AMES, Iowa — Democratic voters fear their party is on the brink of repeating the mistakes that sent President Trump to the White House as they consider their choices weeks before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses.
The four front-running contenders are all battling to prove they are the most likely to defeat Trump, a reflection both of the president’s looming presence over the race and the anxiety felt by Democratic voters, who fear fatal flaws with each candidate could doom their hopes of winning back the White House.
In conversations with nearly two dozen Iowa Democrats before and after Tuesday’s debate, many analyzed the unsettled Democratic primary through the lens of a television pundit.
They weighed the relative strengths and weaknesses of former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) and more often than not expressed concerns about what they are certain will be a tough general election fight in November.
“Our country can’t afford to have a candidate or a president like we currently have. We’ve got to pick someone who can get elected,” said Sarah Binder, a retiree in Ames who is waffling between supporting Buttigieg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. “I’m very anxious that … all the fake news and the ugliness that the current president will employ to try to win will sway this American public that voted him in to begin with.”
Each of the front-runners have carved out their own niches among Iowa caucusgoers. Recent polls show the four tightly packed together at the top of the heap, with either Biden or Sanders narrowly leading.
But voters are acutely aware of their respective weaknesses, too.
Sanders, the most liberal candidate in the field, concerns some voters who worry he will frighten independents and moderates who helped Democrats reclaim control of Congress in the midterm elections. Warren said this week that Sanders told her in a 2018 conversation that he did not believe a woman could beat Trump — a comment Sanders denied, but one that is echoed by both male and female Iowa Democrats who think pivotal swing voters might privately harbor sexist attitudes.
Buttigieg, who turns 38 on Sunday, offers a generational change, something that is at once his greatest appeal to voters seeking change and his most significant drawback among those who believe the country is not yet ready for a millennial president. And Biden, 77, is seen by some as a creature of a previous and bygone political era, an elder statesman who is no longer as sharp on the debate stage as he was during vice presidential debates in 2008 and 2012.
“I am so terrified,” said Beth Frederickson, 70, a retiree from Baxter, Iowa, who attended a Buttigieg town hall meeting Wednesday. “I think Biden is just going to bumble. Trump is mean and hateful, and he’ll eat [Biden] alive.”
Voter anxiety over the field’s ability to beat Trump is evident in the public polls that have shown Biden and Sanders rising to the top in recent weeks. A majority of Democratic voters, 55 percent, told the Iowa pollster Ann Selzer that it was more important to them that Democrats nominate a candidate who can beat Trump than a candidate who agreed with them on major issues. A whopping 89 percent said a candidate’s ability to beat Trump was important or extremely important to their thinking.
Just a quarter of Democratic voters told Selzer they were backing a candidate other than the one they believed would be best able to beat Trump.
Some Democrats said they were concerned that heated rhetoric and growing rifts between the leading contenders threatens to divide the party at precisely the moment it needs to be united to combat Trump’s enthusiastic base — an unsettling echo of the 2016 campaign, when Hillary Clinton backers harshly criticized Sanders for a perceived disinterest in bringing his most die-hard fans back into the fold after a bitter primary.
On Tuesday, Warren and Sanders seemed to clash after a debate at Drake University, when they exchanged words and didn’t shake hands. Buttigieg and Biden have consistently drawn contrasts with the liberal leaders over “Medicare for All” and college tuition plans. Sanders attacked Biden for his vote to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. Even Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), polling behind the front-runners, implied that her rivals were part of the political extremes that have divided the country.
“A few of them are trying to lob bombs at each other, and a little bit of that reeks of desperation,” said Kirsten Running-Marquardt, a Democratic state representative from Cedar Rapids who is backing Biden. “Nobody is perfect. Each of the candidates have their own issues.”
Some Iowa Democrats are more sanguine, even bullish, about their party’s prospects in November. Virtually every Democratic voter, from Sanders supporters to Biden backers, said their dislike of Trump acted as a unifying force and that he or she would vote for the eventual nominee over Trump without hesitation.
“I think about anybody can beat President Trump,” said Elmer King, a retiree from Swan who attended Buttigieg’s event. “He’s just hateful.”