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As caucus night approaches, undecided Iowans are making their decisions

As caucus night approaches, undecided Iowans are making their decisions

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Dan Balz

Feb. 3, 2020 at 1:37 a.m. GMT+1

DES MOINES — Jane Bloodworth will attend her first Iowa caucus on Monday night, and like many Iowans, she has taken seriously the responsibility that goes with being among those who will cast the first votes of the 2020 election. In this campaign year, making a decision has been harder than ever, for her and for so many others in this state.

Never in recent election years have there been so many voters in Iowa who are either undecided or who say they could change their minds before Monday night, whether activists or sometime caucus attendees. Iowans are weighing head versus heart, ideology versus electability, issues versus character and experience. It has kept everyone on edge on the eve of the caucuses.

Some of these undecided voters may forgo the caucuses on Monday night, willing to let others winnow the field further and prepared to support the eventual nominee against President Trump in November. Others will enter still trying to decide which candidate they should get behind, and some of those will try to read the room as the caucus process unfolds, looking for the best way to make a mark. Should they go for a front-runner or throw their support behind someone who needs some help to gain a delegate?

Among half a dozen or so Iowans who identified as undecided in early January, most, like Bloodworth, know what they plan to do — but in some cases only after agonizing over the choice.

On the first weekend in January, Bloodworth was one of the thousands and thousands of Iowans who were still making up their minds. On that Saturday, she was at an event for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the town of Manchester, population 5,200.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) meets Iowa voters during a rally at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, on Feb. 2. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

She was looking for a candidate who could address the two biggest issues of concern to her: climate change and “the issue of people left behind” and struggling to have a full life with economic security. She can see in her own family, she said, the economic strains that many middle- and working-class families face today.

“I’m fine,” said Bloodworth, 70, who moved to Iowa in the summer of 2018 after 15 years at the World Bank in Washington. “I’ll get through this, but I worry about those who come after us. The gap [between the rich and the middle class] is bigger than ever.”

The texting campaign for Bernie Sanders

Warren was not the only candidate she was looking at. Over months, she went to events featuring Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), businessman Tom Steyer and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. She went once to see John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who quit the race last week.

“I had a pretty good sampling of all of them,” she said on Sunday morning. As she spoke, Bloodworth was in her car, heading to spend the day as an extra in a movie about girls six-on-six basketball.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) greets voters during a campaign event at the Cedar Falls Woman’s Club in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Feb. 1. (Alex Wong/AFP/Getty Images)

Though she started the year undecided, by Sunday, she was a decided voter — or at least a mostly decided voter. “I think I’m going to go for Warren,” she said. “I like her ideas. I like her platform. I love her enthusiasm and I feel like she’s got the history to get things accomplished.”

Bloodworth considers herself a conservative liberal and was drawn to the ideas of both Warren and Sanders. But Sanders’s demeanor left her with reservations, particularly how he handled the dust-up with Warren over whether a woman could be elected president. “The way he responded to that, to me, was, well . . . like an angry old man,” she said.

She thought Buttigieg has good ideas but lacks the experience needed to get things done in Washington. As for Biden, she said, “He brings experience and has done all kinds of things, but I don’t know that what we need is more of the Obama era, which he seems to talk about a lot. And Obama’s not going to be there. He would have to do it on his own.”

Joyce Steffen, 70, who lives in Cedar Rapids and works in real estate, began the year undecided. As the campaign unfolded over the past year, she looked seriously at Biden and Warren before settling on Klobuchar in the past few days. “I think it’s because I decided to go with what’s in my heart,” she said.

Steffen said she believes Klobuchar can beat Trump, that she has been consistent and has more experience that some others, like Buttigieg. She said that Warren’s liberal policies worried her, as did Biden’s age. “It would it have been better the last time,” she said, referring to Biden’s decision not to run for president in 2016.

The Democrats’ closing arguments in Iowa

Deb Tunwall, 52, of Cedar Rapids, has been thinking about what candidate could win over her husband, who has voted Republican in the past and whom she hopes to persuade to vote for the Democrat in this election year. They are considering Klobuchar and Yang. She is drawn more to Klobuchar but her husband finds Yang’s ideas appealing.

“Amy I feel like can just walk in there on day one,” she said. “I feel like she can definitely reach across the aisle. I feel like she’s less polarizing than Elizabeth Warren. I feel Amy doesn’t have that polarization, that she could gather a lot of moderates. My husband is my litmus test.”

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks as he visits supporters and campaign volunteers at a campaign field office in Newton, Iowa, on Feb. 2. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

She worries about Biden being strong enough to take on Trump. “I do feel he had his time,” she said. “The Obama supporters who voted for Trump did so because they didn’t want to go back to the Obama era.”

Tunwall raised another concern about the former vice president: that Trump will pummel him over Ukraine, despite the fact that many of Trump’s claims have been debunked, the same way candidate Trump attacked Hillary Clinton over emails in 2016 — “a repeat of ‘lock her up,’ ” she said.

Asked whether she would support the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, she replied, “Absolutely. I’m just worried my husband won’t.”

Bob and Jo Rod, both 88, live in Ames. Both had supported Sanders “big time” four years ago. “We worked really hard for him,” she said. This time around, they see Sanders as too old, and they plan to caucus for Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the field. Their decision came on Friday and only after “a real struggle.”

Warren has been a favorite of theirs for some years. They attended an event for her when she was running for Senate, and “she blew us away.” But Buttigieg’s vigor and intellect ultimately led them to him. “I like his energy and his ideas,” she said. “He can talk off the top of his head very quickly and answers questions well.”

Sanders, who got nearly half the vote here four years ago, has lost some of those supporters, like the Rods. But of all the candidates, his loyalists might be the most committed, which is why other campaigns worry that he could turn out the most people on Monday, although the turnout battle will rage all through the day.

Margaret Damge, 72, a retired farmer who also worked for the phone company, came to see Biden in Independence the first weekend of the new year. Then, she said, she was undecided. This weekend, she settled on the former vice president. “He’s pretty consistent,” she said. “He doesn’t flip-flop, and he doesn’t promise more than he’s going to deliver. He’s got a record.”

But Damge said she won’t be able to caucus for Biden on Monday, as she is in Florida. “I’ve done it every year,” she said. “I’m going to the beach.” Asked what her absence might mean for her candidate, she laughed. “I think Biden’s going to do just fine. People are going to be saying, ‘Who can beat that orange-faced guy?’ ”