Iowa chaos raises New Hampshire stakes and reshapes Democratic contest

The delay in results stood to diminish the significance of Iowa, elevate New Hampshire and test Joe Biden's durability as the 2020 national front-runner.
Image: Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren Holds Town Hall In Keene
Audience members wait for the start of a campaign event with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Keene, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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By Sahil Kapur

KEENE, N.H. — A lingering fog of uncertainty over the results of the year's first presidential nominating contest raised the stakes for the Democratic contenders as they descended on the Granite State ahead of the second.

As some declared victory in Iowa hours before the announcement of any vote counts, national Democratic front-runner Joe Biden's campaign preemptively questioned the integrity of the results — highlighting the risk the outcome in Iowa may pose to the former vice president's carefully cultivated "electability" advantage ahead of New Hampshire's Feb. 11 primary.

Pete Buttigieg and his campaign continued to claim victory Tuesday, long before any results were due for public release. "While the numbers are being verified, what can't be denied is we made history last night," the campaign said in a fundraising email to supporters. "And we're going on to New Hampshire with that victory in our hearts."

At a stop in Nashua, New Hampshire, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said the glitch in reporting the Iowa results was "frustrating" but that "everything we know was extremely good."

Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign released internal caucus results based on data from 60 percent of Iowa precincts, ahead of Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with Biden in a distant fourth place — but sounded less thrilled with the outcome than Buttigieg.

"This is not a good night for democracy," Sanders told reporters crowded around him in the aisle on board the plane bound for New Hampshire. "The people of Iowa, as I've said many times, take enormously seriously their responsibility in being the first in the nation to vote. So, I think the people of Iowa have done their duty and unfortunately, I think the Democratic Party here in Iowa has been negligent in not getting us timely results."

Meanwhile, Warren, D-Mass., told voters at a town hall in Keene, New Hampshire, on Tuesday morning that she was in "a tight three-way race at the top" with Sanders and Buttigieg.

The chaos seemed poised to deny the strongest Iowa finishers at least a share of potential momentum — and provide at least a temporary respite for underperformers.

"If Buttigieg did win, the muddle potentially denied him media coverage he needs to reach escape velocity in the states to come," Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said. "If Biden really came in fourth, the muddle saved him from a week of horrendous press coverage that could have hurt him in New Hampshire and beyond."

"Ultimately everyone lives to fight another day, and Sanders heads into his strongest state without consolidation around an alternative," he added.

The primary next Tuesday also has major implications for Sanders and Warren — both New Englanders with similar messages of economic populism and structural change — and could allow one of them to emerge as the clear option for progressive voters.

As the Iowa Democratic Party planned the afternoon release of results representing totals from roughly half the state's precincts, Biden campaign lawyer Dana Remus released a letter blasting "acute failures" in reporting results across the state, demanding "full explanations" of the quality control methods, as well as an opportunity to respond before results were posted.

With trust between the campaigns and the party running thin, news of a briefing call by the Iowa Democratic Party leaked out, with multiple reporters listening in live as a lawyer for Biden's campaign raised objections with the party's plan to release partial results.

Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders' campaign, urged calm on the call, suggesting that other campaigns worried about their "relative position" in the standings — what was widely viewed as a reference to Biden — risked "discrediting the party" with their vociferous objections.

The party released partial results Tuesday from 62 percent of Iowa precincts, which confirmed expectations: Buttigieg and Sanders were in a tight race for the lead, with Warren behind them and Biden in a distant fourth place. It was not clear when the final results would be posted.

The sense that Biden had had a poor showing was elevated by Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign manager Justin Buoen, who had claimed just after midnight Tuesday that she was "running even or ahead of Vice President Biden." She was running a few points behind him in the partial results.

NBC entrance polls found that 2 in 3 Iowa caucusgoers said they prefer a candidate they believe could beat Trump over someone who most closely aligns with them on issues.

If those numbers are confirmed by the full results, Biden's apparent failure to win large shares of those voters seemed to carry a warning sign for his campaign heading into New Hampshire. Defeat in both states threatened to puncture his image of dominance on the issue of electability that has stood at the center of his White House bid, and could threaten his strong support from black voters, who have made him the national front-runner since he launched in April.

Biden campaign manager Greg Schultz said the team was "thrilled with our performance" in Iowa and expects to "emerge with the delegates we need to continue on our path to make Joe Biden the Democratic nominee." Iowa awards just 1 percent of delegates for the nomination.

The 2020 race may be more of a marathon than a sprint — but the national front-runner can't afford to give his competitors too much of a head start. "Biden can't wait until South Carolina to win," progressive Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz said.

The fight for an edge in the electability primary remained fierce Tuesday.

Warren was asked at her town hall why she was a stronger candidate to face Trump than Sanders or Biden. "I know how to fight and I know how to win," she said, noting that she's the only contender who has defeated a GOP incumbent in the last 30 years and arguing she can best unite the party and avoid "a repeat of 2016."

As the race rolled into New Hampshire in a state of suspended animation, Democrats there shook their heads at Iowa's mess.

"What a cluster that was. It's crazy. It's just ridiculous," said Judy Gannon, 70, of Dublin, New Hampshire, who came to see Warren in Keene. "I do think it's probably going to be the death knell for the Iowa caucus. It was kind of on its last breath anyway."

Warren's opener — "So, we're back from Iowa! Wow!" — elicited groans from the crowd.

Deval Patrick, a late 2020 entrant who has struggled to gain traction, compared his Democratic rivals tangling over the Iowa results to President Donald Trump.

"One candidate is calling the results into question because he apparently didn't do well. Another is declaring victory without any votes being confirmed. The way to beat Donald Trump isn't to act like Donald Trump," he said in a statement Tuesday. "Our party and our country deserve better."

The confusion seemed to leave a stain on the race itself, giving Trump an opening to pile on with insults about Democratic competence as the hashtag "#IowaCaucusDisaster" trended on Twitter through the morning.

The only clear upshot of the Iowa haze seemed to be an even more exalted spot for New Hampshire.

"Given that we do not know the results of the Iowa caucuses and may not know the delegate allocation for a while longer, a strong performance in New Hampshire becomes that much more important for all candidates," Adrienne Elrod, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, said.

Alex Seitz-Wald, Ali Vitali, Priscilla Thompson and Mike Memoli contributed.