in California, which will have a Super Tuesday presidential primary in 2020 — taking such an early and coveted spot for the first time since 2008 — and where the senator has leveraged her local status to consistently poll among the top candidates in the state.

Is Warren more like Obama or Dean?

Presidential campaigns often have breakout stars of the summer whose candidacies are tested anew in the fall. Playing that role in the 2020 race is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

She’s built one of the most robust campaign organizations in Iowa. She’s proved that she can raise money from grassroots supporters, without relying on a network of high-dollar donors. And she’s often driving the policy discussion.

Many of those plans, which helped her campaign flourish, will soon face tougher scrutiny. She survived the first two debates largely unscathed, unapologetically offering her pitch for revolutionary change in Washington.

She is gaining a considerable following, but she also faces the challenge of persuading skeptical Democrats that her plans are not only possible, but also affordable.

“She’s trafficking in a kind of utopianism that we don’t really need right now,” said Joe Gorton, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “We need really good, pragmatic, responsible leaders who evaluate the world as it is.”

Democrats in Iowa have a long history of falling for liberal candidates at this stage in the race before turning to more moderate alternatives before the year ends. It’s an open question whether this campaign season is any different.

Yet comparisons to Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who captivated the party’s liberal base 16 years ago this summer, are slowly fading. In Iowa and New Hampshire, Warren’s operation is far more comparable to Obama’s than Dean’s, whose campaign largely collapsed before the Iowa caucuses in 2004.

Warren still faces questions of electability, including at a Labor Day stop in New Hampshire, when a voter told her that people “love her policies, but can she really beat Donald Trump?”

“What’s going to carry us as Democrats is not playing it safe,” Warren replied, adding that “I know how to fight and I know how to win.”

Can Buttigieg keep up his money game?

The breakout star on the 2019 fundraising circuit has been Pete Buttigieg, who raised nearly $25 million in the second quarter of the year, a staggering number that made the once-unknown South Bend, Indiana, mayor that quarter’s top-raising Democrat.

Raising money in the third quarter has long been considered difficult — people are on vacation, don’t donate as freely and are just generally less focused on politics — but Buttigieg’s staying power will likely be judged by his ability to come close to matching his second-quarter haul.

Buttigieg, who has recently made trips to California’s Bay Area and New York’s Hamptons for top-dollar fundraisers, told CNN on Monday in Iowa that while he expects “to be able to be extremely competitive,” he would not say he will match his second-quarter take.

“I think the expectations for every quarter are different,” he said, “especially because there’s such a seasonal dimension.”

A progressive or a pragmatic path?

The key question of the Democratic race, which animates the divide inside the party, is whether a progressive or a pragmatic path is the best to defeat Trump.

Conversations with Democratic voters often include dueling questions: Is the party more likely to win by reaching out to voters who supported Trump but may have buyer’s remorse? Or by exciting liberals who didn’t turn out in 2016?

As he did four years ago during his first presidential bid, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is leading the charge warning against incremental change. From health care to climate change to a host of other issues, the party is far closer to his views than it was four years ago.

While Biden is seen as the leading voice in the middle, other Democrats are sounding the alarm with far more urgency.

Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who did not qualify for next week’s debate, believes that several of his rivals are pulling the party in a dangerous leftward direction.

“There is a disconnect between where the leading candidates are and where America actually is,” Bennet said in an interview Monday. “I think it’s shame on us if we walk down a road this time that disqualifies us and allows him to have another four years in the White House.”

Can Iowa figure out a virtual primary in a hackable world?

Iowa has a problem.

In an effort to make the state’s famed caucuses more accessible and comply with Democratic National Committee rules, the Iowa Democratic Party announced early this year that it would, for the first time, allow a virtual caucus for certain people, namely those who work late, have disabilities or can’t appear in person at caucuses. The program would allow these people to caucus by telephone in the days leading up to caucus day.

But months after the plan was rolled out, the DNC recommended rejecting Iowa’s plan, throwing into question how the first-in-the-nation caucus state will comply with new DNC guidelines about openness without a virtual caucus.

The reason for the concern: cyberattacks. The DNC leadership does not believe a virtual caucus could be secured and worries that even the allegation of hacking could undercut the validity of the results. The DNC has been especially concerned about cyberattacks and tampering following a Russian hack effort in 2016 that led to the disclosures of emails from party leaders.

Here is what isn’t going to happen: Iowa is not going to lose its first-in-the-nation status, according to numerous Democratic officials.

But the lack of clarity in Iowa will be a central story over the next several months and — most immediately — it has become a political story, with Democratic candidates slamming the DNC for rejecting Iowa’s plan.

The most likely result is that Iowa — and Nevada, whose plan will also be rejected but is less complicated than Iowa’s — will get a waiver from the DNC and host a more standard caucus in 2020.

What do voters actually want on health care?

The fight over “Medicare for All,” an issue that has dominated the Democratic nominating battle, is just beginning, and a key question for the candidates is what voters actually want in a health care plan.

Sanders has defined the battle with his Medicare for All plan, which drew considerable coverage — and a number of future 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls as co-sponsors — when it was rolled out in 2017.

But now that the race is more defined, candidates are starting to break with the Vermont independent’s plan.

A slew of more moderate Democrats have outright slammed the Sanders plan. While some, like Buttigieg, have said it is a good goal, they have differed in the way to get to Medicare for All.

Then there is Harris, who, after co-sponsoring Sanders’ plan, distanced herself from getting rid of private insurance and created her own plan.

One reason for the divide is polling, which shows backing for Medicare for All but a lack of support for removing all private insurance. A CNN poll released in July found that more than 8 in 10 potential Democratic voters said they favor a national health insurance plan — but just 3 in 10 favor a plan that completely does away with private insurance.