2 winners and 3 losers from Iowa
What the results say about the shape of the rest of the race
After one of the most excruciating, self-inflicted election fiascos in modern political memory is now almost-but-not-quite over, we do finally, sort of have a winner of the Iowa caucuses. Or, more precisely, we have two winners and three very clear losers.
Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are, on balance, better off than they were before the first voters filed into their precincts. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the Iowa caucuses themselves, on the other hand, got owned.
With nearly all caucus sites reporting, and notwithstanding the recanvass demanded by DNC Chair Tom Perez on Thursday afternoon, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders looks like he won both versions of the popular vote — the first, taken before candidates who failed to hit 15 percent were eliminated at individual caucus sites, and also the second, after the supporters of those non-viable candidates, as well as undecided voters, were allowed to move to another candidate. But due to the Iowa Democratic Party's byzantine delegate allocation rules that privilege rural voters, Buttigieg still leads in the category of "State Delegate Equivalents" and has apparently achieved an overall tie in the much smaller number of pledged delegates who will actually head to the convention.
The split decision, as predicted by many, led to both dueling declarations of victory from the Sanders and Buttigieg camps. But given the Iowa Democratic Party's meltdown, it probably doesn't much matter whether the final tallies put Sanders over the top in delegates or not. He had a good night as it is.
Possibly the most important person Sanders defeated on Monday was Warren, his rival throughout the campaign for the affections of the party's progressive activists. For a period in the fall, Warren had overtaken Sanders and had briefly caught Biden in national surveys. But a third place showing in Iowa leaves her trapped where she has been for months, with Sanders in the way of consolidating the party's progressive wing. She trails badly in the polling for New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, and looks to be in danger of falling out of the race altogether now that her campaign has pulled some ads from Nevada and South Carolina.
Because her voters disproportionately favor Bernie Sanders as a second choice, getting Warren out of the race as soon as possible is imperative for him. He may get his wish. Warren is too much of a committed progressive to risk throwing the nomination to a moderate, and too much of a party loyalist to risk any contribution to a contested convention. If she doesn't right the ship, quickly, she could be gone by Super Tuesday. She'll need to not get routed in New Hampshire — where she should have some natural advantages due to its proximity to her home state of Massachusetts — to avoid the appearance of a campaign in freefall. And in this new world where you can run for president until you're a thousand years old, she's young enough to run in 2024 and 2028 if she so desires. Not being seen as a spoiler by any key constituency might be crucial to those future hopes.
But Sanders should also be grateful that it was Biden and not Buttigieg who did poorly enough to miss the state's viability thresholds in many precincts. Iowa's moderates seem to have gravitated disproportionately to Buttigieg, whose path out of Iowa remains murky at best. Still polling mostly in the single digits nationally, Buttigieg has almost no support whatsoever from African Americans and Latinos, and his prior efforts to fix the problem were cringe-inducing. He's currently at 7 percent in third-to-vote Nevada and 5.5 percent in South Carolina, the last state to go before Super Tuesday.
Buttigieg probably needs to win or come in an unexpectedly strong second in New Hampshire on Tuesday to have a real shot at the nomination. And he might pull it off. Three different polls released yesterday both had him running a close second to Sanders, evidence that despite the embarrassing muddle, Buttigieg at least may see some real momentum from his status as Iowa co-winner.
Biden, on the other hand, could hardly have had a worse night. Despite most of his opponents being trapped in D.C. for President Trump's Senate trial, he barely campaigned in Iowa at all, and his polling strength seemingly evaporated when voters began to caucus. While his campaign has expected losses in Iowa and New Hampshire from the beginning, they may very well have underestimated the negative momentum of losing these two prominent contests in about as disastrous a fashion as they could.
The Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire found that Biden has dropped six points in New Hampshire just since Iowa. He's down to less than a 1-in-5 chance of getting a delegate majority in the Five Thirty Eight forecast model. And of course, this has led to the predictable onslaught of stories in the press about how his campaign is in disarray. Here's Biden's own aides describing his Iowa performance, according to Politico: "It was a cluster-f---" said one. "A shit show," said another. "A f---ing disaster," said a third.
For all of this, Biden really has no one to blame but himself. He began this race in an enviable position — leading the polls for the nomination, and with towering leads over Trump in head to head surveys. He had an almost boundless reservoir of Obama-era goodwill from older voters in the party, particularly African Americans. And those strengths could have been used to convince more ideologically progressive Democrats that they should stay with him as the best chance to cashier Trump.
But Biden so far has been unable to capitalize. His deeply worrisome and frequently incoherent debate performances have caused even ardent backers to question whether he is up for the rigors of the election at all, a concern not alleviated by Biden's cupcake campaign schedule. He has also suffered from his refusal to throw the party's progressive wing a single bone. The man's policy section might as well feature tumbleweeds animation. Family leave? Child care? Student debt? Anything? Crickets from the Biden camp. This is a platform that takes Millennial and Gen Z skepticism about his candidacy and almost deliberately weaponizes it against himself. The total refusal to meet younger voters in particular even halfway is just staggering.
Despite all of his missteps, he's not done yet. Still leading in South Carolina, he could turn a resounding victory there into a springboard for Super Tuesday dominance. But that sequence of events looks much less likely than it did a week ago.
The other loser is of course the Iowa caucuses themselves. Iowa Democrats may have made themselves irrelevant in two different ways this week. The humiliating election-night administrative meltdown together with unexpectedly low turnout makes it more likely that the Democratic National Committee will finally make a serious effort to strip the state of its absurd kingmaker status for 2024. And by giving Buttigieg the official delegate "win," voters almost certainly broke the state's tradition of picking the candidate who went on to win the nomination. Iowa Democrats chose the eventual nominee in the last four competitive Democratic primaries — Al Gore in 2000, John Kerry in 2004, Barack Obama in 2008, and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Only twice since 1976 — in 1988 and 1992 — did the Iowa delegate winner not go on to give an acceptance speech at the convention.
Add it all up and Iowa's days as a trendsetting state where dozens of would-be presidents must grovel before the gods of ethanol and direct democracy are probably over. The nominating contests, on the other hand, must go on.