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On the roster: Iowa Dems gamble on big changes to save caucuses - Bernie booms, Buttigieg droops in New Hampshire poll - Trump opens door to Medicare curbs, more tax cuts - Senate GOP groups raised record $68.3 million in 2019 - Meep, meep

The good news is that the Iowa Democratic Party is introducing all kinds of new practices for their presidential caucuses to address old problems with the system and how results are reported.

The bad news is that they may have introduced new problems — and nobody, not even Iowa Democratic insiders, seems confident that they know how it’s all going to turn out.

Longtime observers know that confusion has been prevalent in both parties since the caucuses became essential a generation ago. We’ve seen contradictory results, multiple candidates claiming victory, shifting delegate counts and allegations of impropriety.

The stakes are high for the Hawkeye State Democrats who run the contest. Not only are they expecting huge turnout for the 41 delegates up for grabs on Feb.3 – even bigger than the nearly quarter-million voter record set in 2008 – but also because the caucuses are in danger of losing their spot at the head of the line. 

Iowa has become much less important for Republicans than Democrats. GOP caucus goers haven’t chosen the party’s eventual nominee for an open seat in 20 years. For Democrats, though, the Hawkeye State is crucial. Every Democratic nominee since 1996 has started out with an Iowa win.

But this cycle, Iowa has been under sustained attack from Democratic activists on multiple fronts. 

Those primarily focused on racial and ethnic identity have been harshly critical of the fact that about 90 percent of the state’s Democratic electorate is white. Several 2020 candidates, particularly former housing Secretary Julian Castro, expressed their grievances over what they say is an unfair starting place for a party that is less than 60 percent white nationally.

But even candidates who are quite happy with the makeup of Iowa’s Democratic electorate – older, whiter and more reliably liberal than much of the country – still have their complaints. 

On caucus night four years ago, Sen. Bernie Sanders came up short by just two tenths of a point against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Or did he? State party officials announced that Clinton had won 700.47 “state delegate equivalents” to Sanders’ 696.92, the thinnest margin in history. But how does one win .47 of a delegate? And what the heck is a “delegate equivalent” anyway?

Technically, the Iowa caucuses are for the purposes of precincts selecting their delegates to county conventions…  who select delegates for the congressional district conventions… who select delegates to the summertime state convention… who select delegates to the national convention that selects the nominee.

On caucus night 2016, the party announced the projected distribution of delegates at the state convention, but wouldn’t or couldn’t provide the data on which the projections were based. And that’s when thing got dicey. 

Sanders’ supporters alleged that irregularities in individual caucus locations and in the way delegates were awarded may have cost their man the win. Team Bernie also complained that college students, a key constituency for the Vermont socialist, who were away from their home precincts were shut out of the process.

These complaints ended up getting rolled into a larger set of demands that Sanders and his campaign made to the Democratic National Committee officials in the wake of revelations that party leaders had worked to undermine Sanders’ bid. Ahead of the 2020 cycle, the Democratic National Committee agreed to push several changes onto state officials, especially in Iowa.

State officials vowed to make the process more inclusive and transparent this time around and are betting their coveted spot as the first in the nation on their ability to deliver.

Here’s what’s different:

In the past, caucus goers would turn up at their designated locations and gather with others supporting the same candidate. After officials had counted everyone there, candidates without at least 15 percent of the total voters at the caucus location were deemed not viable. 

Voters then had a chance to re-align themselves. For example, if candidates X and Y were both under the line, their supporters could team up and pool their support behind one candidate to stay in the race. Or maybe one side could talk enough supporters of viable candidates into joining their team that their candidate could stay alive.

For the sake of transparency and simplicity, it will be more streamlined this time. 

When they arrive at their caucus location, voters will get a card to indicate their presidential preference. If their candidate falls short of the 15 percent threshold on the first count, there’s only one hope: They have 15 minutes to team up with supporters of other candidates below the viability line to unite behind one candidate who can complete. But unlike years past, they can’t woo supporters from the more successful campaigns. Voters who pick a viable candidate can’t switch. They are locked in. 

