Democratic candidates are looking for a win in Iowa caucuses

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Iowa caucus preview

No one predicted a year ago that openly gay Mayor Pete Buttigieg would be a serious contender in the Iowa caucuses this year, but February 3 is Monday, and there he is: polling second and third in two out of three of the latest Iowa polls. Ditto for the February 11 New Hampshire primary: Buttigieg is polling second in one poll, third in another. He’s third among Democratic candidates in terms of money raised.

Pete Buttigieg at rally with Q and A at the Nashua Community College in New Hampshirepshire
Meet Pete Buttigieg at the Nashua Community College (Photo: Chuck Kennedy/PFA)

But no one’s predicting the outcome of Monday’s caucuses in Iowa or the first primary voting in New Hampshire because the polling positions have been shifting quickly and frequently, endorsements have been scattered, and a most recent poll in Iowa shows as many as 13 percent of likely caucus-goers say they are still “undecided.” Many political observers, including the polling analysis site, call Iowa a “four-way race.”

“How unusual is it for the field to have this many candidates within a few points of each other?” asked fivethirtyeight analyst Geoffrey Skelley, in a January 28 article. “It’s pretty unusual.”

Add to that the quick rise of late-comer candidate Mike Bloomberg, a strange misstep by Iowa frontrunner Bernie Sanders, and high-profile endorsements for U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Here’s a quick rundown of where the top four polling candidates stand going into Monday’s critical first test:

Pete Buttigieg: The openly gay candidate is not only still standing, he has polled second in the latest New York Times survey of 584 “likely voters” for the Iowa caucuses. The margin of error (3 points either way) essentially showed a four-way tie, with Sanders at the top (25 percent), Buttigieg second (18 percent), former Vice President Joe Biden (17 percent), and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (15 percent).

In terms of LGBT support, the most generous zip codes in contributing to his campaign are some of the gayest in the nation –Castro, Chelsea, and West Hollywood. Buttigieg has earned the endorsement of openly gay former Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning, openly gay Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis, LGBT actors Alan Cumming, Portia De Rossi, Jane Lynch, and George Takei, and the South Florida Gay News.

“We do not do this simply because Mayor Pete is a gay man and this is a gay paper,” wrote Publisher Norm Kent of the South Florida Gay News. “We do this because he is a good man seeking to do great things. Of course, he will have the best interests of the LGBT community in his heart, but he has the spirit of America in his soul.”

No other LGBT news outlet has yet to make an endorsement.

But the numbers also show Buttigieg has won supporters in a wide range of supporters and demographics. Voters see him as the second most intelligent candidate (behind Warren), they seem to appreciate his having served in Afghanistan, and his willingness to share how his religious beliefs inform his approach toward people and policy.

Oddly, polls, debates, and interviews in the last several months have steered almost completely clear of questions asking whether Buttigieg’s being gay has an impact on voters’ preference for a Democratic nominee. The campaign made highly visible use of Buttigieg’s spouse Chasten through much of 2019, but that visibility appears to have toned down in recent weeks. In the rare instance when a news account reminds voters that Buttigieg is gay, they almost always group the notice with some other characteristic, noting he is “gay and a veteran” or he is “young and gay.”

In fact, he is publically challenged about his relative youth (he just turned 38) much more than his being gay. Buttigieg has tried to turn his youth into an asset by arguing that it motivates him to seek more forward thinking solutions, rather than quick fixes. But critics then point out that his youth has given him little opportunity to prepare for a job as enormous as the presidency.

Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts

As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in November, “his rhetorical gifts, distinctive resume and fund-raising prowess” is struggling to overcome the fact that “his government experience is limited to running South Bend,” a small city. To win re-election, he needed only 8,500 votes.

No matter how things turn out in Iowa for Buttigieg, he has made history. He sometimes mis-states that history, by claiming he’s the first openly gay candidate for president. (He’s not. That honor goes to Fred Karger, who ran for the Republican nomination in 2012.) But he is the first openly gay candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and he is undeniably the first openly gay candidate to become a viable contender for the nomination. And his ability to resonate with voters in the general population suggests he may well become the first openly gay president of the United States.

Buttigieg’s campaign website includes a detailed plan, “Becoming Whole: A New Era for LGBTQ+ Americans.”

Elizabeth Warren: The senior U.S. Senator from Massachusetts has, along with Buttigieg, been one of the top two Democratic candidates favored by LGBT activists and leaders. And, like Buttigieg, she has lately been lagging in the polls behind Sanders and Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire. But the most recent polls, conducted January 23-26, do not yet register the big boost she got January 25 when the Des Moines Register, Iowa’s mainstay newspaper, endorsed her. Nor do they likely reflect the full impact of the New York Times endorsement January 19 of her and U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.

