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With six months to go, here's how Iowa is shaping up for the Democratic field

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden delivers a 20-minute campaign speech at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair Aug. 8, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Nearly the entire Democratic presidential field will be stopping by the Iowa State Fair (and its famed fried foods and Butter Cow) over the next few days.

It’s a good reminder that — no matter what’s going on at a national level — it will be Iowa Democrats who deliver the first real results of the 2020 election when they caucus on February 3.

Here’s what we know about the landscape in Iowa so far (with more than 175 days to go).

  • Joe Biden leads, but Elizabeth Warren is gaining ground fast: A new Monmouth poll of Iowa out yesterday showed Biden still leading among likely caucus-goers at 28 percent support, and Warren jumping by double digits into second place at 19 percent. Harris is third at 11 percent, with Sanders slipping to fourth at 9 percent. Obviously, it’s just a single poll, but it mirrors what we’ve seen in national surveys lately, too: Biden is holding steady after the first two debates, and Warren is closing the gap and enjoying the highest favorability rating in the field.
  • Cory Booker is leading the endorsement race: Per our team on the ground in Iowa (NBC’s Maura Barrett, Priscilla Thompson and Ethan MacCumber), Cory Booker has the support of more than 40 Iowa elected officials and key activists, leading the rest of the pack by a pretty comfortable margin. But that backing hasn’t yet translated into statewide polling yet; the Monmouth poll found him with just one percent support.
  • Kamala Harris and Tom Steyer are going big on ads early: As NBC’s Deepa Shivaram reported yesterday, Kamala Harris is the first top-tier candidate to hit the TV airwaves in Iowa, reserving close to $200,000 for a 60-second ad running until August 14. According to the ad trackers at Advertising Analytics, the only other candidate with future TV time scheduled is Tom Steyer, who’s booked $386,000 through early next week. And the only other candidate who’s spent significantly on TV time so far in the state is John Delaney.
  • The candidates spending the most time on the ground in Iowa aren’t necessarily seeing dividends — yet: Our Iowa team also reports that the candidate who’s appeared at the most individual events in Iowa (over 170!) is Delaney —although he’s been in the race since summer 2017, more than a year before any other candidates. Also toward the top of the list are Beto O’Rourke (at least 67 individual events), Andrew Yang (66) and Amy Klobuchar (56). But so far, none of those candidates are seeing that time translated into a top-tier spot in polls.
  • The virtual caucus is still a big question mark: This cycle, for the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will host six virtual caucuses, which means that participants won’t have to go in person to their designated caucus sites. But so far, it seems that voters aren’t sure at all how the process will work, and campaigns are still trying to figure out how to target those who might participate. (Not to mention it’s also a big challenge for pollsters trying to get their samples right.)

A word of caution: Reading into Iowa polls this early might turn out to be just spinning our wheels, so take it all with a Butter Cow-sized grain of salt.

Hillary Clinton’s dominance in 2016 Iowa polling wasn’t seriously in question until two months before the caucuses; the last Iowa GOP winner, Ted Cruz, mostly ran behind Donald Trump in public polling all the way until the caucus; and 2012 caucus winner Rick Santorum didn’t lead in a single Iowa poll in the run-up to his victory.

What’s next on guns?

It’s looking more clear that there’s sufficient pressure on the White House and Congress to pass some kind of gun legislation.

But what shape that takes is still a big unknown — and it pretty much comes down to the president.

During an interview on a Kentucky radio program, Mitch McConnell signaled that he’s open to considering background check legislation along with possible “red flag” bills, acknowledging that “there is a lot of support for that.” And he said this: “[W]hat we can't do is fail to pass something. By just locking up, and failing to pass, that's unacceptable.”

Meanwhile, Trump tweeted this morning that “Serious discussions are taking place between House and Senate leadership on meaningful Background Checks.” And/but: He also acknowledged that he’s been talking to the NRA, which made clear again yesterday where it stands on this.

(One thing about the NRA worth noting: With their current financial problems, this is probably a fight that they want — to fire up their members and reengage their donors.)

At the end of the day, whatever Trump’s willing to sign is what Republicans will try to do on the Hill. And the fact that they’re open to discussing background checks at all shows just how much pressure they’re feeling.

By the way, the White House is set to meet today with officials from tech companies including Facebook, Google and Twitter to discuss the rise of extremism online. But as the Washington Post writes, there’s lots of skepticism that the president’s taking that effort all that seriously.

Confronting corruption is a winning 2020 issue. But neither party has it locked down.

Concern about political corruption may not be a central issue every day on the 2020 campaign trail, but it’s a thread that runs through Democratic candidates’ criticisms of Trump’s business dealings, their lamenting of money in politics, and their rejection of super PACs.

And it’s still sort of a talking point for Trump, whose “Drain the Swamp” call resonated with swing voters in 2016. (Although we wonder what those voters think of his recent comments about a potential commutation for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.)

So… who’s winning on this issue for 2020?

Democratic-affiliated group End Citizens United argues that neither party has won the argument with voters.