Those who find themselves without a viable candidate have to turn in their cards and either select a new choice from the campaigns that remain or simply declare themselves uncommitted and call it a night.

The goal here is to be able to have a clear accounting of votes and to make the tabulation process faster and more easily understandable. State officials promise for the first time that they will be able to provide raw voter totals from the initial preferences and from the final distribution along with the projected number of delegates to the state convention.

The “first alignment” will show the number of voters initially caucusing for each candidate and the “final alignment” will be the basis on which the delegate estimates will be drawn. Instead of just giving the answer, party officials will be showing their work.

And for the sake of clarity, all three set of numbers – the first, final and delegate estimate – are supposed to be revealed together on a rolling basis as caucuses conclude. 

What we don’t know here is quite a lot. How well will caucus goers and local Democratic officials at more than 1,600 locations adapt to the new procedure? Will the campaigns accept the formula for forecasting delegates from raw votes or will we have, yet again, competing claims of victory? 

After all, in the event of a very close contest, it’s technically possible that a different candidate will “win” each of the three metrics. That’s part of the reason why the state party itself isn’t going to declare an official winner on Feb. 3, leaving that to the media and campaign spin-meisters to hash out themselves. 

The other big change on tap this year is something like the caucus version of absentee voting. As a sop to Sanders and other who complained about ease of access for college students, workers with night jobs and those living abroad, the party has introduced what it calls the “satellite caucus.”  

At 71 sites in Iowa voters can gather at places including nursing homes, service centers for non-English speakers or the disabled and factories to participate, in some cases at earlier times of the day. There are 25 places in other states, with a heavy emphasis on college campuses, and three international locations, the Republic of Georgia, Scotland and France. 

Registered Iowa votes can participate under roughly the same rules as the folks at the regular caucus locations.  
There are questions here, too. Some worry about the reliability of the process without officials on hand while others have expressed confusion about how the results will be counted into the delegate estimates at the end. 

Party officials promise a seamless system for the new more accessible, more transparent system. They had better be right for their own sakes. The stakes on Feb. 3 are nearly as high for Iowa Democrats and their privileged place at the start of the process as they are for the candidates themselves.

If the state party can’t satisfy the demands on the process itself it may prove impossible to continue to deflect complaints about the ethnic makeup of the state’s electorate at the same time.  

WBUR: “With the New Hampshire presidential primary less than three weeks away, a new WBUR poll suggests Bernie Sanders might be peaking at just the right time. The survey of more than 426 likely Democratic primary voters finds Sanders in the lead, running well ahead of his three closest competitors: Joe BidenPete Buttigieg, and Elizabeth Warren. … The new WBUR poll (topline, crosstabs) is the latest. It finds Sanders is the choice of 29% of likely Democratic primary voters. That's well ahead of Buttigieg, who led in the last WBUR poll in December but is now in second place with 17%. Biden (14%) and Warren (13%) are virtually tied in third place. … While the WBUR poll is the latest evidence of a Sanders surge, it also shows that overall support for Warren has stalled. … In the WBUR poll last month, Warren had 12%; according to the new poll, she is up by just 1%.”

Biden tries to duck impeachment trial - WaPo: “Joe Biden said definitively on Wednesday that he would not participate in any witness swap as part of the Senate impeachment trial. His remarks came as other top Senate Democrats attempted to tamp down any notion that they would agree to call Biden or his son Hunter in return for appearances by top Trump administration officials. Biden’s remarks, his most forceful attempt to signal that he wants no part of the impeachment trial in which Republicans are trying to embroil him, came after a voter here asked if he would offer to testify in return for testimony from people such as former national security adviser John Bolton or acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. The former vice president said it was ‘not an irrational question to ask’ but said that he would not engage in such a trade.”

Senators send surrogates to Iowa while stuck in D.C. - NYT: “Three candidates who have a shot at breakout performances in Iowa on Feb. 3, Ms. Warren, Mr. Sanders and Ms. [Amy] Klobuchar, are suddenly stuck at the Senate impeachment trial in Washington, while their rivals have the campaign trail largely to themselves. … They are putting their campaign needs in the hands of their young field organizers, who are knocking doors in subfreezing temperatures in Iowa, and political surrogates who are standing in for them at events. Among those on deck are Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York for Mr. Sanders; former Secretary Julián Castro, his twin brother, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas, and the actress and activist Ashley Judd for Ms. Warren; and Phill Drobnick, a Minnesotan who coached the Olympic gold medal-winning men’s curling team in 2018, for Ms. Klobuchar.”

