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In Sioux City, Iowa, the silhouettes of Bernie Sanders supporters are seen behind an American flag at a rally. Iowans vote on Monday in the first caucus of the 2020 party primary season.

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Democratic voters are set to dive into the most crowded and divisive presidential primary in modern U.S. history. On Monday, Iowa caucus-goers will choose from among the dozen candidates still left in the Democratic race, kicking off a battle that is expected to rage across the country throughout the spring and into the party’s summer convention.

With the election still more than nine months away, the 2020 presidential campaign is already shaping up to be like nothing U.S. voters have ever seen. On one side is an erratic, nationalistic incumbent presiding over a roaring economy and still popular with the Republican base – even as he faces an impeachment trial. On the other is an army of voters fired up and determined to defeat him.

Yet, as the Democratic primaries begin in Iowa, that enthusiasm is accompanied by a growing sense of unease.

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Democrats may be united in their desire to remove Donald Trump from office. But with so many candidates clearly split along policy lines – former vice-president Joe Biden, for example, who believes Democrats can win over white, working-class voters and return to a pre-Trump world, against Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is calling for a revolution led by a young, diverse and urban electorate – the party remains divided when it comes to picking a clear front-runner.

Thanks in part to changes to the nomination process in the wake of the party’s bitter 2016 primaries, 2020 is shaping up to be a real dust-up in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

And the outcome of Super Tuesday (March 3), which this year features 14 states, including vote-rich California, may lead to the Democratic Party’s first contested national convention in almost 70 years. Some Democrats fear it’s destined to become a drawn-out fight that risks exacerbating the party’s internal divisions and undermining its chances of retaking the White House in November.

The most recent polls from Iowa suggest no one is likely to emerge as the resounding winner. In fact, pollsters from Monmouth College in Illinois predict the Hawkeye State could be split five ways among Mr. Biden, Mr. Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar.

Contemplating this dilemma at a rally for Mr. Buttigieg in Mason City, northern Iowa, Wednesday afternoon was Katherine Hall.

A retired teacher, Ms. Hall, 68, has attended caucuses her entire adult life and has never seen the field so fragmented. “At caucus, most people know who they’re going to caucus for. But so many people this time say they don’t know,” she said.

Many campaigns are also hustling hard in Iowa. “I’ve never had so many people knock on my door.”

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Candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses a rally in Mason City this past Wednesday.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Fuelling the uncertainty is the intense focus on finding the candidate best suited to defeat Mr. Trump. Electability has become one of the biggest issues, often eclipsing health care and trade policy. Traditionally, only a fraction of voters follow party primaries closely. But voters are particularly tuned in this year, adding complexity to the race.

“I think it’s the fractiousness of the country,” said Rev. Leah Daughtry, who ran the Democratic Party’s national conventions in 2008 and 2016. “You have a President that everybody wants to get rid of, and that is energizing interest in this election in a way that I haven’t seen before.”

For some caucus-goers that means supporting the person who seems capable of appealing to the broadest slice of the electorate – whether or not they agree with that candidate’s policies. “Voters concerned about electability are looking at general election polls and they’re trying to imagine what a moderate voter would like – even if they aren’t a moderate voter themselves,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a long-time Democratic strategist and campaign manager in California.

Such a scene played out Tuesday afternoon in Davenport, an industrial city of about 100,000 on the eastern edge of Iowa. At a Hungarian restaurant and dive bar on the outskirts of town, Mr. Biden, who retains a slim lead in Iowa polls, made the case to a roomful of undecided Democrats that he is the candidate Mr. Trump most fears, citing the President’s pressure campaign to get Ukraine to tarnish him, for which the President is now on trial before the Senate.

“He is doing just about everything he can to make sure that I’m not his opponent,” Mr. Biden told the crowd. “Oh, I tell you, I’ve never seen a guy work so hard to determine who the Democratic nominee is going to be.” (Mr. Trump has indeed focused his attack ads on Mr. Biden, while political analysts note that Mr. Sanders has largely escaped scrutiny by both Republicans and Democrats as a serious contender.)

