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The four-way race for Iowa



Democratic president hopes for debate in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14.


Photo:

robyn beck / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Tuesday's Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa, was a snoozer. Even the much hyped conflict between Sens.

Bernie Sanders

and

Elizabeth Warren

whether he told her that a woman could not be chosen was flat. Her refusal to say hello afterwards was a real drama the next evening.

The candidates reinforced positions we have heard many times before. The real question is who did better or worse than expected and for the second debate in a row,

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota

shone brighter than expected. However, it was not enough to vault her into the first candidate.

The absence of game-changing moments is not surprising. It's difficult to score with six hopefuls on stage, especially when candidates are cautious in front of the Iowa caucuses. Transformative debates come when the focus is on a few candidates or the exchange cementes someone's image for good in the middle of voting.

This allows political junkies to scour the latest polls to figure out what might happen Feb. 3, when the Iowa Democrats meet to kick off the party's 2020 presidential election derby. Opinion polls can be comforting because of their precision, and express complicated dynamics in numbers that sometimes lead to the tenth point.

It takes it too far, but two recent, highly regarded polls from Iowa – Selzer from January 2-8. and Monmouths from January 9 to 12 – should help guide the analysis.

The two polls came together on many points. Monmouth has Mr. Sanders at 18% among probable caucusgoers; Selzer has him at 20%. Monmouth has a former South Bend, Ind., Mayor

Pete Buttigieg

at 17%; Selzer 16%. Monmouth had Miss Warren at 15%; Selzer 17%.

The big difference is on the former vice president

Joe Biden

: Monmouth has him at 24%; Selzer of 15%. The 9-point gap is at least four times the size of everyone else between the surveys. There is also the difference between first and fourth place for Mr. Biden.

So what is it? Since primary elections and caucus have smaller and more difficult populations to map than elections, we do not know completely. A YouGov poll for CBS News that polled voters between December 27 and January 3 finds a three-way bond between Messrs. Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg of 23%. The average of Real Clear Politics of the three polls places Mr. Biden narrowly in the lead by 20.7% to Mr. Sanders 20.3%.

Although it is unlikely that there will be major changes in opinion before the Iowa caucuses, the course is so dense that even small changes can produce a much different outcome than the polls suggest today.

There are two reasons. First, Iowans take their participation seriously in the country's first competition. Both Selzer and Monmouth think about 40% have decided to make their views, but 45% in the Selzer poll say they "could be persuaded" and 13% made no choice. The comparable figures in Monmouth are 52% still "open" and 5% with no choice yet.

Second, the Iowa Democratic Party rules state that if a participant's preferred candidate does not receive 15% of the vote in the contestant's district, then he must select another candidate or travel home to await final results. Selzer finds 32% undecided or supportive candidates with less than 15% total support; Monmouth has around 26%. The second-choice preferences of these voters are likely to be particularly important.

The two recent polls provide conflicting guidelines as to where these people will break when candidates lose. Selzer says Miss Warren gets 16% as a second choice, Mr. Buttigieg 15% and mr. Biden and Sanders 12% each. Monmouth feels that 23% choose Miss Warren as her second choice and vault her into first place. Fifteen percent say that Mr. Buttigieg is their second choice, 14% choose Mr. Sanders and only 10% choose Mr. Biden, the same percentage that will address Klobuchar.

How this plays out depends on which candidates are missing 15% in which of the state's 1,681 districts and how the field above them looks at each venue. No candidate’s support will be consistent across the state.

Iowa used to beat the tickets of three candidates to continue. This year, winners and losers in Iowa are judged more by how they meet expectations than by voting percentages. The most likely outcome is that Miss Warren and mr. Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg shared Iova's 41 delegates roughly the same, with Klobuchar perhaps grabbing a pair.

The Democratic presidential election is just as high at this time as it is in modern American election history. It means excitement: There are many surprises and lots of unrest ahead.

Mr. Rove helped organize the American Crossroads political action committee and is the author of "The Triumph of

William McKinley ”

(Simon & Schuster, 2015).

See Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren mingle over her claim that he said a woman could not be elected president, CNN moderator Abby Phillips's rejection of the rejection and the candidates leaving the stage. Photo: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

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