Democrats in Iowa will cast their votes on Monday night in the first big event of a presidential primary process that will determine who faces Donald Trump in November’s US election.
Voters will have 10 Democrats to choose from, with the latest public opinion polls showing four candidates leading the field: Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator; Joe Biden, former US vice-president; Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana; and Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota senator, also appears to have gained momentum in recent weeks, buoyed by a series of high-profile newspaper endorsements.
But Mr Sanders, a Democratic socialist, has seen the greatest swell of support in recent days, exacerbating anxieties among moderate members of the party who worry about his ability to defeat Mr Trump in a general election.
Mr Sanders’ recent rise has come even though he has been unable to campaign in the state for much of the past two weeks. Mr Sanders, Ms Warren and Ms Klobuchar have all been relegated to Washington, where they are three of 100 senators acting as jurors in Mr Trump’s impeachment trial.
An average of Iowa polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitcs showed Mr Sanders in first place at 23 per cent, followed by Mr Biden at 19 per cent, Mr Buttigieg at 16.8 per cent and Ms Warren at 15.5 per cent. But political experts agree the race is too close to call, especially given that a significant share of Iowans say they will only make up their mind on caucus night.
Another high-profile Democratic candidate, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, is not on the ballot, and is focusing his campaign efforts on the more than a dozen states holding primary contests on “Super Tuesday” in early March.
Monday’s caucuses, which kick off at 7pm CST, are a crucial contest for all of the candidates as they seek to gain delegates to his summer’s Democratic National Convention, where the party’s candidate will be officially selected.
But the caucuses are also important for candidates looking to gain national attention and demonstrate their “electability”. A strong finish in Iowa has in some cases catapulted candidates to success in New Hampshire, where the first primary will be held next Tuesday, or Nevada and South Carolina, the third and fourth states in the nominating process, respectively. In 2008, then-senator Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucuses propelled him to decisive victories in Nevada and South Carolina.
Unlike a primary, where voters cast a secret ballot, caucuses are small local meetings in places like schools and churches, where voters publicly declare who they support. To move into the second round, a candidate needs 15 per cent of voters’ support in a given precinct. Candidates currently polling in the single digits in Iowa, according to Real Clear Politics, include entrepreneur Andrew Yang and investor Tom Steyer.
Monday’s caucuses are likely to lay bare the ideological differences within the Democratic party, with Mr Sanders and Ms Warren on the more progressive end of the political spectrum and Mr Buttigieg, Mr Biden and Ms Klobuchar positioning themselves as moderates.
The caucuses may also underscore generational divides within the party. Mr Sanders, Mr Biden and Ms Warren are all septuagenarians, while Mr Buttigieg is 38 — just three years older than the minimum age of 35 required by the constitution for a president. At the same time, Mr Sanders, 78, has long demonstrated an ability to attract the support of younger voters, while Mr Biden, 77, is relying on older voters.
In 2016, Mrs Clinton beat Mr Sanders by a razor-thin margin in Iowa. But exit polls showed that Mr Sanders handily beat the former secretary of state among younger voters, attracting the support of some 80 per cent of caucus-goers under 30.
This time, Mr Sanders’s campaign is hoping that his strong support among younger voters will propel him to victory.
“If the turnout tomorrow night is low, we are going to lose,” Mr Sanders told supporters at a Des Moines Super Bowl party on Sunday. “If turnout is high, we win.”