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Another wild caucus ride has brought us here

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At one point or another, 28 Democratic candidates have run for president in 2020.

Just 11 remain, and of those, only seven are actively campaigning in Iowa.

But man, that was a lot of candidates, wasn’t it?

What I’m trying to say is what a long, strange trip it’s been to get where we are today: on the doorstep of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

I thought nothing could top the 2016 caucuses, which came during an open-seat race to the White House and featured Hillary vs. Bernie, an expansive Republican field that grew all the way to 17 candidates (how adorable), and of course, Donald Trump.

Maybe 2016 is still the standard-bearer for caucus craziness. But 2020 can’t be far behind. I mean, what other caucus cycle featured a presidential candidate gaining national attention for getting in the way of a woman just trying to get to the ranch dressing?

So before everyone heads to the local school gymnasium on Monday night to gather into clusters and officially kick off the process of picking the next U.S. president, let’s take a look back at some of the memorable moments that got us here.

Historic field

Hey, remember when I said there were 28 people who ran for the Democratic nomination?

Yeah, I know it was just a few paragraphs ago, but it bears repeating. The sheer size of the field has been remarkable.

And it wasn't just the number of candidates, but the racial, gender and ethnic diversity has been remarkable. Some of those candidates have gone by the wayside, which has presented the party — and maybe Iowa, too — with some challenges. But it's nonetheless brought a new and exciting aspect to the race.

Big breakouts

Joe Biden was the early leader for the Democratic nomination thanks largely to name recognition as a former two-term vice president. And Bernie Sanders started in a strong position because of his 2016 campaign: The U.S. senator from Vermont finished second to Hillary Clinton by a historically small margin.

But the other two candidates who have been among the leaders since last fall had steeper name recognition and polling hills to climb.

In the spring of 2019, Elizabeth Warren’s polling average, as calculated by Real Clear Politics, was around 10 percentage points. The U.S. senator from Massachusetts peaked in the fall with an average of more than 23 points — and while that has shrunk a bit, she remains in the thick of the race.

Pete Buttigieg’s ascension was even more remarkable. The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was polling at an average of 1 percent this past spring. He peaked at 24 percent in December, and while also slipping a bit, he also remains in the hunt.

And no list of breakouts would be complete without Andrew Yang, the New York entrepreneur who wasn’t even on the early polls and was still at 0 percent in mid-April, has improved enough to qualify for the televised debates and remain a candidate for a potential caucus-night surprise.

Interest and enthusiasm

For more than a year, candidates have been crisscrossing the state to talk to Iowans, whose enthusiasm was palpable from the start — and all this time later, that enthusiasm has not waned.

If anything, it has grown. Some experts are talking about turnout to match the historic 2008 mark.

What is remarkable to me is Iowa Democrats are not yet experiencing caucus- or campaign-fatigue. It speaks to how Democrats feel about the candidates and the significance of the decision they are about to make.

The undecideds

Iowans are famous for waiting until late in the game to pick a candidate. But this year has been beyond the usual. Even with mere days to go, a significant share of Iowa Democrats say they still haven’t decided on a candidate.

This is why Monday night’s outcome is so difficult to predict. How can political observers know what to expect when the people participating don’t even know what they’re planning to do?

Consistency

For as big a field as we got, it’s fairly remarkable how consistent the polling has been.

The lead pack of Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren have essentially been the lead pack in Iowa since late September. There has been movement among them — each has had a turn in the top spot — but for more than four months, it’s been that same quartet leading the field.

And they all go into caucus night with a chance to win.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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