In the LGBT community, Warren has picked up more high profile endorsements than Buttigieg. She recently won the endorsement of the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, and she’s got openly lesbian Massachusetts State Attorney General Maura Healey organizing support for her. Los Angeles County Board Supervisor Sheila Kuehl , Texas State Reps. Mary Gonzalez and Erin Zwiener, and Illinois State Rep. Kelly Cassidy have endorsed Warren, as have LGBT political activists Urvashi Vaid and Torie Osborn. Singer Melissa Etheridge and comic Rosie O’Donnell have endorsed Warren, as has World Cup soccer champion Megan Rapinoe.

Warren has been an unabashed advocate for equal rights for LGBT people and won a perfect 100 score from the Human Rights Campaign in her two sessions in the U.S. Senate. Although she opposed funding for gender transition surgery for prisoners in 2012, she has since called that a mistake and said “the cost of inequality for transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, is now a moment of crisis….”

Her campaign website includes a detailed plan, “Securing LGBTQ+ Rights and Equality.”

Bernie Sanders: U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is identified in the U.S. Senate as an independent (not a Democrat), is currently the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to two out of three of the latest polls in Iowa and three out of three of the most recent in New Hampshire. Although he has spoken publicly in support of gay men and lesbians since running for mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1972, he’s done less than other top tier Democrats to entice support from the LGBT community during his campaign for president. And just last week, he probably discouraged such support by tweeting out a photo and a “I think I’ll probably vote for Bernie” comment by a podcast figure (Joe Rogan) who traffics in anti-LGBT insults.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David issued a statement saying, “it is disappointing that the Sanders campaign has accepted and promoted the [Rogan] endorsement. The Sanders campaign must reconsider this endorsement and the decision to publicize the views of someone who has consistently attacked and dehumanized marginalized people.”

Sanders also tweeted out that he was “very, very proud” to have the endorsement of openly gay U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. The Twitter post included a video of Sanders and Pocan together with Sanders announcing that Pocan would chair the Sanders campaign in Wisconsin. He’s also earned the endorsement of the Harvey Milk Democratic Club in San Francisco, and he has, as his deputy political director long-time LGBT activist Mo Baxley of New Hampshire.

Sanders’ campaign website boasts a specific LGBTQ+ “plan,” and discusses in great detail the inequalities that LGBT people face. For instance, he notes that the average income for a gay man is $56,936, for a lesbian is $45,606, while it is $83,469 for a heterosexual man and $51,461 for a heterosexual woman.

Joe Biden: Former Vice President Joe Biden is running first in all the national polls. The latest, by Quinnipiac University, has him five points ahead of Sanders among registered voters. Biden has 26 percent, Sanders 21, Warren 15, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg eight, Klobuchar seven, and Buttigieg six. And voters believe Biden has far and away the best chance of defeating President Trump. In the Quinnipiac poll, 44 percent said so. By comparison, the closest competitor was Sanders with only 19 percent saying he could beat Trump. Only seven percent said Warren had the best chance of beating Trump; only two percent said Buttigieg does.

In a speech to HRC’s national dinner in Washington last June, Biden promised that, if elected president, getting passage of the Equality Act “will be the first thing that I ask to be done.” Last week, he called transgender equality the “civil rights issue of our time.” But his campaign does not include an LGBT specific policy plan on its website, like the other candidates’ websites do.

In his first Congressional Scorecard grade from the Human Rights Campaign, then U.S. Senator Joe Biden earned a perfect 100. The following two sessions, he scored only a 63 and a 78. Biden is one of many senators who voted for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell bans then later opposed them.

His support for LGBT equality really began to solidify while serving as vice president under President Barrack Obama. He was widely credited with prodding the Obama administration toward supporting marriage equality.

Biden has the endorsement of openly gay U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford.

Other Democratic candidates: Mike Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, threw his hat and his considerable money into the Democratic presidential ring in late November. This week, he announced on a telephone press call that he was releasing his “LGBTQ+ Equality Policy” (not yet posted on his campaign website). He has gotten impressive traction very quickly: He polled at eight percent among national registered votes in the just-released Quinnipiac poll –two points ahead of Buttigieg who has been campaigning since January 2019. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar has begun to show some signs of climbing out of the single digits. She polled ahead of Buttigieg and Warren in the latest Iowa poll, with 13 percent compared to Warren’s 11 and Buttigieg’s 10. And she pulled 10 percent in a recent ABC poll in New Hampshire, just behind Warren and Buttigieg.

Seven candidates have qualified thus far to participate in the next national presidential debate among Democrats. In addition to the top four (Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg), they include Klobuchar and businessmen Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang. The debate will be held February 7, just four days after the Iowa caucuses and four days before New Hampshire voting.

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