On Friday, Julie Allen, a 62-year-old Medicaid consultant, took time off work to sit in the scorching sun at a midday, open-air rally for Joe Biden in Boone, Iowa. In 2016, she told me, she was “all in” for Bernie Sanders, but she now feels “he’s past his time,” and as she considers her choices for the February caucuses, he’s no longer in her top five. Instead, she’s weighing Biden, whom she supported in 2008, as well as Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.
She liked the idea of a Biden-Warren ticket, or maybe even a Warren-Biden one, since he already knows how to do the job of vice president. “There’s all these comparisons between how Warren and Bernie are so much alike,” she said. “I really think Warren and Biden are much more alike.”
This surprised me, since Warren and Biden are so far apart ideologically. But over the course of a frenetic campaign weekend in Iowa, when most of the Democratic field descended on the state, I heard the comparison more than once. Waiting to see Warren speak at the Iowa State Fair, I met Janice Martins and Kay Havenstrite, Democrats from rural farming families that, they said, have been devastated by Donald Trump’s tariffs. Both were torn between Warren and Biden. “They have a lot of differences, but there’s a lot of similarities as well,” said Martins, 49, pointing out the various ways that Biden has moved left in recent years.
After watching Biden and Warren campaign in Iowa, I think I understand why some people group them together. Both candidates are folksy, white and in their seventies. Both speak of the searing childhood experience of seeing their fathers lose their jobs, and both make economic security for the middle class central to their stump speeches. They are sincere and unscripted and have the comforting aspect of benevolent parents. Talking to voters who admire both of them, I realized, not for the first time, how little the ideological lanes that we talk about in punditland really mean.
Somehow I always manage to half forget, between election cycles, how idiosyncratic many voters are, and how little their decision-making tracks the ideological battles that dominate social media and cable news. At the Iowa State Fair, I met Joel Hall, an 83-year-old retired radiologist who left the Republican Party over Trump. One might think he’d be eager for a centrist option, but among the candidates he likes is Warren: “I think she’s a good thinker, and I think she can get under Trump’s skin.”
The people who turn out for campaign events in Iowa months before their first-in-the-nation caucuses are very well informed; several told me they feel a responsibility to see as many of the candidates in person as possible, sometimes more than once. But they are judging the candidates by different metrics than many commentators. At a Harris event at a Ft. Dodge middle school, Stacey Helvik, 42, said she wanted to vote for a woman, particularly after the trauma of Trump’s victory, but wasn’t sure if it would be Harris or Warren. “For me it’s not so much policy, it’s finding a person who I feel is someone who is trustworthy and admirable and has experience and conviction and can inspire all of us,” she said.
It might be precisely because Iowa Democrats get to know the candidates so intimately that they don’t feel the need to plot them on a left-right spectrum. “We’re just not pigeonholing,” said Mary McAdams, who chairs Ankeny Area Democrats, just north of Des Moines. “I saw people today at the Cory Booker event in Ankeny who were at the Kamala Harris event who were at the Pete Buttigieg event a couple of weeks ago. And for some of these folks it’s the third time they’ve seen some of these candidates.”
Ultimately, this is why I suspect Biden will fade in Iowa, despite many polls showing him ahead right now. As people see more of him, at least some are beginning to become alarmed about his pronounced verbal sloppiness. McAdams was one of the few I spoke to who worried about Warren’s electability, but she also seemed livid about Biden’s repeated gaffes. These included his recent statement that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” and the claim that he met survivors of the Parkland shooting when he was vice president, although the massacre took place last year.
“I am just ready to turn the other way and never turn back,” McAdams said. “You don’t get to continue to make all of those gaffes. At some point that’s got to stop.” She suspects that his front-runner status isn’t durable, at least in Iowa: “I think the big lead that he has in the polls is just his name recognition.”
If she’s right, there’s no reason to think Biden supporters will flock to another moderate. A recent poll of Democratic voters in the states with the earliest primaries showed that a plurality of Biden supporters — 24 percent — say that Sanders is their second choice, followed by Warren, with 20 percent. No one knows what’s going to happen at the caucuses, which is maddening, since so much is at stake. There are no lanes, only the irreducible and hard-to-measure quality of human connection. This thing could go anywhere.