DES MOINES, Iowa — Standing in a crowd waiting for an Elizabeth Warren campaign event to begin, Mary Jackovin-Bates felt filled with dread.
“I am more scared than I’ve ever been before,” Jackovin-Bates said Friday as she discussed the difficulty deciding which Democrat to pick to take on President Donald Trump. “I don’t want to make a mistake.”
Heading into Monday’s Iowa caucuses, the first vote in the Democratic presidential primary season, Democrats around the state described feeling anxious as they face a vast array of choices in what many of them consider an election with existential consequences.
“I don’t know what I’ll do in November if I wake up and he’s reelected again,” said Jackovin-Bates.
She liked Warren’s ideas, but feared the Massachusetts senator might be too liberal to win. So she was also considering Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. Her husband backs Joe Biden and her daughter, Grace Wilson, 18, supports Warren.
“I really am a bundle of nerves,” said Linda Sporven, 64, a Buttigieg supporter from Council Bluffs, on the border with Nebraska, adding that she’s probably watching too much news. “I panic because I’m afraid Trump is going to win.”
The unease has left many Democrats considering, considering some more, and then reconsidering as the vote nears.
It’s not just that Democrats want to win. They still feel stung by the 2016 election, and fear that the country’s character, values, and international standing are at stake.
The candidates hit the theme, too.
“I don’t think the responsibility, no matter how many caucuses you’ve participated in, has ever been bigger than this one,” Biden said in North Liberty on Saturday morning. “Not because I am running, but because Donald Trump is president, and we owe it to well beyond the Democratic Party, we owe it to the American people ... that he’s referred to in a year from now as ‘a former president.’ ”
The line drew the most enthusiastic applause of his Saturday morning event.
Recent Iowa polls have shown a late surge by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders but still a tight four-way race at the top — and potential volatility. A Monmouth University survey released last week found that close to half of likely caucus-goers could still change their minds.
The sense of responsibility, and worry, came up over and over in interviews over the last week with roughly two dozen Iowa Democrats from all parts of the state, and at various candidate events.
“As an Iowan, I think we really feel that weight,” said Jake Jansen, 22, a precinct captain for Sanders in Dubuque. “Is it our fault if the winner in the caucus goes on to lose the general election? That would suck.”
Explaining their decision-making, Democrats veered between voting with their hearts, to backing someone they believe can unite the country or favoring a candidate whose liberal agenda might excite voters. Many were left flustered by a still-sprawling field of candidates. Each option had appeal, but also liabilities — questions about age (too young or too old), temperament, energy, and viability with swing voters.
“Democrats have a lot of good candidates, but not a stand-out great candidate," said Tiffany Tamm, 52, of North Liberty. She is supporting Biden, calling him the “safest” choice.
“I had lunch with some friends last week and nobody had decided who they’re going to support because they’re so scared they’re going to pick the wrong one,” said JoAnn Hardy, Democratic chair in Cerro Gordo County, one of the many in northeast Iowa that swung from Barack Obama to Trump in 2016.
“We all feel like we got burned,” in 2016, said Iowa State Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, "so there’s a lot of trepidation.”
Karen Pratte, the Democratic chair in rural Allamakee County, was one of several caucus veterans who saw an unusual amount of indecision. “People seem to be heading into the caucus with their one and two, and sometimes third choice set up.”
“I don’t think, of the top four candidates, anyone has really solidified,” said Bret Nilles, the Democratic chair in Linn County, Iowa’s second largest. “Everyone’s looking for the perfect nominee,” but none has emerged.
“I think people would love it if we could combine several candidates into one,” Konfrst said.
But even as Iowans most often say they want someone who can win, there’s no agreement about what makes a candidate “electable.”
In more moderate Obama-Trump voting counties, which in some ways resemble the politics of Northeastern and Western Pennsylvania, party leaders say they are seeking a centrist to swing those areas back.
“I’m probably more progressive as an individual. But I know that is not where my county is, that is not where the country is,” said Michelle Smith, the Democratic chair in Jasper County, one of 31 in Iowa that supported Obama twice before flipping to Trump.
After backing Sanders in 2016, Smith is behind Biden this time, even as she acknowledged that the former vice president doesn’t stir much enthusiasm. “Where our country is now, it’s a different place than 2016. We need some healing.”
Similarly, Lynette Jacoby, 52, of Coralville, said she supports Warren’s policies but was leaning toward caucusing for a more moderate option, such as Biden, Buttigieg, or Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
Konfrst, though, has had a different political experience, and a different calculus.
In 2018 she won a Republican-held state House district in suburban Des Moines, part of the same wave that saw Democrats romp in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. After initially endorsing New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who dropped out, Konfrst now backs Warren — citing the value of diversity and of excitement to drive Democratic turnout.
“We need to make sure that our party is still listening to voices that don’t look like almost every other president we ever had,” Konfrst said, pointing to the “energy” behind Warren. “Enthusiasm’s going to be a huge component of what electability looks like.”
Similarly, University of Iowa student Patrick McMillan acknowledged that Sanders would be attacked by Trump as a socialist — but also saw an upside in the senator’s unflinching, dramatic proposals on health care and free public college.
“It’s a risky situation,” McMillan, 19, said at a Vampire Weekend concert hosted by the Sanders campaign in Cedar Rapids. “But it’s a risk worth taking in this political climate where people are so ready for change.”
Teresa Euken, of Red Oak in western Iowa, had never caucused before. But this year she’s not only participating, but became a precinct captain for Buttigieg, working to woo other voters to support him.
“We’re probably at the biggest crossroads we’ve been at in years,” said Euken, 56.
Some voters had other criteria.
“If I was thinking about electability, I might be like, ‘OK, we should just go with Joe Biden,’ ” said Paul Stewart of suburban West Des Moines. But Stewart, 40, had settled on Warren because he saw her as the leader his son and two daughters could look up to, in contrast to Trump.
Jansen, the Sanders volunteer and Loras College senior, said fighting climate change is so important it overrides all other considerations. As much as Iowa Democrats feel a responsibility to help their party win, there’s even more responsibility to elect a candidate who can bring a change that could affect the entire globe, he said.
Goran Hassan, 38, described himself as “the only Kurd in Iowa.” Originally from northern Iraq, he likes Warren’s domestic plans but favors Biden or Buttigieg on international affairs.
He was still undecided. “It’s like a spider’s web for me, man.”