Bernie Sanders enjoys surge in Iowa ahead of first Democratic caucus

Democratic voters in midwestern state to pick presidential candidate on Monday

Democratic presidential hopefuls are descending on Iowa this weekend in a final push for votes ahead of Monday’s caucus, amid signs that the contest could be one of the tightest in recent history.

The party's voters in the midwestern state will choose their candidate to take on the presumed Republican nominee, President Donald Trump, in November's presidential election on Monday night in the first-in-the-nation caucus.

Iowa marks the start of the primary season, with New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina all holding their primaries or caucuses this month, ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3rd, which will see more than a dozen states pick their candidate. The Democratic party will choose the nominee to contest the November 3rd election at a convention in Milwaukee in July.

Recent polling shows that Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has been gaining support in Iowa, boosted by an energised support base and a lucrative grassroots fundraising programme. According to a poll of polls by Real Clear Politics, Mr Sanders is leading the pack in Iowa with 23.8 per cent support among Democrats, followed by Joe Biden on 20.2 per cent. Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg is polling at 15.8 per cent, followed closely by Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, and Minnesota native Amy Klobuchar on 9.6 per cent.


National poll

Ms Sanders's late surge was also borne out in a national poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal published on Friday. It puts Mr Sanders slightly ahead with 27 per cent support among Democratic voters nationally, compared to Mr Biden at 26 per cent. Ms Warren was at 15 per cent followed by Mr Buttigieg and Ms Klobuchar on single digits.

Mr Sanders’s first-place status marks a turnaround from a month ago. That same poll had the veteran socialist senator on 21 per cent, with Mr Biden well ahead with 28 per cent of the vote.

Though Mr Sanders – who narrowly lost the Iowa caucus to Hillary Clinton in 2016 – has nudged ahead of his rivals in recent weeks, most polls are still within the margin of error, pointing to an unpredictable result on Monday.

The weeks ahead of the caucus have been overshadowed by the impeachment trial of Mr Trump, which has forced the four Democratic candidates who are members of the Senate to remain in Washington.

Senators Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Michael Bennet have all been attending the trial, which convenes every day except Sunday, keeping them away from the campaign trail in the crucial recent weeks.

Subpoena witnesses

With the Senate due to hold a key vote on whether to subpoena witnesses on Friday night, the impeachment trial could come to an end as early as this weekend. Should Republicans block a vote to subpoena witnesses – a prospect that was looking increasingly likely on Friday after Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she would oppose witnesses – the Senate would then move to vote on impeachment, with Mr Trump virtually certain to be acquitted.

Republicans are keen to wrap up the trial before next Tuesday, when the president will deliver the annual State of the Union address to Congress.

As of Friday evening, all four senators running for the Democratic nomination were due to campaign in Iowa at some point this weekend, as they try to shore up support.

Several candidates also unveiled new ad campaigns. Indiana mayor Mr Buttigieg, who has been campaigning intensively across the state, emphasised his freshness as a candidate, highlighting voters’ “hunger for a new kind of politics”.

“The old style of politics is broken. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results,” the 37-year-old military veteran states in a digital ad which will run on social media and digital platforms ahead of the vote.

Four new ads

Similarly, Ms Warren’s campaign unveiled four new ads amid signs that she may be losing some support in the midwestern state, despite a surge late last summer. In particular, the ads appear to highlight Ms Warren’s ability to beat Mr Trump – a concern held by some voters. One ad, under the banner “She can win”, features a male voter who caucused for Mr Trump in 2016 but is now voting for Ms Warren.

Iowa, a predominantly rural state with a population of 3 million people, has been the first US state to hold its selection procedure since the 1970s, giving it an outsized role in the presidential nomination process.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iowans will choose their candidates at more than 1,600 locations across the state. For the first time, the Democratic National Committee is also operating more than 90 "satellite" caucus sites to allow non-resident Iowans and those unable to attend traditional caucuses to cast their vote.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent