INDIANOLA, Iowa—After more than 3,000 people filled an arena in Cedar Rapids on Saturday night to see Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and indie rock band Vampire Weekend—in that order—it seemed clear where voter momentum was shifting as the last weekend of the 2020 Iowa campaign came to a close.
But then 13 hours later and 142 miles south, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) hosted an event so full—the fire marshal estimated a crowd of 1,100 people—that she felt compelled to address an overflow room that was also packed to the walls.
Ninety minutes later, Des Moines police estimated that 2,030 people filled the massive gymnasium at Lincoln High School to hear former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s closing argument.
Across town a few hours after that, former Vice President Joe Biden, flanked by a plethora of surrogates, made the case for a return to the White House in front of a crowd jammed into the gymnasium at Hiatt Middle School.
“The ultimate poll is always when voters go and make their own decisions," the Des Moines Register’s editor said in a statement Saturday night after the final poll before the caucuses—the gold standard of public polling—was pulled last minute due to a survey error, denying a lifeline to anyone looking for some clarity by way of data.
With the FiveThirtyEight average so close, Sanders ahead of Biden 22 percent to 21.5 percent, respectively, with Buttigieg coming in at 15.5 percent and Warren close behind with 14 percent, that irritating truism rings particularly correct.
Monday is decision time for Iowa Democrats, who will head to their respective caucuses with at least one candidate in mind. If a preferred candidate fails to garner 15 percent of their fellow voters, they can join forces with another campaign to help get a second choice over the line.
“I think she’s a lot of people’s second choice and so then when people are asking about their first choice is it doesn’t necessarily show up [in polling],” said Miriam Perez-Putnam, 25, who quit her job and headed to Iowa last week from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to help get the word out about Warren. “I think that she’s gonna end up doing really well because she’s gonna pull over the people from candidates who didn’t end up hitting that threshold.”
Another unusual aspect putting pressure on some of the most faithful Warren and Sanders supporters is their candidate’s absence from Iowa until the first votes are cast as they head back to Washington for the continuing impeachment trial.
So these last appearances had to count.
For Warren, it meant citing the David-and-Goliath battle to save the Affordable Care Act from a Republican-held House, Senate, and White House who had pledged to end it. Unity, she said, will come in the form of a grassroots uprising of supporters demanding “big structural change.”
“We have to recognize when a fight is needed, and when a fight is needed, that means we need people—out, loud, vigorous—and we need them in the fight,” Warren said, pointing to the example of young children with long-term medical issues who “got right in the face of Republican senators” to save the ACA.
The night before, Sanders called on his supporters to break the record for the highest voter turnout in history during Monday night’s caucuses, which, he said, would kickstart the groundswell of progressive political action and organization necessary to make his laundry list of agenda items—including Medicare for All, free college tuition at public universities, and the legalization of marijuana nationwide—a reality.
“We are the campaign of energy, we are the campaign of excitement,” Sanders said. “All over the world, people are looking to Iowa.”
Biden and Buttigieg, who will remain in the state, both pitched themselves as the reasonable, pragmatic choice.
Biden’s message is of steadiness and familiarity, of returning to a time where the character of the nation mattered.
In his rally, Buttigieg made the most straightforward pitch to curious Republicans of the campaign, telling the crowd that the “historic majority” needed to fix America’s problems already exists—and includes Democrats, independents, and, yes, “future former Republicans.”
“And if you’re one of those and you’re here now, we welcome you!” Buttigieg said, nearly drowned out by cheers. “And we’re glad you’re here, because we have to do this together.”
The eleventh-hour push is moving the needle for candidates who, according to the polls, need every caucus-goer they can muster.
Susan Neiman of West Des Moines told The Daily Beast that Buttigieg’s final rally speech in Des Moines had clinched her support.
“That speech! That speech! That was wonderful,” said Neiman, who was proudly sporting a T-shirt that asked “HI, DO YOU LIVE HERE OR ARE YOU RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT?” and occasionally pulling a drag from a dainty Capri cigarette.
Neiman originally intended to vote for one of the female candidates for president. “You know, I’m an old lady—hear me roar!” she said. But Neiman added that her lingering doubts about the electability of the women running for the nomination opened her up to Buttigieg—whose closing call to win over conservative voters resonated deeply with her and her husband, Dan.
“Oh my god, they’d love him,” Neiman said of Buttigieg’s cross-country appeal. “Bringing the world together.”
If there was any lingering doubt that she’d made up her mind, Neiman erased it when her husband told her that he’d just gotten a call from a Warren volunteer asking for his support.
“Oh, who gives a SHIT,” she said dramatically. “I’m just gonna go smoke this cigarette.”