Ahead of tonight's Iowa caucuses, Bernie Sanders' momentum is forcing his rivals to try to lower expectations, and is feeding the Democratic establishment's fears, Axios' Margaret Talev and Alexi McCammond report from Des Moines.
- In advance of possible disappointments tonight, advisers to Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are already insisting that Iowa isn't everything.
- "We view Iowa as the beginning, not the end," Biden adviser Symone Sanders said.
- Buttigieg aides say he doesn't have to win Iowa to be the nominee. (Flashback to the N.Y. Times in October: "Buttigieg Bets His Campaign on a Breakthrough in Iowa.")
- And John Kerry, a Biden supporter and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, was overheard by NBC News (in the busy lobby restaurant of the Renaissance Savery hotel in Des Moines!) sounding the alarm on a phone call about "the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic Party."
Reality check: Iowa wins propelled long-shot Democrats like Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, and showed how enthusiasm can turn into lasting momentum for close seconds, like Sanders in 2016.
- But Donald Trump in 2016 and Bill Clinton in 1992 won the presidency without winning Iowa.
What we're hearing/seeing: Biden's team is anxious and defensive about the polling and narrative leading into tonight.
- Biden looked tired at closing rallies. The crowds are older. There's a sense from people who know him that the impeachment focus on his son Hunter has taken a toll.
- The questions that reporters ask his aides and surrogates often assume that he won’t win, and that it will be worse than expected.
The bottom line: The conventional wisdom is that tonight is Bernie’s to lose.
- But, as always with politics in this combustible era, no one really knows.
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