(CNN) — The Democratic presidential candidates are racing through Iowa with only weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses kick off the primary season. It’s a moment of deep Democratic indecision and there has been a dearth of polling during the holiday season that makes it hard to know who has the edge at this moment.
On the ground, though, it often feels like deadlock, with voters admitting they are still making up their minds among two or three (if not four) candidates. An average of the polls since November showed a close race in Iowa between Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, with Elizabeth Warren not far behind.
The micro-battles are emerging — Biden and Buttigieg are debating experience versus judgment. Buttigieg and Warren are still sparring over transparency and fundraising. Warren and Sanders are still abiding by their unspoken non-engagement pact, begging the question of whether they will simply split the progressive vote. Here are a few snapshots from the campaign trail as the voters of the Hawkeye State put these candidates through their paces in the race to February 3.
Tipton, Iowa — With just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, Biden is making a renewed push in Iowa, covering more than a dozen counties as he vies for the top spot against his younger rival Buttigieg, while Sanders, who lost Iowa by the closest margin in the history of the caucuses in 2016,
But if the former vice president is feeling the pressure, he isn’t showing it as he draws voters to his events who want something more stable, steady and familiar after three years of White House tumult.
Strolling the lunchroom at Tipton High School in a blue blazer with one hand in his pocket, the other wrapped around the microphone, Biden seems unhurried as he tries to win over voters here, speaking with the low-key cadence that has led President Donald Trump to mock him as “Sleepy Joe.” He offers notes of reassurance at every turn, clearly leaning into the notion that he is the comfortable choice. He touts his decades of foreign policy experience and highlights his past collaborations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. When a woman from Wisconsin who drove more than a hundred miles to see him asks how he’ll win back independents and moderates who feel alienated, he voices nostalgia for a time when “we used to sit in a coffee shop” and “talk to people.”
“A lot of what is going on right now is so negative,” he says.
The former vice president notes Trump’s attacks on himself and his son Hunter, but adds, “It’s not about me.”
“If he gets eight years, I think he will fundamentally change the character of the country, the nature of who we are, at least for a couple of generations,” Biden says of Trump. “We have to restore the soul of this country, the decency, the honor that we’ve always valued — particularly in rural America whether it’s rural parts of my state or yours — honesty, decency, treating people with respect.”
“Character is on the ballot in 2020,” he says before taking questions.
In the midst of an ideological battle among Democrats about whether to go for big structural change or tack back to the center, Biden’s centrist approach feels like the right fit for Terri Ford, a 58-year-old speech pathologist who worries that Warren and Sanders will “lose the middle” with their embrace of programs like “Medicare for All.”
“He’s middle-of-the-road and his values are in line with mine,” Ford says. She notes that even her mom, a one-time Trump Republican, is considering voting for Biden “because she just likes him”– and Biden’s acceptability to a broader universe of voters is a big part of his appeal for Ford and others here. She believes Sanders and Warren “are too far left for Iowa.”
“We need somebody who can unite the country, get everybody pulling together,” says 86-year-old Bob Butterbrodt, a retired farmer from Tipton.
While Warren’s “selfie” line is an efficient operation where aides handle jackets, phones and voter placement next to the candidate with whiz-bang precision, Biden lingers and takes his time.
When one group of women tell him their grandma wanted to come but couldn’t make it, he makes them dial her number so he can tell her he hopes his grandkids brag about him the way hers do about her.
“I hope I get to meet you one day,” he tells her.
Voters like Melissa Mandernach, a 55-year-old educator from North Liberty, feel a sense of nostalgia for years under Barack Obama’s administration. She tells Biden he calms her anxiety because the last three years under Trump have raised so many questions in her mind. “It’s made me feel a little lost, a little anxious,” she says. “He quiets those questions in my brain.”
In the rope line, she shows Biden the tattoo on her wrist that she got when Obama was elected — it says 44th in blue script. She tells him she’ll add “46th” above it — but only if he’s elected.
Centerville, Iowa — Midway through Buttigieg’s town hall at the Majestic Theater here, the outgoing South Bend, Indiana, mayor gets the question that is hanging over his campaign — the one that will determine whether this current Iowa front-runner can win the Democratic nomination.
Shielding his eyes from the bright lights on stage with his hand, the 37-year-old mayor calls on Sharon Hopkins-Brinegar, who tells him that her father is worried that “as a mayor, you wouldn’t have the skills or the knowledge to deal with world affairs.”
“Good, OK, here’s how we’re going to reassure your dad,” said Buttigieg, sounding almost excited to answer the question. He has answered this query dozens of times, and delivers his pitch with an air of earnest gusto. He notes that voters are more accustomed to seeing members of Congress run for president, people with “that kind of Washington establishment experience.”
