When the unfinished count eventually materialized Tuesday evening, it recorded a pileup at the top of the leader board between former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and five candidates attracting double-digit support for the first time ever in the caucuses.
Even if the final numbers, or the order of finish among the candidates, shift somewhat when the last votes are released, one large point is already apparent: The candidates’ convergence captures the reality of a Democratic Party balkanized by race, education, age and ideology — and made clear that the leading candidates have not yet built coalitions big enough to transcend those divides or to pull away from their rivals. The Iowa Democratic Party’s disastrously long delay in reporting results compounded the sense of confusion and haziness surrounding the outcome.
“Everyone has waited for the breakout star and none have emerged yet,” says Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at the centrist Democratic group Third Way. “I don’t think it’s any great admission to make that we don’t have a breakout star in this field. We just don’t and it’s evident.”
Most inconclusive results in decades
When the first partial results were finally released, they pointed toward the most inconclusive Iowa outcome since at least 1976, when an uncommitted slate finished first, ahead of eventual nominee Jimmy Carter. If sustained through the final results, the roughly 27% of the state delegates that Buttigieg captured to lead the field would represent the lowest total for the top finisher since the Democratic caucuses began in 1972. In no previous caucus had voters divided to the point that five candidates reached double-digit support, as Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, Biden and Klobuchar all did.
The candidates likewise separated along other key fault lines in the party: Buttigieg finished first among the roughly half of caucus attendees with college degrees, with Warren next (though only slightly ahead of the other three); but Sanders and Biden topped the results among the other half, without advanced education. Sanders led with men; Buttigieg with women.
In all, Buttigieg clearly displayed the most balanced support of the major contenders in Iowa, according to the entrance poll. But he managed that in a virtually all-white electorate: Both national and state polls still show him attracting minimal backing from African American voters and Latinos, who together will likely cast more than a third of all votes in the Democratic primaries this year.
While Biden’s camp must be nervous about his showing, if the results hold, it can take some solace in the fact that he stayed relatively close to the others in a state where his best constituency — African Americans — represented less than 5% of the electorate, according to the entrance polls.
Candidates’ support fragmented
In all these ways, the results reinforced one of the dominant impressions from the last week of Iowa campaigning. Following the contenders across the state over the past few days, it was clear that each of the top-tier candidates is operating in a distinct niche, with less overlap among them than usual.
Almost unanimously, the Biden voters I spoke with see Sanders as too extreme and question his loyalty to the party. Warren provokes the same ideological concerns, only to a slightly lesser extent. And while many say they have been impressed with Buttigieg’s intelligence and fluency, it’s common for them to say his time has not yet come — even if his energy fans the doubts that even some Biden supporters hold about whether his time has passed.
“I wish Mayor Pete was 10 years older,” Larry Jenkins, a retired salesman from Boone, told me before one Biden event, “or that Joe was 10 years younger.”
In turn, almost all the Buttigieg and Warren supporters I spoke with said they considered Biden too old and conventional.
“I like Biden personally, but I just think maybe his time has come and gone,” Donisue Rupp, an investment adviser, told me at a Warren rally in Des Moines.
Dave Graves, her colleague at an investment firm, was equally dismissive of Biden. “Every time I see him at those debates it seems like he is stumbling,” he told me. “Everyone thinks he’s a safe bet [against Trump] but I’m not sure he’s that safe a bet.”
Hele Spivack, an artist from Des Moines, had no trouble ticking off her reasons for supporting Buttigieg at a crowded rally for him late last week in Ankeny, a growing nearby suburb. “Why not?” she said. “He’s young, he’s energetic, he’s the smartest one running. What else do we need to know? I think he’s really a representation of what America needs to be.”
It’s probably not a surprise that most of the Buttigieg supporters I spoke with considered Sanders too extreme, but so did many of those at the events for Warren, who is much closer ideologically to the Vermont independent.
Lydon, for instance, says she’s very uneasy about a possible Sanders nomination. “I would have a real hard time with that,” she said. “I’m not a socialist.”
Like Biden voters, Warren supporters admire Buttigieg, but would prefer a little more seasoning. “I don’t know how you go from being mayor to being president,” Paul Ebel, a Warren supporter in Iowa City, told me.
How Sanders’ supporters stand out
A few nights earlier a Sanders audience in Des Moines enthusiastically joined Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, in a chorus of boos for 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. It seems guaranteed that the breakdown of the caucus process will only deepen the hostility and suspicion of Sanders’ supporters toward the institutional Democratic Party.
One distinctive element at Sanders’ rallies is the presence of a group of voters who are rare to see at events for any other Democratic candidate not only this year, but also in any recent campaign: young, white, non-college-educated men.
Tyler Dyson, who works at a pest control company; Cordell Gandy, a heating unit installer; and Shane, a grain inspector who did not wish to give his last name, all attended Sanders’ rally Saturday night. All three had voted for him in the 2016 caucus and then voted for libertarian Gary Johnson in the general election because they did not like Clinton. Their passion for Sanders is undimmed four years later.
“He’s for the average person, struggling every f—ing day,” Gandy said. “The dude doesn’t waver. He believes in what he stands for and he sticks to it.”
All three said that this time they would vote for any Democrat over Trump, but they were as uninspired by Biden as they were by Clinton. “Clinton then is what Biden is now — they feel like they are entitled to everyone’s vote,” Dyson told me.
In Iowa, the entrance poll found Sanders running away from his rivals among younger voters; Buttigieg, followed by Warren and Klobuchar, performing the best among those with college degrees; and Sanders strongest among independents, followed by Buttigieg.
One common thread is that none of those groups were very good for Biden, and now he must face a state with more of each of them. New Hampshire in recent years has often reversed the results of Iowa, but if it throws a lifeline to the struggling former vice president, that might represent the Granite State’s most surprising Iowa reversal yet.