Bernie, Buttigieg and Warren still frozen out in South Carolina - Politico: “After rolling out endorsements from black activists and elected officials, and releasing policies that explicitly address systemic inequality among African Americans, Sanders, Warren and Pete Buttigieg have little to show for it in South Carolina. With voting kicking off in just a few weeks, the three find themselves in much the same spot they began the campaign: Needing Biden to perform so poorly in the first few states that black voters start to doubt whether he can win and migrate to another candidate. The reluctance to consider candidates other than Biden was borne out in interviews with dozens of black voters in South Carolina over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, and is confirmed in polling. Time and again, African American voters said it isn’t that they don’t like Sanders or Warren. But they know what they’re getting with Biden, who has a relationship and familiarity with black voters, especially older black voters, that extend beyond his time as Barack Obama’s No. 2. And they’re wary that the two progressives can deliver the sweeping remake of the government they’re selling.”

Marianne Williamson backs Yang, only for Iowa - Politico: “Spiritual guru and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said she would throw her backing behind Andrew Yang ahead of the Iowa caucuses, though she stopped short of offering a full-throated endorsement of her fellow outsider candidate. In a series of Instagram posts late Wednesday, the bestselling self-help author argued that while she also likes Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), she would be appearing with Yang in Iowa in large part because of the levity his personality brings to the 2020 race.”

Bloomy campaign work perks - NY Post: “Billionaire presidential long shot Michael Bloomberg is trying to poach staff from other campaigns with outsized salaries and fancy perks like three catered meals a day, an iPhone 11 and a MacBook Pro, according to sources. Bloomberg is paying state press secretaries $10,000 a month, compared to the average going rate of $4,500 for other candidates and state political directors are making $12,000 a month, more than some senior campaign advisers earn, sources said. National political director Carlos Sanchez pulls in $360,000 a year. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s political director, made $240,000 in 2016. Every Bloomberg staffer gets a MacBook Pro and an iPhone 11 on day one. They also enjoy three catered meals daily.”

“[Montesquieu’s] meaning, as his own words import, and still more conclusively as illustrated by the example in his eye, can amount to no more than this, that where the WHOLE power of one department is exercised by the same hands which possess the WHOLE power of another department, the fundamental principles of a free constitution are subverted.” – James MadisonFederalist No. 47

History: “On January 23, 1957, machines at the Wham-O toy company roll out the first batch of their aerodynamic plastic discs—now known to millions of fans all over the world as Frisbees. The story of the Frisbee began in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where William Frisbie opened the Frisbie Pie Company in 1871. Students from nearby universities would throw the empty pie tins to each other, yelling ‘Frisbie!’ as they let go. In 1948, Walter Frederick Morrison and his partner Warren Franscioni invented a plastic version of the disc called the ‘Flying Saucer’ … After splitting with Franscioni, Morrison made an improved model in 1955 and sold it to the new toy company Wham-O as the ‘Pluto Platter’ … In 1958, a year after the toy’s first release, Wham-O—the company behind such top-sellers as the Hula-Hoop, the Super Ball and the Water Wiggle—changed its name to the Frisbee disc, misspelling the name of the historic pie company.”

Flag on the play? - Email us at HALFTIMEREPORT@FOXNEWS.COM with your tips, comments or questions.

Biden: 25.6 points (↑ 1 point from last wk.)
Sanders: 17.8 points (↑ 3.2 points from last wk.)
Warren: 16.6 points (↓ 0.2 points from last wk.)
Buttigieg: 8.4 points (↑ 0.2 points from last wk.)
Bloomberg: 5.6 points (↑ 0.6 points from last wk.)
[Averages include: CNN, Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University, IBD and NBC News/WSJ.]

