Friday, a full four days after the candidates expected to know who won the Iowa caucus, the results are still so mired in confusion and incompetence that the Associated Press has declined to announce a winner at all.
In some candidates’ cases, a year of money, hard work and constant travel is essentially down the tubes. The Democratic National Committee is getting involved after the Iowa state party bungled every step of the process. And with that dumpster fire throwing up smoke in the background, seven presidential hopefuls will meet on the debate stage in New Hampshire.
They are: former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and billionaire Tom Steyer.
For some candidates, this will mean using Friday’s stage to sell a win that got buried under the rubble.
Ninety-nine percent of the results are in, and Buttigieg seems to have eked out the victory. With 26.2 percent of the state delegate equivalent — giving him 13 delegates — he is just barely leading Sanders who got 12 delegates with 26.1 percent.
Both have declared victory, Buttigieg on Monday night before any results were in.
As discordant as his speech seemed then, against a backdrop of chaos, it makes sense. Buttigieg needed the Iowa win and poured a lot of resources into the first state. He’s polling decently in New Hampshire too, perhaps enjoying an Iowa boost. But, per FiveThirtyEight’s poll amalgamation, he starts to seriously trail in the next states that don’t have virtually all-white electorates. Nevada and South Carolina, which hold their nominating contests later this month, are the first of these.
He may have the most cause for anger about Iowa’s meltdown. Lacking the passionate and time-tested fan base of Sanders, he is depending on these first two states to show voters that he’s a viable candidate and to prove that he’s not too green for the presidency. That message was muddled amid the noise — count on him hammering it home during the debate.
As for attacks during the debate, Buttigieg may have the most to gain by going after Sanders or Biden. As Sanders has also declared himself the winner of the Iowa caucus, a natural friction arises there.
Biden, on the other hand, had a disappointing showing in Iowa. Though the state plays to many of his weaknesses — a progressive Democratic electorate and little diversity — a fourth place finish is not what his campaign hoped for. Buttigieg, thus, is well positioned to play up his viability as the moderate alternative to Sanders and to clobber Biden’s “electability” argument in one-fell swoop.
Sanders is extremely well positioned coming out of Iowa. He won, or almost did, or did for all intents and purposes, and will probably win again in New Hampshire. He’s looking good in Nevada too — per FiveThirtyEight, he and Biden appear to be essentially tied in the state. He’d be well suited to make a presentation at the debate painting himself as a unifier, someone who can bring both wings of the party together, to make himself seem a more palatable option for Democrats disappointed in Biden’s performance and perhaps forced to start considering a new frontrunner. But Sanders tends to run on his outsider status no matter what.
Warren had an okay night in Iowa. Finishing above Biden gives her something to tout, though she was in a fairly distant third to Buttigieg and Sanders’ virtual tie. The problem with Warren will be how to encourage voters to look ahead, to states where she will likely do better. Per FiveThirtyEight, she’s currently fourth in New Hampshire, third in Nevada and fourth in South Carolina. That’s a long road to push through with nothing higher than a third place finish.
Someone like Biden, who is also likely to finish out of the top two in New Hampshire, is hanging his hat on the more diverse states. If he can pull off a win in Nevada and South Carolina, he is well-positioned to make the argument that he wins when an electorate more representative of the country gets to choose. But he needs to find a way to staunch the bleeding from Iowa and, probably, from New Hampshire: the negative coverage is surely going to drag him down in those next two primaries unless he can find a convincing way to calm people’s anxieties, and to actually raise some money.
Klobuchar did well in Iowa hewing as close to Biden as she did, but her chances seem remote at this point. The same goes for Yang and Steyer.
Iowa was one caucus, a contest that many feel gets overblown importance. But this debate is going to be all about that race, and how candidates plan to capitalize on or move past it.