INDIANOLA, Iowa — If there is a single Iowan who is emblematic of how fluid the political environment here feels in the final hours before the Democratic presidential caucuses, it might be 24-year-old Heaven Chamberlain.
Chamberlain’s original candidate, she told me at the Simpson College campus center early Sunday afternoon, was former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, whom she felt was “a good representation of America.” When Castro, the only Latino in the race, dropped out, she switched her allegiance to billionaire businessman Tom Steyer, who had caught her attention with his early leadership of the drive to impeach President Donald Trump.
More recently, Chamberlain became enamored of another entrepreneur, Andrew Yang. So that is how she will vote in the first round of caucus balloting.
But Chamberlain is realistic enough to know that Yang is unlikely to have enough votes to reach the 15% threshold that every contender needs to be deemed “viable” at each of the 1,678 precinct caucuses across the state (plus 87 satellite locations around the world).
Which means that she most likely will end the night in the camp of her second choice, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
“It’s taken me a long time to get to Bernie, but he’s amazing,” Chamberlain said. She’s unemployed, hoping to get a job as a census-taker, and Sanders has plans that would address her concerns about having to pay for health care and for the $30,000 load of student debt she carries.
So, why, it seemed fair to wonder, was she standing outside a rally for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that was so crowded the fire marshals were not letting anyone else in?
“Oh, I love her!” Chamberlain told me. “She is my third choice!”
Iowa’s quirky caucuses, which play an outsize role in the Democratic presidential selection process by virtue of being first on the calendar, are known for their capacity to deal 11th-hour surprises.
But not in recent memory has that seemed more true than this year. This is the sixth straight set of caucuses that I have covered, and the atmosphere is noticeably different from any I have ever seen.
In 2020, there is a palpable sense of unease and confusion. Polls show an unusually high number of people have yet to lock into their final choice, and you get the same sense talking to the curious who show up at campaign events. Noticeably absent as you drive the state are the large numbers of political signs that normally dot suburban lawns and are plastered on the sides of barns and hanging on fences in rural stretches of the state.
Part of this is a reflection of the sheer size of a field that at one point exceeded two dozen candidates and still offers 11 choices. On a deeper level, the desire of Democrats to defeat Trump has made this an agonizing decision.
What, exactly, makes a candidate most electable? Is it the ability to inspire passion in people who normally feel alienated from the political system, as Sanders and Warren, the most liberal contenders in the race, argue they are best equipped to do? Or is it the ability to persuade independent voters and even disaffected Republicans, which has been the selling point of former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.?
What happened on Saturday night was a perfect metaphor for the uncertainty that seems to hang over everything. CNN and the Des Moines Register had to cancel the release of the much-anticipated final Iowa Poll — legendary for accurately calling the final result of the caucuses — when it was discovered that at least one of its interviewers had changed the font size on a survey screen and had left off the name of one of the candidates in a rotating list.
One early indicator Monday night will be the size of the turnout. “If the voter turnout is low, we’re going to lose. It’s as simple as all that,” Sanders told a rally here Saturday. Though he has been surging in some recent polls, his hopes ride on drawing support beyond the older and more moderate party stalwarts who regularly show up on caucus night.
Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who is stumping across the state with Biden, told me he believes a significant number of people are waiting to be persuaded by the arguments they hear from their neighbors when they get together on Monday night.
And isn’t that the point of holding caucuses in the first place? Isn’t that what makes them different from the more antiseptic exercise of casting a ballot in the privacy of a voting booth? I’ve heard plenty of what the candidates have had to say. Now I’m eager to learn what Iowans are about to tell one another.