The race to pick the democratic nominee to take on Trump in 2020 kicked off on February 3rd with the Iowa caucuses. Iowa has served as the first test in the months-long nomination processes of both the democratic and republican primaries since the beginning of the modern primary era in 1972. Since then candidates have spent a disproportionate amount of time and money in the state in an attempt to win over its voters and claim victory in the first vote of the primaries.
However, the large draw that Iowa traditionally has had is not due to the number of delegates, the state offers a relatively small amount compared to other states that vote later like Florida and New York, but the immense momentum that a candidate receives from winning the state. The winner of Iowa has traditionally enjoyed a wave of positive press and a surge in the polls, potentially redefining the state of the race. Such was the case in 2008 when Obama’s win in the Iowa caucus allowed him to leapfrog then-senator Hillary Clinton for first place in the national polls. On the Democratic side the race is extremely important with the winner of the Iowa caucuses going on to become the nominee in every democratic primary since 1976, with the exception of Dukakis in 1988 and Clinton in 1992. The other purpose of the Iowa caucuses has traditionally been to narrow the number of candidates down to just a few major contenders, with the mantra being that there are “only three tickets out of Iowa”, which was especially important this year with 11 major contenders still running for the Democratic nomination.
The state of the race heading into the first contest this year was former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders leading the field at the top of the polls, with Sanders surging in the weeks leading up to the caucuses. Former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren were not far behind, however, making it plausible that any of the four could come out on top. However, despite the high hopes of the campaigns, including the many volunteers and activists working on the ground and around the country for their respective candidates, the election in Iowa ended in a debacle. On the night of the caucuses, the Iowa Democratic party justified the longer than usual wait for results by claiming they were doing “quality control” on the data before they released it, which many in the media initially believed. Yet as the night dragged on it became clear that the party was stalling, with the real reason being a malfunction in the app that they had planned to use to report results from local precincts to the party. Due to this embarrassing malfunction, the party was forced to count each paper ballot by hand to report the results of the vote, which took days, with the final result not coming in until four days later. The final tally revealed that Bernie Sanders had won the popular vote in the caucuses, with Buttigieg coming in second, Warren in a distant third, and Biden in an even further fourth, significantly underperforming the polls. However, Sanders and Buttigieg were essentially tied in state delegate equivalents (similar to an electoral college type system that traditionally determines the winner in Iowa instead of the popular vote). Due to this tie in state delegate equivalents and reports of irregularities in the reported vote totals across dozens of counties the associated press has been unable to project a winner in the Iowa caucuses as of the time this article was written, over a week after the voting occurred.
Despite no winner being projected, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg have both declared victory in the state, citing their strong performances regardless of who the final winner is. This split declaration of victory, along with President Trump’s State of the Union Address and acquittal in the impeachment trial dominating media coverage the same week, has led to the traditional effect of momentum that the winner receives from the Iowa caucuses being blunted this year. Additionally, Iowa’s traditional role as a winnower in the nomination process was also not served, with the delay in results resulting in all 11 candidates marching on to the New Hampshire primary the following week.
Even with the debacle in Iowa, however, the dynamic of the race was still shifted. Joe Biden, who had long been regarded as the frontrunner, has seen that status diminish and called into question after significantly underperforming in the polls and coming in a distant fourth place. Biden himself described the result as a “gut punch” to his campaign and his abysmal finish has resulted in many prediction markets and analysts to decrease his chances of winning the nomination. Additionally, Sanders saw his place atop the polls in New Hampshire solidified, with Pete Buttigieg rising to second in the state after Iowa.
The following Tuesday in New Hampshire saw the new dynamics of the race solidify. Bernie Sanders emerged victorious in the state, with Pete Buttigieg in second, and a surprising third-place finish by Amy Klobuchar after a strong debate performance the previous week. Elizabeth Warren finished in a distant fourth after leading in the state late last year, and Joe Biden finished in fifth place with single digits. The Biden and Warren campaigns claimed that there was still a path forward for their campaigns even after lackluster finishes in the first two states, claiming a better organization in later states than most other candidates. However, the Warren campaign pulled all resources out of South Carolina, the fourth state to vote, and doubled down on Nevada, the third state, after the New Hampshire results signaling a possible all or nothing last stand for her campaign.
The results in New Hampshire also saw the end of many campaigns, the most notable being businessman Andrew Yang who had a strong online following, but failed to gain traction with the broader electorate. Other dropouts included Colorado senator Michael Bennet and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. This brings the current number of notable candidates down to eight, the smallest the field has been in months.
The coming states of Nevada and South Carolina, as well as the large number of states that vote on Super Tuesday, will bring a new test to the candidates. Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire who’s democratic primary electorates are more than 90% white, the upcoming states have a sizable minority population. This includes Nevada who’s large blend of African American, Latino, and Asian populations combined make up almost half of the electorate, and South Carolina with roughly 60% of its electorate being African American alone. Candidates will also have to deal with the entrance of billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg starting on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg is a potential dark horse candidate as he has already pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to campaign for the Democratic nomination, and has blanketed the airwaves and internet across the country. Although Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg currently have the momentum, this new electorate in the coming weeks will be a test for all the campaigns in seeing who can truly build a coalition of the diverse set of voters it will take for the democratic nominee to defeat Donald Trump in November.