Iowa Poll: Biden, Sanders top early look at possible Democratic hopefuls in 2020 caucuses
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Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders top the list of potential presidential candidates preferred by Iowa's likely Democratic caucusgoers, reflecting their belief that it will take political experience to defeat President Donald Trump in 2020.
The results are part of a new Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll, setting the stage for the contest that will sweep across Iowa in the next 14 months.
A massive field of Democratic candidates representing the full spectrum of political experience is beginning to take shape. Nearly half of poll respondents in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state — 49 percent — say the right person to defeat Trump should be a "seasoned political hand" rather than a "newcomer."
The poll of 455 likely Democratic caucusgoers has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. It was conducted Dec. 10 through 13.
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Warm welcome to familiar faces
Former Vice President Biden — who campaigned for president in Iowa ahead of the 1988 and 2008 caucuses and was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 — tops the list of 20 declared and possible candidates tested in the poll. Thirty-two percent of respondents say he is their first choice for president.
Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont who narrowly lost in the 2016 Iowa caucuses to eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, follows Biden with 19 percent.
"This is obviously a warm welcome to some people who are really familiar to caucusgoers in the state," said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., the firm that conducted the poll. "But there’s also some welcoming of newcomers who are only now starting to come to the state and get to know the people who could shape their future."
Thirty-six percent of poll respondents say a political "newcomer" is best suited to defeat the president.
In that role, Iowans currently favor Beto O’Rourke, the retiring U.S. representative from Texas who narrowly lost a U.S. Senate race to sitting Republican Ted Cruz. Though he lost, O'Rourke raised unprecedented amounts of money and drew national attention.
O’Rourke earns support from 11 percent of respondents, who say he's their first choice for president.
Eight percent say Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is their first choice. No other candidate tops 5 percent.
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Name ID benefits Biden, Sanders
This early in the process, Biden’s and Sanders’ strong showings are due, in large part, to high name recognition, Selzer said.
"This is not Joe Biden’s first rodeo — or second rodeo, for that matter," she said.
Eighty-two percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers say they have a favorable view of Biden, and 15 percent view him unfavorably. Just 4 percent are unsure, signaling they don’t know enough to form an opinion about him.
Sanders rates similarly: 74 percent view him favorably, 22 percent unfavorably and just 4 percent are unsure.
Neither have yet confirmed they plan to run for president.
Biden said he plans to decide in the next two months, calling himself "the most qualified person in the country to be president." According to a report from the New York Times, Sanders recently indicated in a private meeting with Warren that he’s likely to run, though he has not publicly discussed a timeline for making such a decision.
Matt Paul, a longtime Iowa political operative who ran Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Iowa campaign as state director, said potential candidates who take an early lead in polling may face more hurdles than others who initially poll lower.
"It will create an expectation that these campaigns will have to meet and exceed for the next — what are we, 14 months away?" he said. "That’s not just a long time, but an eternity, in campaign days."
The 2020 Iowa caucuses are set for Feb. 3.
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Hillary Zirbel, a 25-year-old retail worker from Sioux City, says Biden is her first choice for president, followed by Sanders.
"I think that (Biden) would represent the country well and, unlike Donald Trump, he’s more political and he has more experience," she said. "I think we kind of need to go back to that. I think experience is good for any job, and I think the president of the United States is no exception."
Zirbel is among the 54 percent of respondents who say they care more about nominating a candidate with a strong chance of defeating Donald Trump than about picking the candidate who best aligns with their political views.
Forty percent of respondents say it’s most important that the winner of the caucuses shares their positions on major issues.
The Register asked a similar question in its January 2015 poll of likely Republican caucusgoers, asking whether it was more important for a candidate to share their values or to be electable. Then, the results were nearly reversed, with 60 percent of respondents saying it was more important for their candidate to align with their values and 36 percent saying electability was more important.
"My reaction to that is it’s entirely a reaction to Donald Trump in this experiment, with an outsider who’s never been involved in politics or government before and, from a Democrat’s perspective, how disastrous that’s been for the country," said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. "It seems like Iowa Democrats are not interested in taking a chance again."