A poll of likely 2020 voters in 12 battleground states, conducted by Global Strategy Group on behalf of End Citizens United, found that “cracking down on political corruption” was a top priority for 83 percent of voters — right up there with health care affordability. But here’s how a series of messages tested when it came to which party is more trusted to take on the problem:

“Cracking down on political corruption”z

  • 30% trust Democratic presidential candidates more
  • 31% trust Trump more
  • 39% neither/don’t know

“Limiting the influence of money in politics”

  • 27% trust Democratic candidates more
  • 26% trust Trump more
  • 47% neither/don’t know

“Draining ‘the swamp’ in Washington”

  • 27% trust Democratic candidates more
  • 35% trust Trump more
  • 38% neither/don’t know

That’s sure a lot of “pox on both their houses” voters — or at least ones who aren’t confident that the Democratic field is addressing this issue adequately.

But if one party can win over voters on this between now and November, it could make a significant difference up and down the ballot box.

Tweet of the Day

2020 Vision: Up on the soapbox

It will be a busy few days at the Iowa State Fair, with almost all of the 2020 candidates making speeches at the famed Soapbox. (Biden and Steve Bullock spoke there yesterday.)

Today, it’s Julian Castro (10am ET), Andrew Yang (11:30am ET), John Delaney (1pm ET), Marianne Williamson (2:30pm ET) and Tulsi Gabbard (3:15pm ET).

And tomorrow, it’s Jay Inslee (10am ET), Kamala Harris (11:30am ET), Amy Klobuchar (1:45pm ET), Joe Sestak (2:30pm ET), Kirsten Gillibrand (3:15pm ET), John Hickenlooper (4pm ET), Elizabeth Warren (4:45pm ET) and Cory Booker (5:30pm ET).

And Sunday, it’s Republican Bill Weld (12:15pm ET), Tom Steyer (2:30pm), Michael Bennet (4pm ET), Bernie Sanders (4:45pm ET) and Bill de Blasio (5:30pm ET).

Pete Buttigieg and Seth Moulton also appear there next week.

On the campaign trail

Today: Aside from the fair, most of the other candidates campaign throughout Iowa as well… And at 6pm ET, Biden, Booker, Bullock, Castro, Delaney, Gillibrand, Harris, Hickenlooper, Klobuchar, Warren and Sanders all appear at the Democratic Wing Ding Dinner in Clear Lake, IA.

Saturday: Other than the state fair festivities… nine candidates are slated to speak at a gun reform town hall in Des Moines — Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Inslee, Castro, Biden and Harris.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

While in Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked what would happen to individuals who are working in the private insurance industry under her Medicare for All plan, NBC’s Benjamin Pu reports: “Warren said that some people would be hired by the federal government to help administer the Medicare for all program, saying: ‘A lot of pieces to move but we can make it work.’”

Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Booker and Gov. Bill Weld addressed black journalists in Miami. NBC’s Gary Grumbach reports: “Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was received warmly by the crowd of journalists here at NABJ. Sanders was clearly in a good mood, joking around with event moderators including NBC’s Craig Melvin about the always awkward ‘do I sit or stand while answering questions’ decision. … Even thought it was a room of journalists, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was a clear favorite, receiving numerous rounds of applause for lines on criminal justice reform and white supremacy.”

Data Download: The number of the day is… nine


That’s the number of Democratic candidates who appear to have qualified for the September debate — so far — after yesterday’s Monmouth University Iowa poll gave Andrew Yang the support he needed to make the cut.

The others who have qualified to date, per a tally by NBC’s Ben Kamisar: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Reminder: In order to qualify, candidates need to hit 2 percent in at least four qualifying polls, and they have to raise money from 130,000 unique donors.

The Lid: Fried food til the (butter) cows come home

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the colorful political history — and cuisine — of the Iowa State Fair.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

Joseph Maguire, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, will serve as the acting director of national intelligence rather than deputy DNI Sue Gordon, who’s resigning.

Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is suing the agency and DOJ, saying his firing was political.

Bill Clinton is calling on lawmakers to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

What would a law that covers “domestic terrorism” look like?

NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald reports that allies of “The Squad” are preparing to get primary challenges.

Trump Agenda: Vacation nation

ICE officials didn’t inform the White House about the Mississippi immigration raids before they began.

How interested is the president — really — in background check legislation?

Trump is headed to a 10-day vacation at his Bedminster golf club.

An armed Trump supporter was detained and released after showing up outside a community center for immigrants in El Paso.

The president complains he hasn’t gotten help from the Fed on the economy. The New York Times says that’s not the case.

2020: Rockin’ the suburbs

Suburban voters in red states are becoming a huge threat to the GOP’s grip on even its bedrock states.

One way to tell if gun violence will sway the 2020 races? The Virginia elections THIS November.

Elizabeth Warren is doubling down on calling Trump a ‘white nationalist.’

In a private memo, the DCCC says it’s still fighting hard in the NC-9 special election.

POLITICO Magazine reports on how Kamala Harris used San Francisco’s big-money scene to build her political career.