WASHINGTON — The political outlook hasn't been this bleak for Democrats since the wee hours of Nov. 9, 2016, when Hillary Clinton called Donald Trump to concede that he had won the presidency in an upset that shocked the world.
Since then, Democrats have been focused on marshaling a backlash against Trump's autocratic tendencies, his rhetorical and policy assaults on segments of the population with little power, and his erratic international agenda. From the energy of the 2017 women's marches to Democrats' recapturing the House in the 2018 midterms and Trump's impeachment, there were reasons for the president's opponents to believe they were building toward his defeat in November.
Instead, a technical meltdown in the first Democratic presidential nominating contest, a rebound in Trump's approval ratings and his relatively seamless glide to Senate acquittal have jolted many Democratic elites into a new sense of foreboding about the state of their party and its chances of winning the presidency.
The Iowa caucuses in particular quickly become a metaphor for those who believe the party is not only lost and leaderless, but relying on questionable tools to find its way out of the political wilderness.
"It was a brutal night for the party," Robert Wolf, a top fundraiser for the Obama presidential campaigns, said of a set of Monday glitches that rendered the Iowa caucuses useless in picking a winner, winnowing the field and providing real bursts of momentum to candidates ticketed to keep campaigning. "None of those happened."
To the extent that the Iowa caucuses were clarifying, they simply demonstrated that Democratic voters remain completely splintered more than a year after the campaign got underway. Even without the delayed reporting, which gave a measure of cover to candidates who finished outside the top tier — most notably former Vice President Joe Biden, who is on the hot seat as an underperforming establishment favorite — the relative parity suggests that the likelihood of a long slog to a brokered convention is growing, not shrinking.
Biden's candidacy kept other prominent Democrats including former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown from running. Now, in a race that features several candidates in position to win delegates, Biden's lackluster but passable performance in Iowa shows why there's little incentive for any of the candidates to drop out.
"I am not going to sugarcoat it — we took a gut punch in Iowa, the whole process took a gut punch," Biden said Wednesday of the Iowa results, which were expected to conclude with him off the proverbial medal stand. "But look, this isn't the first time in my life I've been knocked down. ... I'm not going anywhere."
The Iowa-loser-turned-New-Hampshire-underdog tack is a campaign classic that has worked before for then-Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., among others. Clinton's husband, Bill Clinton, even managed to spin finishing second in New Hampshire after barely registering in Iowa into the self-affixed "comeback kid" label that helped launch him to the nomination and the presidency.
Party insiders are fearful enough about the prospects of Sanders gaining steam that they have been discussing ways to stop him if Biden falters. On Sunday, former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of Biden's top surrogates, was overheard discussing that topic in the Des Moines, Iowa, hotel where Biden and his team stayed last week. He characterized Sanders' appeal to younger voters in particular, and the issues they care about, as "real."
Though voter preference surveys show that crossover exists between candidates on the progressive and centrist sides of the party, Wolf broke down the major primary candidates into sets in which the centrists represent 55 percent to 60 percent of the party and the two progressives — Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — account for 40 percent to 45 percent.
"Our party's still relatively fractured, with two lanes," he said. "It doesn't look like anyone's coalescing around any one candidate, and that makes it difficult if you don't want to have a brokered convention."
The technological difficulties Iowa Democrats experienced Monday night — owing to the malfunctioning of an app and the overloading of a telephone hotline, according to sources who spoke to NBC — made for back-to-back presidential election contests, separated by more than three years, on which unrelated "black box"-type mechanisms didn't perform the way they were expected to, and the party was dealt unwelcome surprises.
Going into the 2016 presidential election, the data analytics surveys and models prepared by Hillary Clinton's campaign — which were understood by a relatively small set of people on her team — suggested she was in a strong position to win the states necessary to rack up an Electoral College victory. She was as blindsided by Trump's victory as the rest of the Democratic Party was.
"It's very reminiscent of something else that was broken internally and became known externally in 2016, which was the analytics operation," said Adam Parkhomenko, a former Clinton aide.
"They're not understood at all," he said of the analytics on the first campaign and the workings of the app the Iowa Democratic Party used Monday night. "I would guess that the people that truly understood what was going on ... you could count on both hands."
In a system dominated by the two parties, the fortunes of the president and his opposition are close to zero sum, and Trump is experiencing the high point of his term politically so far. His approval rating has risen to 49 percent in the Gallup poll, and the Senate was poised to acquit him Wednesday.
"He's functionally a monarch," presidential biographer Jon Meacham said of Trump on MSNBC this week. "He's functionally the most politically powerful president in American history."
At the end of Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday night, Speaker Nancy Pelosi tore her copy of his speech in half. The Iowa caucus debacle — and what it symbolizes for the state of their party — may be a sign for Democrats that beating Trump might require ripping up their own playbook, too.