Takeaways From the Early Iowa Caucus Results
With 62 percent of the vote in, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is narrowly leading the Iowa caucus state delegate equivalent totals, while Sen. Bernie Sanders has received the most votes. There’s obviously a lot left to count, but we can still draw some broad conclusions. Neither Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor former Vice President Joe Biden seems likely to win, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s last-minute surge seems to have come up short. With the important caveat that Sanders or Buttigieg could eventually end up the winner of the Iowa caucuses, we can still draw some broad conclusions.
1. Pete Buttigieg will have to demonstrate a broader appeal. Without a doubt it was a good night for Buttigieg. His numbers had been in a bit of a collapse over the past few weeks, so to pull out a top-two finish -- and possibly winning under one metric -- is an outstanding outcome for him. He will ride some momentum into New Hampshire, where Bernie Sanders has been surging.
But Buttigieg runs into the same problem that he has had all along: weaker appeal beyond white voters, especially professional white voters. As we move past New Hampshire and into more diverse states, Buttigieg is going to have to do better, or risk being swept in the South and Southwest.
2. Bernie Sanders is in a strong position. Sanders at the very least seems likely to be the “co-winner” with Buttigieg. More importantly, he heads into New Hampshire with a head of steam and can push that into Nevada (a caucus state where Sanders traditionally performs well). More importantly, it is unlikely that Biden will win either of the first two states, and it seems more likely that he will be swept out of the first three. Even South Carolina could start to look dicey. Things aren’t quite as good for Sanders as they would have been with an outright win, but sharing the win with Buttigieg rather than Biden is a great outcome.
3. It was a mixed result for Elizabeth Warren. Warren’s path to the nomination isn’t particularly clear, but neither is it altogether closed. Her hope is to garner some momentum from this race and earn a second-place finish in New Hampshire. As candidates further down-ticket drop out and Sanders-alternative options narrow, she still hopes to emerge as the candidate who can bridge the establishment-progressive divide within the party.
4. Joe Biden is on life support. We shouldn’t mince words here: Biden had an awful night. Yes, Iowa is a heavily white state, and it is a caucus rather than a primary, so it didn’t play to his strengths. Nevertheless, Biden is a former vice president to a very popular ex-president. He has universal name recognition and the implicit backing of large swaths of the Democratic establishment.
Yes, he can still recover in South Carolina, although that is looking much less probable than it did Monday morning. If his African-American support remains solid, he will perform well in the South. But his weakness among Northern whites is a red flag for states where he will need to win -- and where he can’t rely on African-American support to push him over the top. If he’s coming in fourth place in Iowa, delegate-rich states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio are likely to be challenging for him as well.
Looming over all of this is the question of money. All of the candidates spent heavily on Iowa, and Biden needs to replenish his coffers. Will donors stick with him through New Hampshire? Almost certainly. But how many underperformances can he turn in before they abandon him?
5. It was a bad night for Amy Klobuchar. There is very little to say here. Klobuchar had some momentum heading into Iowa, but fifth place simply isn’t good enough. She may limp into New Hampshire, but absent a stunning outcome there, she isn’t going to be the nominee this time around.
6. It was a good night for Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg’s basic strategy is outlined here, and everything seems to be going according to plan. His gamble is that Biden at best limps out of South Carolina, and that the Democratic establishment will have nowhere to turn other than to him. A lot of things still have to fall into place, but Iowa couldn’t have turned out better for him.
7. It was a good night for brokered conventions. As with Bloomberg, there is a lot that has to take place to get to the end of the primary process with genuine doubt as to who the nominee will be. But one of the necessary preconditions is multiple well-funded candidates running on Super Tuesday. Right now we will almost certainly have Bloomberg and Sanders, with two of three of Warren, Buttigieg, and Biden (if not all three) sticking around, depending on how the early states go. Again, that isn’t sufficient for a brokered convention, but it is a big and necessary step. This was probably the best outcome people rooting for a brokered convention could have hoped for.
8. It was a good night for Donald Trump. Setting aside entirely the question of which Democrats can beat Trump (I tend to view Sanders as an absolute wildcard who could win comfortably or receive a McGovern-like drubbing), two things seemed to work in Trump’s favor. What Trump didn’t want was a candidate coasting to the nomination. A long, bloody battle is helpful for him, both in terms of draining the financial resources of his opponents and creating fissures within the party that take time to heal.
Also, turnout was low. Despite the enthusiasm and large number of viable candidates, it looks as though about as many votes were cast in 2020 as in 2016. Moreover, youth voting was up as a share of caucus voters, which could reflect the defection of older, blue-collar whites in Iowa to the Republican Party. We should be careful extrapolating too much from caucus turnout, but we should also acknowledge when something happens that runs contrary to expectations. In the wake of 2018, and given the candidates running here, the tepid turnout is a cause for some concern among Democrats.