But the relative tameness of this year’s race also stems from the candidates’ overlapping set of assumptions about how the primary will play out after Iowa. Biden’s camp is convinced that if the former vice president can’t win Iowa—and they are not sure he can if turnout is high—a Sanders win would be the best outcome for him. The reason, according to interviews with top Biden advisers, is that they believe Sanders has a ceiling on his support that will impede his ability to clinch the nomination. They believe that a victory for Warren, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar would pose a greater threat—a win for the latter two would also represent a meteor strike on the moderate voters Biden is relying on.
The trio of Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar are lagging behind Sanders and Biden, but they are betting that Iowa and the New Hampshire primary after that will not winnow the field as quickly as in the past. Instead, all three campaigns generally believe that the heightened media attention to the race, and the rise of online fundraising, will allow them to survive regardless of whether they win, or even finish in the top tier, in the first two states. “The idea that this is going to fit into the same mold as every other campaign you have covered in the past … is inaccurate,” Michael Halle, a senior adviser to Buttigieg, told reporters this weekend.
Read: A reckoning over Iowa
But Iowa’s stakes may be higher than the candidates’ cautious strategy would seem to indicate. Link is one of several Democratic strategists who thinks that all of the campaigns are underestimating how powerfully the Iowa results may reshape the rest of the race. He believes the risks for the others are especially great if Sanders wins, because a victory here would likely further turbocharge the senator’s fundraising operation, which is already swamping those of his rivals. “There’s a kind of lack of urgency between Warren and Biden and Buttigieg and Klobuchar,” Link said. “Anyone who thinks it’s okay to let Sanders win anything is miscalculating.”
Biden may be best positioned to withstand a disappointing Iowa showing, because his strength with black voters guarantees him a solid shot at winning South Carolina regardless of how he does tonight, but some believe a weak finish could still precipitate a powerful downward spiral by triggering the party establishment to unify behind another moderate candidate.
At most of the campaign appearances across Iowa I’ve been to during the past several days, the candidates have rarely, if ever, mentioned their rivals. By the standards of earlier Democratic races, this is something like bringing a butter knife to a gunfight.
To the extent that the candidates are drawing clear distinctions, Buttigieg has probably been the most explicit. In his final rallies in Iowa, he has made an appeal for generational change and explicitly contrasted himself with each of the two septuagenarians leading in the national polls.