SIOUX CITY, Iowa — After a long campaign of ideological clashes, policy debates and talk of a grand reckoning on the direction of the Democratic Party, the presidential primaries starting Monday will be shaped by a less lofty but increasingly urgent matter: determining the best candidate to defeat an incumbent who has already proved to be a political survivor.
With Republicans ready to acquit President Donald Trump of two impeachment charges next week, the nation’s political table has been set for 2020: Congress will not remove him from office, despite the wishes of many liberals, leaving the fate of Trump to the November general election and the candidate nominated by Democrats in the coming months.
From the liberal left to the moderate middle, the major presidential contenders are now honing or recalibrating their final appeals before Iowa’s caucuses to make the case that they represent the party’s best chance to overcome Trump’s well-funded reelection operation and win back the White House this fall.
If impeachment rarely comes up on the Democratic campaign trail, the imperative of beating Trump has come to outweigh all other considerations for many voters — an extraordinary turn of events for a party that spent the last year sparring over plans to implement “Medicare for All” and how far to go in overhauling immigration laws, the financial sector and the criminal justice system.
A 2020 primary season that was initially seen as a contest of ideas, with liberal activists largely setting the agenda, has given way to jockeying over notions about electability and who can assemble the strongest coalition of voters in the fall.
“I think that’s increasingly what’s on voters’ minds,” Pete Buttigieg, one of the leading candidates in Iowa, said in an interview, referring to electability. “If they’re making up their minds now and still thinking through us, it means they appreciate that we’ve got common values and they want the person most likely to beat Donald Trump.”
The five leading Democratic candidates in Iowa descended on the state Saturday before the caucuses Monday night, with polls showing no clear front-runner and voters still torn about whom to support. Three of these contenders — Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — returned after being away for most of the last two weeks at the Senate impeachment trial; no one can say with certainty if their absences will affect their chances in the caucuses.
In last-minute rallies, pamphlets and television advertising and even in electric signs placed atop cars that resemble pizza delivery advertisements, the candidates are running more explicitly on their purported viability than in any modern presidential primary.
Sanders, the leading progressive in the field, is increasingly linking his populist platform to an argument that he can peel away disaffected voters from Trump, while a more moderate candidate like former Vice President Joe Biden could imperil that effort. Biden is closing his Iowa campaign with a commercial highlighting his advantage over Trump in some national and swing-state polls, while his leading supporters in Iowa are introducing him to voters by arguing that he could win over their Republican friends.
And Buttigieg and Warren, who are struggling to match the appeal of their rivals on the party’s ideological poles, are infusing their 11th-hour messaging with barely veiled claims that they are safer choices because they won’t alienate one flank of the party like Sanders and Biden.
Returning to the Iowa campaign trail Saturday, Warren presented herself as the candidate best prepared to rally Democrats for the general election. She addressed a group of volunteers in Urbandale, before a wall of signs reading “Unite the Party.” In a Cedar Rapids gymnasium, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., praised Warren as “both empathetic and electable.”
“We will, we must, come together as a party and beat Donald Trump,” Warren said. “And I’ve got a plan for that.”
This turn toward I-can-win pragmatism reflects a simple fact of political life in a contest in which at least one-third of likely caucusgoers remain undecided just days before the vote. The candidates are responding to the marketplace: Their voters, while deeply split across ideological and generational lines in ways that could still force a showdown at this summer’s convention, are united by an all-consuming hunger to unseat Trump.
“What I’m focused on most is getting that fool out of the White House,” said Debbie McAllister, who attended a Sioux City rally Friday for Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and is leaning toward him over Klobuchar.
John Norris, who has caucused here every four years since 1976 and is a leading supporter of Warren, said his fellow Iowa Democrats feel a burden heavier than any he can recall.
“It’s Trump,” said Norris. “We saw it a little bit in ’04 — it was, we got to stop George W., Iraq war — but this is that on steroids.”
Even the most bluntly negative campaign tactics have been framed in terms of general-election odds. An outside-spending group, Democratic Majority for Israel, that has dedicated $700,000 to advertising against Sanders in the last week of the caucus race, has put that whole sum behind a commercial warning that his far-left platform could throw the election to Trump.
“Democrats believe there is nothing more important than replacing Donald Trump,” said Mark Mellman, president of Democratic Majority for Israel and a longtime Democratic pollster. Regarding Sanders, he added, “A lot of Democrats don’t disagree with him on a lot of positions he has, but we and others are concerned about electability.”
