‘We’re flying blind’: Democrats floored by star-crossed primary

DES MOINES, Iowa — It was a fitting coda to a star-crossed campaign — the scrapping late Saturday of the most highly-anticipated poll of Iowa caucus season.

All last week, the Democratic presidential contest had been fixed in a state of suspended animation. Campaign strategists and reporters encamped at the Des Moines Marriott and around the white tablecloths at 801 Chophouse. Caucus tourists descended on Raygun for T-shirts and local parties prepared for an orderly caucus.

Yet with three of the top five candidates — Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar — trapped in Washington for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial for most of last week, the run-up to the caucuses had already lost much of its punch.

The stunning, last-minute cancellation of the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom poll and its accompanying, hour-long CNN special deprived the political class of the 11th hour marker it was relying on to frame the final days of a campaign that is running unusually close.

“Absolutely shocking,” said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats.

And it wasn’t just the vanished poll he was talking about. The entire run-up to the caucuses has been almost dumbfoundingly strange.

There was the campaign’s comically large field, the surprising durability of Joe Biden and Sanders and the dizzying fall of several stars (Beto O’Rourke was still on Twitter on Saturday, talking about guns: “Wake the fuck up America!”).

The hope surrounding the candidacies of several candidates of color faded into frustration. The late entrance of Michael Bloomberg — and his bombardment of Super Tuesday states with television ads — threatens to render the verdict of Iowa and the early voting states moot.

Meanwhile, the party’s 2016 nominee, Hillary Clinton, is on the sidelines, lobbing criticism at Sanders, a 2020 frontrunner.

Debate rules changed. Caucus rules changed. Even the one thing everyone believed they could count on — John Delaney running and being overlooked — went away when the former Maryland congressman on Friday ended the campaign he began in 2017, running for more than two years only to exit three days short of the caucus. It has been unseasonably warm in Des Moines.

“Some of this wouldn’t be believable if it were in a movie,” Bagniewski said. “Impeachment taking senators away, debate rules changing, candidates dropping out, the gold standard poll breaking down at the last minute. All on top of the standard conspiracy mongering.”

He added, “We’re flying blind and no one really knows what to expect.”

Whether it is over by Super Tuesday or not until the Democratic National Convention in July, the 2020 primary will be remembered as one of the most disjointed exercises in presidential politics.

“It’s totally weird,” said Pete Giangreco, a senior adviser to Klobuchar’s campaign.

The cancellation of the Register’s poll, due to an apparent surveying mishap, was particularly cruel because of how acutely concerns about electability have shaped the campaign. The pollster, J. Ann Selzer, is a legend in Iowa. In a normal year, the poll can drive a candidate’s momentum in the final days of the race. But it was expected to factor especially large this year, when many caucus-goers remain undecided and are still searching for cues about which candidate might perform best in a general election against Trump.

“I don’t know that I am surprised that something got screwed up,” Laura Peters, a city planner, said as she left a Klobuchar rally shortly after news the poll would not be released. “I’m surprised a Selzer poll got screwed up.”

The result is that the candidates will make their closing arguments about electability without the benefit of Selzer’s late measurement.

Or, because this is Iowa in 2020, the final hours before the caucuses will devolve into something other than the somber warnings about Trump and the messages that the candidates are laboring to deliver. On Saturday, a prankster in North Liberty asked Biden for advice winning back a woman who had left him.

The reaction — to the bad jokes, to the poll’s cancellation, to the size of the field and to everything else — has been to grumble. And worry.

After watching the impeachment trial, said Chris Adcock, chairwoman of Democratic Party in Page County in southwest Iowa, “We know what we’re up against.”

“It’s really heavy, really heavy,” she said. “Oh, my God. It just sucks.”

Driving home from a gathering of Democrats late Saturday night, Adcock praised Selzer for pulling the poll — which was apparently marred by an interviewer error — but predicted Republicans would “spin it” to cast the caucus as “illegitimate and untrustworthy.”

On Sunday, armies of campaign workers prepared to canvas neighborhoods across the state. But this, too, will not occur without external forces interfering. The Super Bowl is playing on the final full day of campaigning before the caucuses, and the Kansas City Chiefs have a substantial following here.

Speaking to a large crowd inside a junior high school gymnasium in Des Moines on Saturday night, Klobuchar appealed to her supporters to “volunteer in those precious two days we have left and make calls — maybe not during the Super Bowl, but make calls.”

And in the sweltering room, she delivered a line about the stakes of the election that, in some other contexts, could seem entirely out of Democrats’ control.

“My profound advice is this,” she said. “We’d better not screw this up.”