Sterzenbach said he had anticipated that newer, fresher names like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and O’Rourke would shine early on in the caucus process but then ultimately give way to the more experienced and seasoned candidates closer to caucus day.
"I find it very interesting that people are already sort of there — or at least half of them are already there — in wanting somebody more experienced," he said.
A second tier of candidates emerges
After Biden, Sanders, O’Rourke and Warren, a second tier of candidates is currently garnering support in the mid-single digits. They include:
- Harris, a California senator — 5 percent
- Booker, a New Jersey senator — 4 percent
- Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — 3 percent
- Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — 3 percent
Among those candidates, Booker and Harris fare slightly better when factoring in poll respondents who name them as their second choice. The two senators each garnered support from 11 percent of respondents, who list them as either their first or second choice.
Second choices have been important in the Democrats' caucus night process because if a caucusgoer's first choice fails to advance, the caucusgoer then has to make another choice.
Adding first and second choices elevates Booker and Harris over Bloomberg, who gets 6 percent, and Klobuchar, who gets 5 percent.
Hallie Shera-Bergman, a 53-year-old Swan resident, said of Booker: "I like that he’s passionate about just standing up for people of color and for people of so many mixed backgrounds. It’s just so needed right now, and he’s just so passionate about stopping this culture of hatred that has just sprung up."
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Shera-Bergman listed O’Rourke as her second choice and said she is also interested in Harris. Overall, she hopes to see a newcomer garner support in the Iowa caucuses and beyond.
"I respect older leaders, but I do think younger leaders have more of an investment in looking forward as far as things like climate change and those kinds of things that are going to affect us in the long run," she said. "I think we need to focus more on long-run problems way into the future rather than just being reactive to things we’re trying to catch up to."
Some candidates bank on early-and-often campaign style
A dozen other potential and declared candidates earn support from 1 percent of respondents or less. But history shows Iowa is a place where anyone can win, Selzer said.
"If Bernie Sanders taught us anything in 2016, it’s that you can start with nothing and do everything but win," she said. "He started at 3 percent. So take a look at all of those who are in those low single digits — with the right set of circumstances, what we know is anyone can come to Iowa and win. Anyone."
Some, like U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, have taken to heart the mantra that those who want to succeed in Iowa show up early and often.
Delaney, who declared his candidacy in October 2017, has already completed his first 99-county tour of the state and has aired more than $1.5 million in television ads. Last week, he became the first 2020 candidate to sit with the Des Moines Register’s editorial board.
But despite all the time and effort he’s put into campaigning here, Delaney so far is failing to gain traction. Twenty-five percent of respondents view him favorably, 11 percent view him unfavorably and 64 percent are unsure. About 1 percent of respondents name him as their first or second choice for president.
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California Congressman Eric Swalwell is another possible contender who has committed considerable time and resources to Iowa: He’s made 13 trips to the state and is scheduled to return next week, he’s leveraged his leadership PAC to contribute more than $100,000 to Iowa Democrats, and he sent staff and volunteers to Iowa ahead of the midterms.
Others who poll at or below 1 percent include: Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and activist Tom Steyer.
With 14 months until Iowans caucus in February 2020, the field is likely to shift dramatically in the coming months as candidates formally launch their campaigns.
"We’re at the very beginning of an unknown future," Selzer said.
About the Poll
The Iowa Poll, conducted Dec. 10-13, 2018, for the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, is based on telephone interviews with 455 registered voters in Iowa who say they will definitely or probably participate in the 2020 Democratic caucuses.
Interviewers with Quantel Research contacted 1,838 randomly selected active voters from the Iowa secretary of state’s voter registration list by telephone. The sample was supplemented with additional phone number lookups. Interviews were administered in English. Responses for all contacts were adjusted by age and congressional district to reflect their proportions among active voters in the list.
Questions based on the sample of 455 voters likely to attend the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses have a maximum margin of error of plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. This means that if this survey were repeated using the same questions and the same methodology, 19 times out of 20, the findings would not vary from the true population value by more than plus or minus 4.6 percentage points. Results based on smaller samples of respondents — such as by gender or age — have a larger margin of error.
Republishing the copyright Iowa Poll without credit to the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom is prohibited.