Perhaps most remarkable are the closing appeals of Sanders of Vermont, whose calls for “a political revolution” vaulted him to contention in the 2016 race but who scarcely mentioned his prospects back then against Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, the two leading Republicans. Sanders has not diluted his progressive message, but as he stakes out a lead in some Iowa polls, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist is turning to hardheaded pragmatism.
His campaign ads warn against nominating a candidate without his own unblemished record of opposing cuts to Social Security — an unmistakable reference to Biden and his past support for overhauling the program.
And at Sanders’ Sioux City field office, his campaign was distributing a pamphlet that read, “An effective leader with the toughness to defeat Donald Trump.”
Addressing supporters Saturday in Indianola, Iowa, some of whom wore “Bernie Beats Trump” buttons, Sanders argued that his mammoth volunteer effort in Iowa presaged the sort of organization he could build this fall.
“We are going to knock on 500,000 doors in the month of January and the first two days of February,” he said, adding, “That is what we need to do in order to win against Trump.”
Vowing to “bring millions of people into the political process who normally do not vote,” Sanders warned that Democrats will lose “in a low-turnout election.”
Biden’s single-minded focus on electability also stands out as he goes further than his rivals in attempting to replace political inspiration with cold calculus about cobbling together the 270 Electoral College votes needed to defeat Trump.
“He beats Trump by the most nationally, and in the states we have to win,” a narrator said in one of his concluding Iowa television ads.
The appeals are no more subtle at his events in Iowa, which often feature former Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and his wife, Christie Vilsack. At a rally in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, Christie Vilsack talked up Biden’s potential appeal among her Republican friends, and her husband rattled off the former vice president’s head-to-head advantage in general-election surveys in the traditional swing states.
And in an only-in-2020 moment that underscored how the horse race has overtaken policy as a focus right now, Tom Vilsack drew some of the loudest applause at the entire event by making this observation about polling: “He’s within the margin of error in Texas!”
Two other candidates, Warren and Buttigieg, have used the voter fixation on electability to cast themselves as candidates with the broadest appeal within the party.
Buttigieg organized his campaign schedule in the final weeks of the caucuses around visiting counties that voted for former President Barack Obama before flipping to support Trump. His aides have circulated statistics about past elections to reporters in each locale, and Buttigieg has sought to liken himself — in kind if not by name — to past general-election winners like Bill Clinton and Obama.
“In the last half-century in this country,” Buttigieg said at a rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, “every single time my party has won the White House, without exception, we’ve done it with a nominee who is looking to the future, moving past the arguments of the past, not a creature of Washington, and opening the door to a new generation.”
In Ankeny, Iowa, Buttigieg invoked the impeachment trial — and Trump’s likely acquittal — to emphasize the stakes of the election. “This is our only chance, unless the Senate really surprises us,” he said, to laughter from the crowd.
Warren has also sought to portray herself as a consensus candidate, airing a commercial that features Iowa supporters of Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Trump from 2016 who all said they are now supporting the Massachusetts senator.
And in a plain acknowledgment of voters’ concerns about sexism in the general election, Warren released another spot showing a former supporter of Trump — an older man from rural Iowa — directly addressing worries among some voters about nominating a woman. “For people that say that a woman can’t win, I say: nonsense,” he said, holding up a photograph showing a Trump sign and declaring, “This is the man to beat, and Elizabeth can do it.”
At a kickoff event for Warren’s canvassers Friday morning in Clive, a suburb of Des Moines, Michelle Wu, a Boston city councilor, urged them to reassure anxious voters with a version of that argument, stressing Warren’s victory in 2012 over a popular Republican senator — the “barn jacket-wearing, pickup truck-driving Scott Brown” — and promising that her economic message would appeal to independents and disaffected Republicans.
Not to be outdone on electability is Klobuchar, who for months has been blunt about why Iowans should turn to her: because she’s won every race she’s run in in an increasingly competitive Midwestern state, Minnesota.
While that pitch has made her competitive in Iowa, she has been outspent and has polled below the four leading Democrats.
In the campaign’s closing days, Klobuchar, too, is becoming even less subtle: She has printed T-shirts in her signature green reading, “Amy Klobuchar Will Beat Donald Trump.”