After attending an Elizabeth Warren rally in Indianola the day before the Iowa caucuses, I concluded that she really needed to beat Bernie Sanders in Iowa, but couldn’t lose to both Sanders and Biden and survive for long. Two days later, we still don’t have final results, but what we have (with 75 percent of precincts reporting) shows Warren in a solid third-place position in raw “first alignment” votes, final “second alignment” votes, and in state delegate equivalent (SDEs). In this last metric, which until this year was the only one officially reported, Pete Buttigieg is in the lead, while running second to Bernie Sanders in both the raw vote totals. Unless something really bizarre in this admittedly bizarre caucus happens, Warren is not going to beat Bernie but also isn’t going to lose to Biden. So she’s in a bit of a limbo, somewhat obscured (like everything else in the nomination contest) by the absence of the traditional Caucus Night moment of reckoning.
Late polls weren’t showing Warren winning in Iowa, but her campaign hoped her superior organization would save the day. As it is, she clearly won a “ticket out of Iowa” — but the road ahead for her is unclear.
The Bernie-Buttigieg dual triumph in Iowa has created obstacles for her two very different plausible paths to the nomination: as the “progressive lane” alternative to Sanders, or as a popular “unity candidate” compromise in the case of a Biden-Sanders ideological battle that worried Democrats have no patience for in this must-win year. Looking ahead, it’s not easy to identify a state on the near-term schedule where she’s going to have an advantage over Sanders (according to the RealClearPolitics polling averages, Bernie has sizable leads over Warren in New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and also in the largest Super Tuesday state, California.) His strong finish in Iowa, if it’s ever confirmed, will do nothing but strengthen him among progressives, while also likely enhancing his already-large money advantage over Warren.
Buttigieg’s durability, particularly after New Hampshire, is much less certain than Bernie’s, particularly if his much-discussed weakness with minority voters doesn’t change. At the moment, he is running behind Tom Steyer in the RCP polling averages for Nevada and South Carolina, and is in single-digit territory in California. So Warren’s “unity candidate” potential remains shakily intact, though she needs to keep showing at least some progress before the logistical and financial nightmare of Super Tuesday, when Bloomberg’s impossible-to-match ad investments will begin to distort the race.
So it’s an especially tricky landscape for Elizabeth Warren. The three candidate debates in February (Friday in New Hampshire, the 19th in Nevada, and the 25th in South Carolina) offer her some fresh opportunities to shine — or to sharpen a unity pitch. But her most immediate rivals, Sanders and Buttigieg, are pretty good debaters, too.
One contingency that could change the trajectory of the race would be a meltdown by Biden, whose underwhelming performance in Iowa raised concerns among a lot of Democrats. But it’s not clear how much that would help Warren. According to Morning Consult’s second-choice polling, she’s running third behind Sanders and Bloomberg for Uncle Joe’s supporters. Perhaps she could become a compromise alternative to Sanders and Bloomberg if it comes down to that, and if all hell breaks loose and we come out of Super Tuesday with multiple candidates still viable and a contested convention looming, she’s as good a bet as anyone. Nobody’s ever going to consider her unprepared for the general-election campaign or the presidency, and for all the whispering about sexist swing voters, there remain some Democrats who think shattering the glass ceiling is more important than ever.
All Warren can do now is to persist, raise grassroots dollars, and hope for an opening. The Iowa breakthrough she longed for didn’t happen, but this complex nomination contest is a long way from being settled.