Listening carefully was Adam Kaul, a 47-year-old anthropology professor at Augustana College, just across the state line in Illinois. Mr. Kaul supported Mr. Sanders in the 2016 primaries and identifies with the left of the Democratic Party. But this year, his top priority is picking a candidate who can defeat Mr. Trump. “In 2016, I was all for bold ideas with Bernie,” he said. “Now I’m much more hesitant to play all my cards, even though that’s where my heart is."

Joe Biden speaks at Jeno's Little Hungary in Davenport on Tuesday.

Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

The Democratic Party was stung by a divisive primary in 2016 that pitted establishment favourite Hillary Clinton against Mr. Sanders’s insurgent campaign.

The outcome alienated many of Mr. Sanders’s supporters and is believed to have contributed to Ms. Clinton’s election loss.

In response, the party made several changes to its primary rules this year that have contributed to the lack of an early front-runner. It announced a dozen debates more than a year in advance, with qualification rules designed to gradually narrow the field – too gradually for some critics.

The televised debates also showcased rifts within the party on key issues such as universal health care, foreign policy and whether a white, male presidential nominee was the right person to appeal to the party’s diverse base.

In another change, supporters of Mr. Sanders, who felt the party had skewed the process in Ms. Clinton’s favour, successfully spearheaded an overhaul of the party’s policies regarding superdelegates – unpledged delegates made up largely of members of Congress, state governors and party officials.

Unlike in 2016, when hundreds of superdelegates endorsed Ms. Clinton early in the race, helping her clinch the nomination over Mr. Sanders, this year superdelegates are not allowed to vote on the first ballot during the national convention if the race is too close.

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Candidates Hillary Clinton and Mr. Sanders square off at a 2016 debate in the last Democratic primary season.

Carlos Osorio/AP

“It’s not going to come down to superdelegates is my hope and belief,” said Michael Kapp, a superdelegate himself from California who helped push for the rule change. Mr. Kapp, who backed Ms. Clinton in 2016, has yet to decide on a candidate this year. “I’m willing to take the leap that the candidate that I vote for in March for the California primary might not be the person I vote for at the national convention, and I’m entirely comfortable with that,” he said.

With 495 delegates up for grabs – even after losing 70 bonus delegates for moving its primary from June to March – California wields outsize influence over the nomination process. Most California Democratic strategists believe the state will be a mad scramble to divvy up the delegates, who are spread out across 53 congressional districts, only increasing the chances the race will drag on through the spring.

Adding to the uncertainty, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has opted to skip the early-voting states entirely and focus his self-financed campaign on states such as California, where Democratic operatives say he has a slim chance of becoming a viable centrist alternative to Mr. Sanders if Mr. Biden’s campaign falters. Such a contest, between the socialist Mr. Sanders and the billionaire Mr. Bloomberg, would be “a battle royale in the party,” veteran Democratic pollster John Zogby said. “That would be an indication that the party is hopelessly split.”

Michael Bloomberg speaks about affordable housing during a Jan. 30 campaign event in Washington.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Despite rule changes aimed at levelling the playing field between the party’s establishment figures and outsiders, the long-standing ideological rifts within the Democratic Party only seem to have grown this year.

Underpinning that division is the fact the Democrats still haven’t reached a consensus on why they lost the last election, making it difficult to agree on how to beat Mr. Trump this time, said University of Maryland professor David Karol, co-author of The Party Decides, an influential book examining presidential primaries.

Past election defeats have served as inflection points for the party. After three consecutive losses in the 1980s and early 90s, the prevailing wisdom among Democrats was that the party had moved too far to the left. That began a renewed focus on winning back Southern and Midwestern voters with a more moderate policy agenda, which culminated in Bill Clinton’s successful run as a centrist.

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But with only one election loss – both narrow and unexpected – many within the party still disagree on whether Ms. Clinton was too far to the left, too much of an establishment figure, too focused on attacking Mr. Trump, not the right gender or done in largely by forces beyond her control, such as Russian interference and former FBI director James Comey’s decision to reopen an investigation into her use of a private e-mail server.

“There are so many things you can point to, and it was so close that there’s not a dominant explanation of why she lost that gives Democrats a clear direction,” Prof. Karol said.

That has led to a particularly intense debate about whether the Democrats need to win back the white, working-class voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008, but voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, or look mainly to boosting the turnout among the party’s base of young, non-white and urban voters.