Then notices she is filming.
“Are you recording for us?” Buttigieg asked Hopkins-Brinegar. “What’s his name?”
“Richard, we are trying to win you over on the experience question,” Buttigieg says, restarting his answer, eyes trained on Hopkins-Brinegar’s iphone camera as the audience chuckles.
The moment encapsulates both the challenge and the promise of the well-funded Buttigieg campaign, which just brought a $24.7 million haul in 2019’s fourth quarter. He is topping the polls in Iowa, where many voters are drawn to his youth and energy, be he continues to face questions about whether he is too green for the rigors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Unlike his other centrist opponent, Biden, his support among black voters nationwide is virtually non-existent. And he faces major structural issues in winning over young voters, who are far more likely to support the more progressive Sanders or Warren.
But for now, the challenge is experience. He seeks to reassure “Richard” (and the audience at the Majestic) by touching on his military service in Afghanistan — which helped him understand the gravity of the decisions made in the White House — and by arguing that his role as mayor has given him not only policy and management experience, but also the skill of “calling a community to its highest values” and providing “that kind of leadership that we are today missing in the presidency.”
Bouncing on the balls of his feet as he moves across the stage and casting a long shadow on the Iowa state flag behind him as he slices his hand through the air for emphasis, he argues he can unify the country, bringing “future former Republicans” to his campaign. He urges the crowd to amplify his message of hope and inclusion, rather than giving in to “the sense of helplessness that that sets in every time you turn on the TV.”
In his uniform of a white button-down, narrow tie and slim-cut navy trousers, his cheeks still ruddy from the 30-degree temperatures, older voters say in interviews that he reminds them of John F. Kennedy. They often mention the age of his opponents, positing that he might have more energy to fight off Trump’s attacks than the septuagenarians in the race.
“It’s the vigor he has,” said Virgil Sievers, an 84-year-old retired grain and livestock farmer in the Centerville audience, when asked why he was leaning toward Buttigieg. When pressed, Sievers said he thinks Warren “could put up the best battle” against Trump. But he’ll probably caucus for “Pete.” He throws up his hands in explanation: “It’s the young part.”
Mary Jo Den Hartog, a 70-year-old retired teacher, recalled the moment Buttigieg first captured her attention. It was during the Miami debate when the mayor was asked why his city’s police force still remained disproportionately white after long-running racial tensions. “I couldn’t get it done,” he replied.
Den Hartog, who was listening to the debate in the background, said she wheeled around and walked back into her living room: “I stopped and came back to see who was this honest person who was putting no spin on anything? That was the pivotal moment for me.”
She was still weighing her options then — Sanders, Warren and Kamala Harris, who has since dropped out — “but I’m going to be honest, it was after Bernie had his heart attack,” she said of her moment of decision.
“I had been thinking, I want a young person — and that confirmed to me that I want a young person,” Den Hartog said. “I want new blood. I like his middle-of-the-road thinking. (The others) they’re too far left. … I like the direction it’s going, and I hope we can eventually get there, but I think we just need to go at a little slower pace so we can get more people involved.”
West Des Moines, Iowa — A decade ago, it would have been hard to imagine Sanders, the irascible socialist senator from Vermont, drawing the kind of mainstream crowd that he brought out for a wintery brunch here just before the New Year.
But all the generations were there to listen to his fiery stump speech over croissants and bowls of strawberries and pineapple. A mother, daughter and granddaughter at one table. A mother cradling a baby beside two 20-somethings in matching beanies at the next. A mom who told the candidate that her two kids, 12 and 14, make her contribute part of their allowance each week to his campaign, because they believe his promise to combat climate change is real.
The microphone buzzes and snaps as Sanders delivers his impassioned critique of income inequality, jabbing his forefinger in the air to punctuate the outrage. “Where we are right now is we have three people owning more wealth than the bottom half of American society,” he tells them. The crowd boos.
“We’ve got 500,000 people, including 30,000 veterans, who are sleeping out on the streets or in emergency shelters tonight,” Sanders says, as a woman hisses and a man yells: “That ain’t right.”
He reels off statistics that draw more murmurs of approval: 30,000 Americans die each year because they don’t go to a doctor when they should. Five hundred thousand Americans go bankrupt because of medically related illness — “how grotesque and cruel is that?”
Making his case for Medicare for All, he asks the crowd to call out their deductibles and the total they pay for insurance each year. A 30-year-old mother holding her nine-month-old son tells Sanders she’s still paying off the bills for her hospital stay when she gave birth. Another woman tells him she’s still paying off her lumpectomy from April.
“I believe after 100 years of talk about how health care is a human right, now is the time to take on the drug companies and the insurance companies,” Sanders says as the crowd erupts into applause. “I am more than ready to lead that fight.”
