The Iowa caucuses’ (partial) results suggest the rest of the Democratic primary season will resemble its opening 24 hours. By all indications, we’re in for an extremely protracted, incredibly messy nominating process.
In the last weeks of January, Joe Biden began to climb in polls of Iowa, and it started to look as if the former vice-president might pull off an unlikely triumph in a state whose Democratic electorate, and mode of allocating its delegates, plays against his strengths. Had that occurred, the Democratic race could have wrapped up in a hurry. If history is any guide, Biden would have collected a seven-point polling bump from prevailing in Iowa, a surge large enough to secure him a strong second-place finish in New Hampshire, a comfortable win in Nevada, and a landslide in South Carolina. Such a winning streak would likely have humbled Michael Bloomberg, the “moderate lane” would likely have consolidated, and Uncle Joe would have been in position to become the presumptive nominee by early March.
But this was not to be. With 67 percent of precincts reporting, not only did Biden fail to match his polling numbers, he is in fourth place with just 15.6 percent of state-delegate equivalents and 13.2 percent of the final popular vote. It’s may happen that the remaining returns will be more favorable for him, although the New York Times’ Nate Cohn has written that there are no obvious geographic biases to the results currently available. So it seems likely that Biden will remain in fourth.
Just as significant, Pete Buttigieg is the field’s current leader in Iowa. Although Bernie Sanders won a higher share of support from caucusgoers both before and after realignment, Buttigieg’s support was distributed more efficiently across the state’s precincts. As a result, Buttigieg currently lays claim to 26.9 percent of the state’s delegates, while Sanders boasts 25.1 percent. It’s entirely possible that the Vermont senator will close that gap, but, at worst, Buttigieg is poised for a close second-place showing, one that puts him more than 10 percent ahead of Biden. Which means Mayor Pete isn’t going home to Indiana anytime soon.
And that leaves Democrats with three candidates competing for the role of “pragmatic alternative to the political revolution,” each with a source of vitality the other two cannot match. Bloomberg and Buttigieg have yet to assemble an iota of Biden’s goodwill among African-American voters, but Bloomberg’s campaign has more resources at its disposal than many nation-states, while Buttigieg isn’t saddled with the baggage that comes from having a decades-long career in public life or from being a septuagenarian. These disparate strengths could exacerbate the challenge of consolidating left-skeptical voters behind any one standard-bearer.
It is unclear how this state of affairs will affect Elizabeth Warren’s calculus (assuming she remains in third place). If none of the moderate candidates succeed in consolidating plurality support, the Massachusetts senator may be able to hang around long enough to claim the mantle of unity candidate as the race enters its home stretch. Alternatively, if she were to drop out and unify the progressive wing of the party behind Sanders, the left might secure the upper hand on its intraparty ideological adversaries.
As for Sanders himself, his showing in Iowa looks good, if not quite great. The senator’s lead in the popular vote narrowed over Buttigieg after realignment, which spotlights his campaign’s main challenge: While the size and vitality of his core-supporter base is unrivaled, Sanders remains a relatively unpopular second choice among the backers of every other candidate save Warren. Meanwhile, the ostensible failure of his campaign to drastically increase voter turnout or mobilize an exceptionally high number of first-time caucusgoers does not bode well for his prospects of remaking the electorate in other states. In Iowa, Sanders’s team had months to concentrate its resources on a limited playing field. It reportedly knocked on over 100,000 doors. If this was insufficient to significantly increase turnout among disaffected anti-Establishment voters, it’s hard to see the campaign achieving such turnout when it needs to spread its cash and staff more thinly across the country.
But Buttigieg’s strong showing and Biden’s weak one go a way toward mitigating these challenges. The more crowded the field remains, the higher the probability that Sanders’s high floor of support will be sufficient to win the primary. If current polling holds up, the Vermont senator is poised for a comfortable win in New Hampshire with competitive showings in Nevada and South Carolina. If his campaign can persuade Warren supporters to rally behind the front-running progressive — and thus bump his floor of support up to 30 percent instead of 20 — he should be in contention for a long time to come.
On Monday, Democratic voters had the opportunity to put their party on the road to a Biden nomination. They opted to take the scenic route to their national convention instead.