MILFORD, New Hampshire—A chaotic Iowa caucus descended into further uncertainty on Tuesday when officials released partial results showing that Mayor Pete Buttigieg enjoyed a small lead among delegates in the Hawkeye State while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had a lead among actual voters.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the numbers announced represented 75 percent of the precincts from all of the state’s 99 counties and the decision to release them sparked backlash among several campaigns, who argued that the state was further botching an election that was already marred by bureaucratic and technological ineptitude; never mind that each had used the intervening time to put their own spin on the still-secret data. State officials had earlier announced partial results with only 62 and 71 percent of precincts reporting.
Speaking to reporters, Troy Price, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he was confident in the accuracy of the data but he did not put a date for when he expected the final results to be released.
“We'll take the time we need,” he said.
According to the figures released Wednesday afternoon, Buttigieg enjoyed 26.9 percent of the state delegates—the metric by which the nomination will be decided—Sanders had 25.2 percent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) had 18.2 percent, and former Vice President Joe Biden had 15.6 percent.
By the time the partial numbers were made public, all the campaigns had left the state, decamping to New Hampshire, where voters will cast their own ballots next Tuesday. But even hundreds of miles away, the candidates couldn’t escape the shadow of the Iowa debacle, which had thrown the Democratic primary into a state of confusion right as it had started.
Speaking in Laconia on Tuesday evening, Buttigieg offered an emotional response to the partial results showing him with a narrow lead.
“It validates for a kid somewhere in a community wondering if he belongs or she belongs or they belong in their own family, that if you believe in yourself and your country, there is a lot backing up the belief,” he said.
Buttigieg, who on Monday had claimed victory before results were released, immediately lined up five town halls across the Granite State, hoping to pivot to the next contest where he’s banked much of his candidacy. Earlier Tuesday, at the Rex Theatre in Manchester, he avoided discussing the Iowa catastrophe altogether. But longtime Rep. Annie Kuster, one of his highest profile endorsers, seemed to make light of it. “I’m sure when the results are all in, we are going to have a fantastic result!” she said. That thought was later bolstered by the Indiana Democrat’s own campaign, which sent an email on Tuesday afternoon, stating, “While the numbers are being verified, what can’t be denied is we made history last night.”
The decision to proclaim himself victorious had rankled competing campaigns when Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor, first made it on Monday night. But for his supporters, it was a shot in the arm. Stacy Snell, a Derry resident and registered Independent who is backing Buttigieg, said she was “incredibly encouraged” by the results she saw from his campaign in the caucuses.
“I think it depends on how you term victory,” she said when asked about the candidate talking up a win before any results were announced formally. “I don’t think anyone claimed that they won the entire thing. The idea of performing well and getting your message out and getting people to show up is a victory.”
But Buttigieg’s team wasn’t the only one shouting vindication from Iowa. Sanders’ team put out their own abridged delegate math on Tuesday showing the Vermonter with a lead among caucus voters. But their tally only included 60 percent of precincts and didn’t list the final delegate count, which is the actual metric by which the nominee will be chosen.
On Tuesday, as Sanders was prepping to make his case to voters ahead of President Donald Trump’s State of The Union address, he started off in Milford, the manufacturing center of the Souhegan Valley with a population of 15,000. The once thriving manufacturing town is, in many ways, a snapshot of the new political dynamics that the Democratic field now faces: with voters who had defected to Trump but also signs that the party could make inroads. A scattering of “closed” signs and vacant buildings dot the roads and the Red Arrow Diner, which was open for a decade, abruptly shut down last month, shocking members of the community and leaving many employees without work just ahead of the holidays.
It’s here that Sanders seems keen on making inroads and scoring the definitive win that eluded him and others on Monday. Sanders’ team has built an oversized army in New Hampshire with more than 150 staff spread across 17 offices. His campaign points out that he’s held one of New Hampshire’s largest 2020 rallies to date.
“Bernie has laid out a vision for a better future that speaks to the anxieties and struggles of working families who are more concerned about making ends meet than they are about party ideology,” Sanders’ New Hampshire State Director Shannon Jackson told The Daily Beast, adding that his “consistent and authentic message has always been a clarion call for bringing new and non-traditional voters into our movement.”
But not everyone has bought into the Bernie buzz wholesale. Hannah Brown, a 29-year-old bartender at the Pasta Loft, another popular eatery in town, said she likes a lot of what Sanders said. Still, she was “a little bit scared that if Bernie were to do well that we might have a lot more angry Americans.”
And then there is Warren. The Massachusetts Democrat left Iowa on Monday night claiming that her campaign had made a stronger-than expected showing. And her campaign spent much of Tuesday saying their internal numbers had her close to the Iowa leaders.
Though she, like Sanders, is a neighbor of the state, New Hampshire could prove more difficult than Iowa. Currently, Warren is polling an average of nearly 12 points behind Sanders. But her campaign’s state operation, which started under-the-radar in 2018 well before her official national launch, remains amply staffed and she’s traveled here often, racking up several top endorsements along the way—including from Kathy Sullivan, one of the most influential Democrats in the state and the former party chair.
“Forget about what’s happened before and look forward to the next round,” Sullivan said, downplaying the potential impact Iowa would have on the Granite State voters’ preferences. “A lot can happen between Iowa and New Hampshire. We’re going to have a clean slate right now.”
While Warren’s fate in New Hampshire seemed uncertain, Biden’s seemed downright bleak. If not for the bureaucratic mishaps counting the vote, the main story out of Iowa would likely have been his poor showing there. And there is little to indicate that his team views the first-in-the-nation primary as a state to have a bounceback. The campaign is not advertising on air and top officials reportedly told donors that they have their eyes on Nevada and South Carolina, which they expect to win.
For their part, Biden’s vast network of party loyalists and top campaign allies did their best to express confidence on Tuesday.
“The Biden campaign feels very good about last night,” an influential Biden surrogate here in New Hampshire said. “Everyone expected the Iowa caucuses were going to be very competitive among numerous candidates and it appears that is the case, although everyone is still awaiting the final results.”
But in a speech in Nashua for an event with Girls Inc, in which Biden received loud cheers of applause for repeatedly denouncing Trump’s division just hours before he addressed the nation, the former VP seemed to momentarily temper down expectations on his own.
“Look folks, we had a good night last night in Iowa,” he said.
“Be careful what you say because it’s not done yet. I said last night, let’s give it time.”