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The first votes of the 2020 presidential election are just 100 days away, when Iowans kick off their first-in-the-nation caucus on Feb. 3.
Democrats in the state are eager to unseat President Trump, but voters are split on which candidate can make that happen.
On a recent Thursday night, supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren packed into a split-level house in suburban Dubuque, Iowa, to network and get tips from local campaign organizers on canvassing voters.
Rachel Guhin was among them. The 25-year-old works at a publishing company in Dubuque. She says she’s volunteering for the campaign because she thinks Warren is the best candidate to beat President Trump.
“I think all of her ideas are bigger than just her, and they’re bigger than Trump,” Guhin says. “She said recently that Trump is a symptom of a larger problem of corruption and that’s the thing she’s fighting against the most, to remove corruption from the office inside and out, and that’s why I think she’s the best candidate.”
Iowa voted for Trump in 2016 after going for Barack Obama in the previous two elections. Republicans in the state are shoring up support in the dozens of counties that flipped from blue to red in the last presidential election. Democrats hope to retake Iowa next year.
Warren is among four candidates polling in double digits in Iowa. She's running neck-and-neck with former Vice President Joe Biden for the lead, according to poll averages. Not far behind them are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, whose poll numbers have risen in recent weeks.
William Spencer is a special education teacher in Dubuque. At age 50, he’s decided to caucus and volunteer for a campaign for the first time. He and his wife are backing Buttigieg.
Spencer had voted for Republican presidential candidates since 1996 but says he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Trump, so he left the top of the ballot blank in 2016. He thinks Buttigieg has the chance of winning independents in Iowa, who swung for Trump last time.
“He is pragmatic, I don’t see him as being too far either way. I think he will appeal to people like me who maybe had checked out,” Spencer says. “I think he can reach out and pull back some of those center-right, right people that are like, ‘you know I may not agree with him on everything, but he’s reasonable.’”
Appealing to independents is a critical part of any presidential campaign in Iowa, where there are more active voters not registered with any party than there are registered Democrats or Republicans.
Mark Mueller has caucused for Democrats and Republicans in the past, and he hasn’t decided which candidate he’ll support next year.
Mueller is a retired logistics manager for the U.S. Army. The 60-year-old says as a veteran he’s dismayed by Trump’s decision-making process, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
In addition to Biden and Warren, Mueller says he likes Tom Steyer and Sen. Kamala Harris.
“Most of the candidates have a great chance for electability if you look at where they stand and what they have to say,” says Mueller. “And I’m not worried about age, because if you pick a good Vice President and good cabinet heads they will carry on.”
Electability is "a top priority" for 72-year-old Judy Schmidt, a retired English teacher in Dubuque. She says the race has gotten more confusing in the last few months.
“People are excited, Democrats are excited, and they do want someone who will defeat Trump,” says Schmidt. “But the people I’ve talked to have said they were more sure of who they were going to support during the summertime than now.”
Schmidt’s top two choices right now are Biden, whom she says will “calm the waters” and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who began running ads in Iowa earlier this month.
“She’s like me: very down to Earth, very practical,” Schmidt says of Klobuchar. “She understands that people are tired of the chaos and the mess that Trump has created and they want some normalcy.”
Schmidt is right that there is no clear favorite yet in Iowa. A recent poll by Suffolk University and USA TODAY found the number of likely Democratic caucusgoers who say they’re undecided is 29% — up eight points from a few months ago.
But not everyone agrees with her that a moderate would be the best choice for the party in 2020.
Tom Townsend is president of the Dubuque Federation of Labor. He says like many working-class Democrats in the area, he “held his nose” and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
“A lot of our members felt like in the primary that the party had screwed Bernie Sanders out of the nomination and I think that brought up a lot of anger against Hillary Clinton,” he says. “You bundle that all together with the fact that Trump was talking to working people. You know, he was going to be there fighting for the average working person. Instead, he worked for tax cuts for really wealthy people.”
Labor is a key constituency for any Democrat hoping to win industrial Dubuque. Townsend says Sanders is still a strong contender, but this time around union voters have options.
“It really is good when you hear how many different candidates including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and [Pete] Buttigieg, all of them are talking about how are we going to expand union membership and that they want to double the number of members in unions,” says Townsend, who also serves as business manager for IBEW Local 704. “They all have their strengths and they all have their weaknesses, but every one of them has a labor platform, and I think that’s encouraging.”
There’s something else that Democrats in eastern Iowa find encouraging: Democrats won three of the state’s four congressional seats in the 2018 midterm elections, including in the state’s first district, where freshman Abby Finkenauer unseated a two-term Republican incumbent.
Donna Duvall heads the Democratic party in rural Jackson County, part of Finkenauer’s district.
She says she always votes, but didn’t get involved with politics until after the 2016 election.
“I became politically active because of Trump, and there are a number of people like me who’ve done that,” says Duvall, 71, a music teacher and chef.
To win in 2020, Democrats will have to improve voter turnout. Trump won Iowa in 2016 amid a dip in turnout for both parties, but especially Democrats.
Even last year, when the highest midterm turnout in decades helped Democrats flip two congressional districts, Republicans in Iowa saw a higher turnout than Democrats and no-party voters.
Duvall says Democrats in Iowa are energized to vote Trump out of office next year, no matter who their candidate is.
“I would vote for any of the candidates, I would go out and work hard for any of the candidates,” she says. “I think the most important thing that Democrats need to do is to come together. Once the caucus is over, once we have a candidate, then come together and work for that candidate because any of the candidates, any of them at all would be better than Trump.”
But first, Democrats have to decide which candidate will get the chance to challenge Trump — a process that officially starts just 100 days from now.
This segment aired on October 25, 2019.
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