The Atlantic Politics Daily: How the Iowa Caucus Goes Haywire

What to expect in Iowa tonight: “They’re very nervous.” Plus: Nate Silver and polling in the time of 2016-election PTSD.

It’s Monday, February 3. A blizzard of a week will begin with the first votes of the 2020 presidential contest tonight, followed by the State of the Union, the final impeachment vote, and a Democratic debate in New Hampshire.

In the rest of today’s newsletter: What to expect in Iowa tonight. Plus: Nate Silver in the time of 2016-election PTSD.



How the Iowa Caucus Goes Haywire

Though it may feel like the 2020 Democratic primary has been going on forever, on Monday night, the voting itself is finally just starting.

Iowa is a smallish state whose makeup is nothing at all like the wider Democratic Party. But it’s hard to overstate how influential the first-in-the-nation caucuses are on the rest of the races this year: In the last four contested Democratic primaries, the winner in the Iowa has gone on clinch the nomination.

Heading into caucus night, here a few themes—and people—to watch:

1. The caucuses could get very, very chaotic, in part due to several major rule changes. Here’s what one caucus expert told my colleague Elaine Godfrey: “Caucus chairs are more concerned this cycle than I’ve ever seen them. They’re very nervous.”

2. Iowa skews rural, but like most other states, its cities are shifting to the left. That dynamic could ultimately tilt the final outcome: “These changes create the most obvious challenge for former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota,” Ron Brownstein writes.

3. Bernie Sanders and his ideological comrade Elizabeth Warren look to be formidable contenders tonight. But the differences in their policies are significant, and if executed, lead to different futures, Franklin Foer argues: “Instead of positioning herself as a less grumpy version of Sanders, she has one last chance to campaign as fully herself.”

4. Is Andrew Yang tonight’s wildcard? The entrepreneur and first-time politician came out of nowhere this campaign cycle to attract a diehard base, and he has spent more time in Iowa than any other candidate. My colleague Noah Kim wrote about Yang’s hidden impact on the Asian American electorate: There’s more to the wider #YangGang that meets the eye.

—Saahil Desai

(Bryan Snyder / Reuters)

Elizabeth Warren at a Get Out the Caucus rally in Ames, Iowa on Sunday.



1. “If Sanders soars through the first four primaries and Biden and [Pete Buttigieg] stumble, Mike may end up as the only thing standing between Bernie and the nomination.”

The manager of Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 mayoral campaign sees a path for the former New York mayor: If Sanders sweeps the first four primary states and Biden’s campaign collapses, a contested Democratic convention look more likely. That’s where Bloomberg comes in, Edward-Isaac Dovere heard from the true believers.

2. “Things could get very ugly very quickly.”

Polarization has split open political divides at seemingly every level of American politics, but what would happen if the conservative majority in the Supreme Court had to decide the 2020 presidential election? A law professor takes a look.

3. “Trump is driving a poorly packed egg cart over stony roads. He holds too many secrets, too ill-concealed...”

John Bolton’s soon-to-be-released book has already sparked the Trump administration’s newest crisis over whether the White House covered-up wrongdoing with Ukraine. But with this president, more scandals are always waiting in the wings, David Frum argues.

4. “To see men and women who in other spheres of their lives are admirable, who got into politics because they believed it was a noble profession and had a positive vision for the Republican Party, beaten down and broken by Trump is a poignant thing.”

Peter Wehner had this to say after Mitt Romney and Susan Collins were the only two Republican Senators to vote on Friday in favor of hearing from new witnesses in the impeachment trial.

To put it mildly, the Republican Party has been changed. But Peter bemoans the lining up of GOP members behind Trump a little differently from other critics of the president’s behavior.



Partly Poll-y With a Side of Polls

The data journalist Nate Silver says he was right about 2016—and right about what the press is still getting wrong in 2020.

As he sees it, the problems stem not from the polls but from how the press interprets them. During the long run-up to the 2020 primary season, he saw pundits fall into familiar traps. The same sort of commentators who expected Trump to collapse four years ago have consistently predicted a Joe Biden implosion that, as of this writing, has yet to happen—perhaps in part because Biden’s core supporters, like Trump’s, are members of demographics underrepresented in the press (for Trump, non-college-educated voters and rural voters; for Biden, non-college-educated voters and black voters). Despite Biden’s durable lead, the press has been quick to crown a series of front-runners in waiting, from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren to Pete Buttigieg—all while largely ignoring Biden’s most persistent rival for the top spot in the polls: Bernie Sanders.

Read David Graham’s full profile.


Today’s newsletter was written by Saahil Desai, an associate editor on the Politics desk and Christian Paz, a Politics fellow. It was edited by Shan Wang, who oversees newsletters.

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