vision 2020

How Iowa’s Chaos Affected Each of the Top 4 Democrats — and Why New Hampshire Is Bigger Than Ever

Warren, Biden, Sanders, and Buttigieg at the January debate in Iowa. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders wasn’t planning to declare his “strong” Iowa victory in a Manchester, New Hampshire, strip-mall storefront on a snowy Thursday afternoon, sandwiched between a Supertan salon and the Happy Garden Chinese restaurant. Sure, he wanted to do it at a Holiday Inn across the street from an airport on Monday night, but at least that was in Des Moines — just after Iowans caucused, when his backers around the country would be primed to pump a new, triumphant jolt of energy and cash into his campaign.

Pete Buttigieg wasn’t expecting to be on day two of his own victory lap on Wednesday when he touched down in New Jersey for a trio of private fundraisers and a New York media swing, suddenly gone from the state up north where he was the big story after declaring victory in the midwest. Internally, his team had been framing the plan more cautiously: He’d use a mad sprint through New Hampshire on Tuesday to announce himself there before briefly leaving the trail to refill campaign coffers that would likely need replenishing after an Iowa slog, and with an expensive, forbidding road ahead.

For Elizabeth Warren, ceding national media attention after Iowa to her fellow senator, the former mayor, and the suddenly flailing Joe Biden was never part of the meticulously laid roadmap, and neither was facing the imperative of shifting ad money out of Nevada and South Carolina to make sure her New Hampshire strategy was adequately funded — or having her campaign manager dramatically call out Buttigieg’s team for apparently instructing a super PAC on how best to boost him. Her best-case scenario, after all, didn’t position New Hampshire, her next-door state, as being quite so make-or-break as it now looks.

And Biden, sitting in Delaware, nearly 400 miles south of Manchester conferring with senior aides after a brutal finish in Iowa, had planned to be prepping for Friday’s debate, and not facing an unrelenting barrage of savage news coverage while confronting what his advisers were describing as a meltdown of his field operation so complete that they were now evaluating his Nevada organization to avoid another costly embarrassment. Moving whatever remaining ad money he had from South Carolina to Nevada wasn’t the plan, either, and neither was letting his Thursday off the trail turn into a glaring hole in his schedule just as news surfaced that some leaders of his Iowa team would no longer have full-time gigs with the campaign — all of it landing so painfully, just after he started showing signs of life with a fiery first two days in New Hampshire.

But this is 2020. So with snow covering much of the state, results from Iowa sputtering in — even as Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez called for a recanvass of disputed caucus sites — and the field’s eighth debate stage being assembled in Goffstown, the top four candidates each tossed big parts of their best-laid strategic plans into the frigid wind, stuck to their schedules, and hoped for the best as they each searched for the message or tack to propel them to next week’s primary. The days, less than a week ago, when each candidate was using their own version of a call for unity as a closer, could hardly feel quainter. Tuesday’s primary, their campaigns all privately agree, could set the course for the rest of the nomination fight.

While Buttigieg and Sanders have had significant reason to complain about the vote-counting chaos in Iowa, which denied them both the kind of attention and momentum they’d expect, it’s Warren who might have the most concern with the coverage consumed by voters across the country. Of the reports focusing on candidates rather than the mess caused by the Iowa Democratic Party, most have zeroed in on Buttigieg’s and Sanders’s dueling claims of victory, or Biden’s disappointing finish, rather than Warren’s third-place result. That showing, combined with that silence, meant her Boston-based campaign brought in less money than it hoped for after Iowa, forcing the candidate to pull expensive ad reservations from media markets in later-voting states. Now she needs all the money she can get to over-perform in New Hampshire. Though Warren has not deviated from the case she made in Iowa during her final sprint there — that she was best-positioned to bring the party together — her campaign calculated that the message could use even less subtlety. On Wednesday it rolled out a digital ad featuring Barack Obama — the man at the center of both Biden’s and Buttigieg’s pitches, to varying degrees — praising her as “very tough” and “one of the country’s fiercest advocates for the middle class.”

While Warren was planning the ad push, Sanders was still fighting to convince voters he’d won in Iowa. On Wednesday night, Sanders’s Iowa director sent volunteers and staffers an email insisting, “We are on a path to victory,” while the candidate’s senior aides grew increasingly comfortable calling his growing popular-vote lead a win, even as the state-delegate equivalent count stayed tight and the overall results remained suspect. Part of their reasoning was Buttigieg’s caucus night claim to the Iowa win: “It was certainly an impetuous move, and it is at a minimum debatable that he can declare any victory at all,” griped one aide. But by Thursday evening, after his own declaration of triumph, Sanders was insisting to CNN, “I think we’ve had enough of Iowa,” eager to move back into the old standby message that had carried him into the New Hampshire polling lead. This, clearly, was his hope all along: After briefly acknowledging the Iowa debacle upon his return to New Hampshire on Tuesday night at a rally in Milford, Sanders quickly pivoted and recited the stump speech so many of his fans know so well, with hardly any deviations to account for the circumstances.

In South Bend, meanwhile, frustration with the Iowa vote-counting mess dissipated relatively quickly when Buttigieg’s strategists realized that for the second straight week he would be the only major candidate blanketing national television with interview appearances — including with his claims of victory, however contested. The networks were happy to take him, and as polls showed him gaining further in New Hampshire as the week matured, he grew bolder. Biden had taken a swipe at him: “Mayor Pete likes to attack me as well, he’s a good man, calls me part of the old, failed Washington,” Biden said in Somersworth. “Is he really saying the Obama-Biden administration was a failure? Pete just say it out loud.” Buttigieg replied that it was Obama who deserved credit for the administration’s accomplishments. On Thursday night, his campaign sent backers yet another in a long line of fundraising pitches touting Iowa’s results as a statement: “With 100% of precincts reporting, we officially won the Iowa Caucuses.” No one had yet made it official, but that email did land shortly after a new Boston Globe/WBZ/Suffolk poll showed him surging to an effective tie with Sanders in the state.

The same poll showed Biden sliding, a likely result of what the candidate himself called the “gut punch” of Iowa after initially denying he’d underperformed there. A vicious round of finger-pointing erupted among some of Biden’s advisers shortly after it became clear just how far behind he’d finished, and much of the initial blame fell on the field operation. Biden himself said, “I expected that our organization would perform better,” during his CNN town hall in Manchester on Wednesday. While his team reevaluates its machinery, his short-term solution to the problem at hand has been to show proof of life by punching at the pair atop the polls. “I do believe it’s a risk — to be just straight-up with you — for this party to nominate someone who’s never held an office higher than a mayor of a town of 100,000 people in Indiana,” he said of Buttigieg. Of Sanders, he insisted the socialist label would drag down-ballot Democrats to doom, and said, “He hadn’t moved the ball a single solitary inch in the United States Congress.”

It’s an approach that his aides believe will at least earn him positive press and might rally uncommitted voters to his side while stanching some of the bleeding. Some were encouraged by the coverage of his initial forays into criticizing his rivals, and hoped aloud that he would keep it up on Friday’s debate stage. The problem, they conceded, was that they never know if he’ll take their advice.

How Iowa’s Chaos Affected Each of the Top Four Democrats