This commentary is being written before the New Hampshire and Nevada voting. Its speculation may or may not be confirmed in actual primaries and caucuses. That said, the Iowa results show some clear winners, losers, and also rans. Seven of the last nine Democratic candidates for president won the Iowa caucus. How predictive that is this year, however, is problematic. The fiasco of the Democrats unable to provide final results for days sullied the impact a victory in Iowa usually generates.
The winner of the popular vote was Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders who also was in a neck-to-neck tie in total number of delegates with Peter Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. The big loser was former Vice-President Joe Biden, who came in a distant fourth.
Biden was unable to do well in Iowa even though his three senatorial opponents were unable to campaign personally in the final weeks before the caucus due to their obligatory presence at the impeachment trial. He proved to be a surprisingly inept speaker, frequently indulging cliches rather than presenting a detailed account of his goals if elected. Just how much his image was tarnished by President Trump’s questioning of his son’s role in Ukraine is impossible to quantify.
Biden’s pitch has always been that he is the candidate most able to rally moderate Democrats and reclaim Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016. This assertion did not materialize in Iowa, and Biden is not likely to do much better in New Hampshire or Nevada. He is pinning his hopes on South Carolina, where he expects an overwhelming victory based on older black voters. A problem with that scenario is that in the general election the Democrats will not carry South Carolina or similar states, but they can and have won in states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. If Biden does not make a dramatic comeback of some kind on Super Tuesday, his candidacy appears doomed.
Bernie Sanders was not pleased with the Iowa results either. He had hoped for a big win that would guarantee him New Hampshire and most likely Nevada. Although he is campaigning vigorously in both of those states, he also has mounted major organizational efforts focused on the 694 delegates to be chosen by sixteen states on Super Tuesday (March 6). He expects to do particularly well in California which elects 416 delegates.
Elizabeth Warren remains a viable contender who expects to do well in New Hampshire. Like Sanders, she has a core base, a clear agenda, and solid organization. If Sanders flounders as the front runner, Warren assumes she will inherit the majority of his supporters. Sanders has a similar perspective regarding Warren voters. Moderate Democrats are coming to realize that Democrat’s progressives are vital to the party’s chances in November as the combined Sanders-Warren popular vote in Iowa was almost 45%.
Amy Klobucher, the senator from Iowa’s Minnesota neighbor, almost overtook Biden for fourth place in Iowa. A similar showing is likely in New Hampshire, but longer term, she hasn’t a core base or major funding. Her efforts mainly have served to make her more attractive as a possible Vice-Presidential candidate, however.
Peter Buttigieg was the big winner in Iowa. From being an unknown whose name most people couldn’t pronounce correctly, he has become a genuine contender. He is the youngest of the candidates, a vet, and an effective speaker who has attracted the voters that Biden had assumed would be his base. ‘Mayor Pete’ goes into New Hampshire with a good chance of again doing very well.
Buttigieg does not have a national organization or a dedicated base of the kind Sanders and Warren have built, but he has ample funding. He is sympathetic to many of the reforms advocated by progressive, but far more cautious, cost-conscious, and vague about specific changes he has in mind. He is extremely weak with key Democratic constituencies such as African American voters. At this point, Buttigieg is an unexpected Democratic wild card whose national appeal can be better assessed by the results of Super Tuesday.
Another breed of wild card is Michael Bloomberg, three-time mayor of New York and a sometime Republican. His long-term goal is to capture moderate Democrats, Republicans, and independents without alienating Democratic progressives. He believes Biden is likely to fade and Buttigieg will prove to be a passing political comet. With financing from his personal fortune, Bloomberg is aiming to emerge from Super Tuesday as the most electable centrist.
The Iowa results pleased President Trump. He gleefully ridiculed the Democrats for wanting to run a national health care system when they were not even able to run a caucus properly. He was pleased that Biden, who he had considered his most formidable Democrat rival, had a weak performance. The still crowded Democratic field gives him time to campaign in swing states before a final effort to rally his core. He is confident of easily besting Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, or Bloomberg.
The minor Democratic candidates who chose to compete in Iowa left as empty-handed as when they entered. Only Andrew Yang managed to get even 1% of the ballots cast. The time is fast approaching for some or all of the also rans to step aside and let Democratic voters focus on choosing a viable nominee.