For former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the fight for voters in rural Iowa has become a zero-sum game.
The theory goes like this: In counties where voters are more moderate than progressive – traditionally Democrats in counties that Donald Trump won in 2016 – one supporter in their corner on caucus night is a supporter likely denied from the two other top moderates. This is particularly important in small caucus sites where the difference between one or two caucusgoers could be significant.
It signals that these three campaigns will judge their performance on Monday based on how they finish in comparison to the other two.
That is why, in recent weeks, the moderates have ratcheted up their criticisms of one another, with Buttigieg routinely calling out Biden for, in his view, forcing the political conversations to be too backward looking, and Klobuchar calling out the former mayor for suggesting voters who are demoralized by chaos in Washington could turn off the news and watch “cartoons.”
Biden, one of the frontrunners of the race, has largely dismissed the criticisms. “I don't know what Pete’s talking about, he’s a good guy, and that must be a sign that things are getting a little tight,” Biden told reporters this week.
But even Biden couldn’t help himself. “You know I’ve gotten more than 8,600 votes in my life,” he said, knocking the fact that Buttigieg has only won races in South Bend, a small city.
Buttigieg has explained the recent barbs by saying he feels "it's very important for me to stake out the difference in approach” at this point in the campaign.
The Buttigieg campaign has even taken the step of bringing Minnesota Democrats to Iowa to stump for him, a not-so-subtle shot at Klobuchar. Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen not only introduced Buttigieg in Mason City and New Hampton, but he used his introduction to tout the need for executive experience – something Klobuchar doesn’t have and Buttigieg does – and undercutting the need for legislative experience.
And the voters – many of whom are pulled between the moderates – are noticing.
Take Peggy and Brian Meany, two 50-somethings from Mason City who came to the mayor’s event in the small town last week, even though they were both leaning toward Klobuchar.
“If he just maybe had a little more experience,” Brian said.
But the couple seemed torn as they sat there. Peggy said she was drawn towards Buttigieg’s “energy.”
“She's a very steady middle of the road person and Pete comes up and he can bring the energy,” she said. “I think he could make things happen.”
The Meanys left the event a house divided – at least until Monday. In a sign of the volatility in the race, Peggy decided to stop supporting Klobuchar and is now leaning towards Buttigieg, while Brian is set on Klobuchar.
Iris Evans, a retired insurance company worker in Council Bluffs, said she had an affinity for Klobuchar but is likely going to back Biden because of “trust.”
“I trust him,” she said. “He’s likable.”