Ask virtually any Iowa voter why they are leaning toward Sanders, and they inevitably bring up consistency.
“Sanders says what he means and he’ll follow through with it,” says Karon Finn, a 77-year-old retired business owner from Grimes, Iowa, who was wearing pewter earrings in the outline of Sanders’ coif and glasses to the West Des Moines brunch. “He’s been doing and saying the same thing when it wasn’t popular and he had to come up against a lot of friction. He’s just honest and decent. I think Bernie is a treasure; he’s a national treasure.”
Twenty-three year old Royce Cookson of West Des Moines notes that Sanders has “been out here since he was my age, fighting for people’s rights, fighting for people whose voices are suppressed and that’s just why I trust him so much. He’s never faltered. He’s never changed as a person.”
“I want money out of politics, so anybody who has other interests — having these wine cellar meetings or whatever — I’m just not into it. I don’t trust it,” said Cookson, who works as a hotel valet.
Asked what it will take for Sanders to win in Iowa, Cookson says it isn’t up to the Vermont senator. “Just like he says: it’s about us. It’s going to take everybody in this room to tell other people about him. Just like that one woman today said that her children are giving their allowance (to his campaign). You’re getting people whose kids can’t vote yet, who are swaying adult’s decisions. That is just an amazing thing.”
Ottumwa, Iowa — As Warren parried questions about the costs of her health care plan and how she would make billionaires and corporations pay their “fair share,” she confronted the theme that has vexed female voters ever since Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 — the when-will-a-woman-be-president question — and how can Warren confront voters who still question whether a woman will make the strongest Democratic nominee in 2020.
“You have the knowledge, you have the strength, you have the endurance, you have the wisdom, you have years and years of practice, you have good plans — you have everything that I think you need to sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Christine Perdue, an exasperated 67-year-old voter told Warren, during the Massachusetts senator’s recent bus tour as it passed through Ottumwa. But, Perdue continued, “I hear it from people that are my friends, and others that have different viewpoints than me — they would rather see a man with a tie. They think he has the strength. … And I wonder what on earth can we do to change that perception?”
“So I’ll tell you the best way to fix this problem is to elect a woman president,” Warren replied crisply with a line she’s now used many times, The crowd cheered its approval.
As the Democratic field has winnowed, it’s very hard to measure how much Democratic voters are factoring gender into their decisions. But in interviews, they recall with distaste the way Trump paced behind Clinton on the debate stage in 2016. Some speak of gender as an invisible barrier that remains for all the female candidates. Perdue, a retired nurse, confesses in an interview that she’s afraid that “pretty soon, it’s just going to be four white guys up there” on the debate stage.
Warren, who sounds relentlessly sunny no matter how dark the question, brushes off those concerns, reminding voters in Ottumwa, for example, that she remembered when the pundits said Barack Obama couldn’t be elected president.
“Actually, I remember when people said Donald Trump couldn’t be elected president — and yet here we are. It’s like a lot of things, it doesn’t happen until it happens,” she said.
Warren, who still explains her plans at the brisk clip of a former professor, has a million other things she’d like to talk about: health care, the gun lobby, her wealth tax, her plans for climate change. She encourages the give-and-take when voters press her on how she’d push her agenda through the gridlock of Washington: “I like your plans,” a voter named Kim tells her in Ottumwa, “but I don’t know how we get them done.”
Still, the gender question resurfaces a few stops later at a sub shop in Fort Madison. A young man named Joe reads Warren a recent quote from Obama who, in remarks directed to women generally, said, “You are not perfect, but what I can say pretty indisputably is that you’re better than us.”
Joe added that the former President went on to suggest that the cause of the world’s problems were “usually old people, usually old men, not getting out of the way.” Was that a dig at Joe Biden, he asked?
Warren slyly deflects, stating she’s sure Obama didn’t “intend to dig anyone except guys generally.” She uses the moment to reflect on her own disquiet watching the world change from up in the stands with other senators the day Trump was inaugurated.
But at the women’s march the next morning, the “world changed again,” she said. Faced with the threat of Republicans repealing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats engaged, she said: “That women’s march started something — enough people raised their voices that we got three Republicans to cross the aisle. Together, just by pushing from the outside, we saved health care for tens of millions of Americans.” She went on to note the record numbers of women who were elected in 2018, and circles back to how different 2020 is from 2016.
“2020 is a moment that’s very different from what the world looked like before,” she said. “2020 is the moment when the door has opened just crack, and people who used to be on the sidelines. People who thought ‘Hey, there’s not much that’s going to go wrong. There’s not a big difference between electing Democrats and Republicans, whoever is president is far, far away from me’ — All that has changed. We’re going to be in this fight. And here’s the deal, 2020 is going to led women who have had enough.”