“Why can’t you do both? Why does it have to be either/or?” Ms. Daughtry asked. “I don’t think you have to choose. But you have to be intentional about doing both. And I don’t know that there’s a candidate right now who is doing that.”

Joe Biden speaks in Sioux City.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

For some, however, that debate has exposed a weakness in Mr. Biden’s campaign, which does not directly address the economic grievances and anxieties that helped Mr. Trump win in 2016.

“You can argue that the No. 1 job of the Democratic candidate is just to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get re-elected. But the reason we got a Donald Trump in the first place is we’re living in a time of unprecedented, whiplash-inducing change,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic political strategist and publisher of the California Target Book, a non-partisan guide for political operatives targeting the state. “I don’t think anybody looks at Joe Biden and sees him articulating a compelling picture of what he thinks America could look like in the future.”

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That, some argue, is where Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren may have an edge. Both are running campaigns targeted not just at their progressive supporters, but at winning back some Trump voters with messages of tackling corruption and inequality.

“When we play it safe, we lose. When we go blando, when we go mayonnaise, we lose,” filmmaker Michael Moore told a crowd of Sanders supporters in Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 that lies 180 kilometres southeast of Des Moines.

Mr. Moore compared the enthusiasm Mr. Sanders generates among his supporters to the successful campaign of Mr. Obama – and contrasted it with those of less exciting, losing candidates such as Al Gore and John Kerry. The way to defeat Mr. Trump, he argued, is to fire up voters by giving them something bold and ambitious to vote for.

Filmmaker Michael Moore attends a pro-Sanders campaign stop in Perry, Iowa.

Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press

Iowa voter Patrick Bosold, 70, agrees. He supported Mr. Sanders in 2016 and opted to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the general election rather than back Ms. Clinton.

“Millions and millions of people who wanted Bernie did not vote,” the slim, bespectacled circulation manager of an organic-food magazine said. Mr. Sanders speaks to many of the same economic anxieties that helped get Mr. Trump elected, Mr. Bosold said, and likely would have won the 2016 election if Democrats had rallied around him rather than Ms. Clinton. “Look at all the people who voted for Trump because they felt shut out of the economic system. They would have gone for Bernie,” he said.

Asked whether he would vote for the eventual Democratic nominee if they do not turn out to be Mr. Sanders, Mr. Bosold wouldn’t even contemplate the possibility that his preferred candidate could lose the primary. “I’m not processing the question. That doesn’t compute. It’s not going to happen.”

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Mr. Sanders greets congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a Jan. 26 rally in Sioux City.

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

Whether the ideological rifts within the party spill over into the general election – depressing turnout among voters whose candidates didn’t win the nomination and giving Mr. Trump an easy path back to the White House – “is the million-dollar question,” said Mr. Zogby, the pollster.

Just 53 per cent of Mr. Sanders’ supporters and 49 per cent of entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s backers told an Emerson College poll this month that they would back the eventual nominee if their candidate doesn’t win.

Even if voters rally, lingering resentment over internal fights – such as whether Mr. Sanders ever told Ms. Warren that a woman couldn’t win the presidency – could make campaign volunteers and staffers less willing to work for an opposing candidate in the election.

“I know for a fact Sanders and Warren have been friends and had a non-aggression pact that was broken,” Mr. Zogby said. “Regardless of whether or not Bernie and Elizabeth Warren could make up, their people really hate each other now.”

Given that the 2016 election came down to a narrow set of voters in a handful of key states, even small fissures within the party could be enough to change the outcome in November, Prof. Karol said. “I do think party loyalty and antagonism to Trump run so high that they will mostly get together,” he said. “But a small number of defections can be decisive. Hillary Clinton lost three pivotal states by [the equivalent of] one stadium full of voters.”

Watching Mr. Biden make his case, Mr. Kaul, the voter contemplating switching his support from Mr. Sanders to Mr. Biden, bemoaned the splits in the party and argued that Democrats should be able to rally behind any of the current candidates.

But he was still unclear about which one was the most likely to beat Mr. Trump. “I don’t know that anyone knows what the correct path is,” he said. “We’re all trying to figure out who has the best shot.”​

Ms. Warren casts her shadow on a U.S. flag at a campaign event in Newton.

Ivan Alvarado/Reuters

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