KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— As of this writing, days after Iowa, the ultimate outcome there was still unclear.
— Joe Biden’s poor showing probably forecloses the possibility of him winning the nomination quickly.
— The odds of a rare, contested convention probably went up, although there’s still time for the race to sort itself out.
The Iowa debacle
A much-longer-than-expected vote count featuring confusing and opaque rules that produces a mixed, divisive outcome. That sums up the Iowa caucus, the first event of the Democratic nominating season. Might the description also apply to the last event of the nominating season — the convention itself?
The Iowa debacle and its muddy result seemed to make a contested convention at least a little more likely.
With just a few votes left to count as of Thursday morning, Bernie Sanders received the most votes from actual caucus participants in the first round of voting — the closest thing we have to a true popular vote in Iowa. Meanwhile, Pete Buttigieg and Sanders had nearly the same number of state delegate equivalents, which is what is traditionally used to measure success in Iowa. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar rounded out the top five. Regardless of the final numbers, the ultimate pledged delegate allocation among Sanders and Buttigieg probably will end up being very similar, if not the same.
While the early caucuses and primaries do not award that many delegates — see our preview of the primary season for the specifics — they do often serve the purposes of winnowing the field. As of this writing, no one has dropped out of the race following Iowa. Even a candidate like Klobuchar, whose competitive but apparent fifth-place finish in a state she had long targeted, will trudge on to New Hampshire, even though she does not appear to have much of a path to winning the nomination.
Biden’s sagging performance foreclosed one possible outcome to this primary season: A quick victory by the former vice president. Had Biden won Iowa, which seemed possible albeit unlikely headed into the voting, it’s possible that he would have grabbed hold of the overall nomination battle, perhaps winning three of the first four contests (Nevada and South Carolina, in this scenario), and effectively wrapping up the nomination when the big states start voting in March.
That no longer seems possible.
It is easy to note, as we and many others did months in advance, that overly white Iowa and New Hampshire presented demographic challenges for the national polling leader, Biden, who is the leading candidate among black voters.
It is another thing to actually see the universally-known Biden getting only about 15% of the first-round voting and apparently finishing fourth.
Biden seemed to put a lot into Iowa and came away empty-handed. New Hampshire is not very promising for Biden either, although the Granite State sometimes likes to zig when the Hawkeye State zags. There is a real danger that Biden, who already is running low on money, peters out over the next few weeks. He needs a big win in South Carolina, where he has polled well, at the end of the month, and ideally he needs to perform well in Nevada as well.
Michael Bloomberg looms as a possible replacement for Biden as the champion of the center-left/establishment part of the Democratic Party. Could that champion also be Buttigieg? Maybe, although his nonexistent support among black voters could render him an afterthought following New Hampshire. New Hampshire seems like a must-win for both Sanders and Buttigieg — polling has pointed to Sanders there, but perhaps Buttigieg gets a boost (it seems fair to say that Buttigieg was the only candidate who really seemed to outperform pre-caucus expectations). Meanwhile, Warren did OK overall in Iowa, but the results were hardly a breakthrough for her. She can’t keep finishing behind Sanders and Buttigieg.
The bottom line here is that there are pitfalls and problems for all of the candidates, and whatever slight frontrunning advantage Biden had may now be gone.
New Hampshire may help clarify the race, particularly because the chaos in Iowa paired with the flood of news (the State of the Union and the Senate acquitting President Trump in his impeachment trial) may dilute whatever public relations boost the eventual winner of Iowa might have expected to receive.
However, if New Hampshire doesn’t help winnow the field, and the race remains a multi-pronged one into and through March’s delegate-rich contests, it may be hard for anyone to get a firm enough grip on the race to accrue a delegate majority in the primary season.
That could lead to a protracted battle at the convention, the mechanics of which might make Iowa seem like a well-oiled machine by comparison.