Average approval: 43.4 percent
Average disapproval: 52.4 percent
Net Score: -9 percent
Change from one week ago: ↑ 0.2 points
[Average includes: CNN: 45% approve - 51% disapprove; Monmouth University: 43% approve - 52% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 43% approve - 52% disapprove; NPR/PBS/Marist: 42% approve - 53% disapprove; Gallup: 44% approve - 54% disapprove.]

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NYT: “President Trump suggested on Wednesday that he would be willing to consider cuts to social safety-net programs like Medicare to reduce the federal deficit if he wins a second term, an apparent shift from his 2016 campaign promise to protect funding for such entitlements. The president made the comments on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Despite promises to reduce the federal budget deficit, it has ballooned under Mr. Trump’s watch as a result of sweeping tax cuts and additional government spending. Asked in an interview with CNBC if cuts to entitlements would ever be on his plate, Mr. Trump answered yes. … Mr. Trump suggested that curbing spending on Medicare, the government health care program for the elderly, was a possibility.”

Trump 2020 attracting new, big donors - WaPo: “Enticed by exclusive gatherings and ecstatic about the president’s tax cuts, an eclectic new crop of donors is going all in, giving five and six figures to support his reelection. … The Washington Post identified at least 220 big donors to Trump’s reelection who are either new to major political giving or sat out the last presidential general election. Together, they have deluged pro-Trump fundraising committees with more than $21 million — a cash infusion that suggests a newfound enthusiasm for the president among supporters capable of writing large checks. The influx of these donors represents a shift for Trump, who criticized other candidates’ reliance on wealthy backers during the 2016 election. This time, his campaign is actively wooing them, holding glitzy fundraisers that give people who donate large amounts a chance to mingle with his inner circle and often snap pictures with Trump himself.”

Are Iowa’s Obama-Trump voters up for grabs? - WSJ: “CRESCO, Iowa—When Democrats start their presidential nomination voting with this state’s caucuses early next month, voters like Joe Wacha hang in the balance. After backing Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, the 63-year-old greenhouse manager says he switched to Donald Trump in 2016. A large number of his fellow Howard County voters did the same. The rural county, located in northeast Iowa near the Minnesota border, is the only one of America’s more than 3,000 counties that voted by more than 20 percentage points for Mr. Obama in 2012 and by more than 20 percentage points for Mr. Trump in 2016. It swung 41 points, the second-biggest flip in the nation. Recent interviews with dozens of voters here suggest that most of Mr. Trump’s 2016 supporters, including Mr. Wacha, plan to stick with him, even though some said they have grown weary of his personal behavior and trade fights. Among those who previously voted for Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump, many said they are reserving judgment until they see who wins the Democratic nomination.”

The Judge’s Ruling: What does it take to remove a president? - This week Fox News Senior Judicial Analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano breaks down the requirements behind impeaching a president: “We know that obstruction of Congress is a crime. Just ask former New York Yankees pitching great Roger Clemens, who was tried for it and acquitted. We also know that obstruction of Congress -- by ordering subordinates not to comply with House impeachment subpoenas -- is an impeachable offense. We know that because the House Judiciary Committee voted to charge President [RichardNixon with obstruction of Congress when he refused to comply with subpoenas. And the full House voted for an article of impeachment against President [Bill Clinton] when he refused to surrender subpoenaed evidence.” More here.

WaPo: “The big-money groups aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell raised $68.3 million in 2019, a record sum for a non-election year that reflected donors’ support for Senate Republicans through impeachment, judicial appointments and the 2020 elections, officials said Thursday. The constellation of groups allied with McConnell (R-Ky.) entered 2020 with $68.1 million — a larger cash reserve than in previous cycles, according to totals provided to The Washington Post. The majority of the money raised in 2019 came in the latter half of the year, particularly in the final two months, largely spurred by the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, officials said. ‘The enthusiasm among our donors is higher than I’ve ever seen it before, and I’ve been at this for a decade now,’ said Steven Law, president and chief executive of Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with McConnell and Senate Republicans.”

