Whatever the final Iowa caucus results reveal, this much seems certain: Pete Buttigieg had an impressive showing and Joe Biden did not.
It is still unclear when the final tally will be revealed and a winner declared. But with 71 per cent of the results in, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor leads the pack slightly, with 26.8 per cent of the delegates. Buttigieg is followed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with 25.2 per cent. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is in third place with 18.4 per cent.
And, perhaps most surprisingly, the former vice-president trails in fourth with 15 4 per cent, a disappointing showing for arguably the most high-profile candidate. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has 12.6 per cent.
CBC News spoke to experts to offer their insights on what these results mean, so far, to the campaigns of some of the candidates.
Had Buttigieg finished outside the top three, which poll numbers had suggested was a possibility, his campaign would likely have been over, said Sean Trende, a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolits.com, a political news website that includes polling data.
Buttigieg went all out in Iowa, pouring lots of resources into the state.
“He has very much a lease on life now.”
More than a lease, says Democratic strategist Brad Bannon. Buttigieg’s placement, whether he finishes first or just behind Sanders, is a “big victory” for him.
“Even if Sanders does win, well, big deal. He did what everybody thought he would. But Buttigieg exceeded expectations. And this is an expectations game.”
The results debacle has, unfortunately for Buttigieg, taken away some of the media attention that follows the winner of this first contest in the presidential nomination process.
Still, it will give him some kind of boost as he campaigns in New Hampshire for the Feb. 11 primary vote. And more importantly, it could draw in more fundraising dollars.
Buttigieg’s placing will also motivate voters in the upcoming primary states to take a second look at his candidacy, said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
Kedrowski said it’s interesting Buttigieg did so well, because Iowa tends to lean more progressive in the Democratic caucuses.
“It might indicate that caucusgoers were going in with a somewhat different calculus, not necessarily the focus on ideas and policy preferences as much as what they might define as electability.”
But Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a non-partisan political newsletter produced at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, suggested Buttigieg’s success could be short-lived.
He believes Buttigieg, to really transform himself into a real contender, will need to win New Hampshire next Tuesday, a tough challenge considering Sanders perceived lead there.
“Assuming he wins Iowa, maybe he will maybe he won’t, maybe that leads to a breakthrough, ” Kondik said. “Because otherwise, if he sputters out of New Hampshire, I don’t know if there’s anywhere for him.to go.”
Sanders was leading in most polls come election night. But a few days before the caucus vote, before an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 at the arena in Cedar Rapids, Sanders stressed voter turnout would be key to his victory. High turnout he wins, low turnout he loses.
Estimates so far suggest a turnout hovering close to 2016 numbers, around 170,000, and a big drop from 2008 when nearly 240,000 participated and Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and other candidates. This may be a significant factor why Sanders trails in second.
Still, the results so far show he is winning the popular vote and is just slightly behind Buttigieg in the delegate count.
But William Schneider, a professor of policy, government and international affairs at George Mason University, said that if the results stick, that has to be a bit of disappointment for Sanders. While he was expected to win, it’s “not exactly a strong showing.”
Athough he’s beating Biden handily, the strong showing of Buttigieg must give the Sanders’ campaign some serious worry.
“So it’s not a big vote of confidence in Sanders. I don’t think it gives him much momentum,” Schneider said.
However, that momentum could be found in New Hampshire, where he could win big, Schneider said
“He’s a local. New Hampshire voters know him, he got over 60 per cent of the vote against Hillary Clinton,” Schneider said.
Warren was reputed to have the best ground game in the state, an important element in the Iowa caucus, as getting someone out to vote is a challenging endeavour. Still, according to current results, the Massachusetts senator sits in third place.
“If the results hold, it’s really bad for Warren,” said Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist.
“Warren also had problems, as she had a vaunted campaign organization, but still only could muster third. She is now facing serious headwinds,” Siegfried said.
And if she doesn’t do well in New Hampshire, the path “gets trickier for her,” Kondik said.
Trende said Warren should hope to finish second there, and ride some momentum to Super Tuesday.
The former vice-president is supposed to be the front-runner, the candidate most familiar to voters, and, according to polls leading up to the caucus, in a pretty tight race with Sanders.
“And to come in fourth. That’s a real letdown,” Schneider said.
It’s more than a letdown, suggested Trende, “Biden is in big trouble.”
Leading up to the caucus, even as far back as September, Biden operatives had been lowering expectations for their candidate in Iowa, saying it was not “a must-win” state, and that instead, they would be focusing their efforts on South Carolina, Nevada, and the Super Tuesday states.
Regardless, it did seem like his team really made a strong play to try to win Iowa, and came up “significantly short,” said Kondik.
Biden is also not expected to do particularly well in New Hampshire, a state Sanders is expected to win. While their team has their eye on South Carolina, and the African American Democratic voters who favour Biden, polls suggest his lead has diminished there, while Nevada may also be problematic..
That leads to another problem: fundraising, an issue his campaign is already having to deal with. Despite his name recognition, Biden has had trouble raising money, and with the loss in Iowa, it could dissuade other potential donors.
“At a certain point. the donors are going to be like, ‘This guy has run for president twice and has never won a race,'” said Trende. Biden ran unsuccessfully in 1988 and 2008 for the presidential nomination of his party.
“If he comes in third or fourth in New Hampshire, loses Nevada it’s gonna, it’s gonna be tough.”
As well, with Buttigieg’s strong Iowa showing, it’s possible that he, not Biden, will become the so-called moderate candidate that those in the political centre of the party rally around.
“It’s no longer inevitable that Joe Biden is going to be the finalist in the moderate bracket, to go up against the progressive,” said Bannon. “In terms of support for moderates and money, Mayor Pete struck a major blow against Biden.”
Iowa was Klobuchar’s chance to perform well and make a significant showing. She had a quasi-home state advantage, said Kondik, as her home state of Minnesota borders Iowa.
Instead, the results so far have her in fifth place.
“This to me was her chance. It’s hard for me to imagine a path for her now,” Kondik said.