Club for Growth tries to knock off another GOP incumbent - Politico: “The prominent conservative group Club for Growth is throwing its weight behind a primary challenge to veteran Rep. Kay Granger of Texas — a move that is likely to anger Republican leaders who’ve rushed to her aid. The anti-tax organization is expected this week to launch a seven-figure advertising offensive targeting Granger, a 12-term congresswoman who serves as the ranking Republican on the influential Appropriations committee. The Club for Growth, which has long warred with senior Republicans, is preparing a TV, digital and mail assault going after the congresswoman’s record on spending issues ahead of the March 3 contest. … The Club is endorsing technology executive Chris Putnam, who has mounted a well-funded challenge to Granger. Putnam has raised $456,000 through the end of September, including a $250,000 loan from himself.”

Sen. Richard Burr giving antsy colleagues fidget spinners at Thursday GOP lunch Roll Call

Tech companies said offer cybersecurity services to presidential campaigns - WSJ

Supreme Court justices clash over major school-choice case Fox News

“It’s miserable coffee. You would wish it on a Democrat but no one else. Just joking.” – Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., discussing the coffee in the Senate cloakroom, per CNN.

“While Hunter Biden might sate curiosity seekers and add some ‘color’ to an otherwise dry, boring process, he brings little to the table. Why are they not negotiating Bolton's testimony for the [whistleblowers]? Everyone I speak with wants to hear from him, even if it means behind closed doors. I would also love to see Mr. Schiff testify under oath about the interaction with the [whistleblower] prior to filing his report.” – Madeline Schwarz, Wildomar, Calif.

[Ed. note: Isn’t it funny how little everyone cares about the subject at hand – the question of removing the president from office – and how much folks seem to be focused on just the kind of theatrics you describe. There’s been little if any doubt all along on what the result of the trial will be. Instead we have two sides which want to use the trial as a platform from which to inflict political harm on each other. It’s hard to fault the voting public for a deepening cynicism about our politics when both sides so nakedly treat our system as a tool for political advantage. They’re not even subtle about it anymore.] 

“Can you please explain how the current sitting senators who are running for president are allowed to skip work and campaign? I’m not trying to be snarky, I’m legitimately confused! If I was trying to be snarky, I would also ask how all this flying around - from DC to IA and then down to SC and up to NH isn’t a complete contradiction to their Green New Deal, but we don’t have to go there! Thanks for all you do!” – Katie Hacker, Evington, Va.

[Ed. note: It’s a common refrain in primary season, Ms. Hacker. You’ll see stories about attendance records in Congress, complaints about missed votes, yadda, yadda, yadda… The truth is that being a senator isn’t a 9-to-5er. There’s no constitutional or statutory definition for how many hours a senator has to be present in Washington. (And goodness knows just because they’re here doesn’t mean they’re working.) The 115th Congress, which concluded at the start of 2019, was in session 41 percent more days than the 1st Congress, which convened in New York in 1789 and closed in Philadelphia in March of 1791. The 115th Congress was a shambles. It could not operate under regular order. It could not produce a budget. It barely functioned. The 1st Congress passed The Bill of Rights, created the Departments of War, State and Treasury, established the federal judiciary, passed Alexander Hamilton’s revolutionary financial plan, established Washington, D.C., admitted Vermont to the Union and created the tax that started the Whiskey Rebellion. Members of Congress have a much, much easier job to do than they did before but still manage to mostly fail at it. Giving them more days in which to fail seems unlikely to produce better results.]  

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UPI: “Officials at an Arizona airport said three arriving flights were delayed briefly when a coyote was spotted wandering near the runway. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport said three flights circled the airfield Monday morning while airport employees worked to remove the coyote. A spokesman said the workers were able to guide the coyote toward a gate, where it exited the airfield grounds unharmed. The three flights landed after a brief delay and airport operations soon returned to normal.”

“The fact that others, faced with far smaller threats, have behaved far worse and yet Israel is singled out for blame is powerful evidence of a double standard meant not to serve justice or save Palestinians but simply to skewer Israel.” – Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018) writing in the Washington Post on May 25, 1990.

Chris Stirewalt is the politics editor for Fox News. Brianna McClelland contributed to this report. Want FOX News Halftime Report in your inbox every day? Sign up here.