Pete Buttigieg, the previously little-known former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, held a narrow lead in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday night, according to a partial release of a majority of the results by the state Democratic party a day after an embarrassing organizational breakdown that marred the biggest night of the election year so far.
With 62% of the precincts reporting from all of Iowa’s 99 counties, Buttigieg held 26.9% of the state’s delegate count, trailed closely by the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders with 25.1%, the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren with 18.3% and the former vice-president Joe Biden falling well behind with 15.6%. Sanders, meanwhile, had so far earned the largest share of total votes cast.
However, clouded by doubts and uncertainty, the result could change as additional precincts report.
“We know this data is accurate and we also have a paper trail,” Troy Price, chair of the Iowa Democratic party, said at a press conference in Des Moines. “We have been working day and night to make sure these results are accurate.”
He declined to answer questions about when the state party would release the remainder of the results.
The early tally reflects Buttigieg’s remarkable rise from little-known mayor of a midsize midwestern city to a top-tier presidential candidate. Immediately after the initial numbers were released, the 38-year-old gay candidate declared it an “astonishing victory” for a campaign that has already defied long odds.
“A campaign that started a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition, no money – just a big idea – a campaign that some said should have no business even making this attempt, has taken its place at the front of this race to replace the president with a better vision,” Buttigieg said at a campaign event in Laconia, New Hampshire.
In a rare display of emotion, Buttigieg said the result “validates for a kid, somewhere in a community, wondering if he belongs, where she belongs, or they belong in their own family, that if you believe in yourself and your country, there’s a lot backing up that belief”.
The Sanders campaign was quick to point to the raw vote count as evidence of the senator’s ability to excite Democratic voters.
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser for Sanders’ campaign, said in a statement: “So far it’s clear that in the first and second round more people voted for Bernie than any other candidate in the field.”
It was a blow for Biden, however, who has led the field in national polling since he entered the race and campaigned on his perceived electability. Biden’s campaign objected to the party’s decision to release the partial results.
By all accounts, Iowa Democrats were determined to support a candidate who they believe could defeat Donald Trump in the election in November. The caucuses offered a first glimpse of who voters believe is best suited to do that.
In Iowa on Monday night, a mobile app meant to help steer organizers through the complicated caucus process and help them report results turned out to be defective.
As the hours dragged on without an announced result, leading contenders in the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates claimed success while minor candidates saw no reason to drop out.
“The reporting of the results and circumstances surrounding the 2020 Iowa Democratic party caucuses were unacceptable,” said Price. “As the chair of the party, I apologize deeply for this.”
But Price insisted the data was “accurate” and “secure” and vowed a “thorough, transparent and independent examination” would follow.
Part of the issue on Monday night was a decision by the state party to release four sets of data from the caucuses in response to complaints over transparency by the Sanders campaign in 2016, when Hillary Clinton defeated him in the state delegate count by a quarter of a percentage point.
Meanwhile, Democratic officials in Nevada sought to mitigate concerns ahead of the states caucuses on 22 February, announcing that the party would not use the same app or vendor.
Iowa awards only 41 delegates, who eventually nominate the Democratic presidential candidate at the party’s national convention in July, which represents around just 1% of the national total. Success in Iowa instead is largely built on expectations: candidates who fall short of projections often exit the race while those who defy the odds are rewarded with a burst of momentum that can raise their national profile and boost their fundraising as they move into New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and beyond.
But the confusion and chaos engulfing the process may yet overshadow the results as attention turns to New Hampshire, which holds the next nominating contest on 11 February.
On Monday night after Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg and Biden sought to turn the confusion to their advantage, delivering bold speeches that touted their strong performances in Iowa without a clear sense of who was in pole position.
The president wasted little time in crowing over his opponents’ predicament, tweeting on Tuesday morning: “The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster. Nothing works, just like they ran the Country … the only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump’.”
Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, did not compete in Iowa but on Tuesday announced that he would double the fortune he’s already spending on national television advertising and expand his sprawling staff.
Bypassing the early-voting states, Bloomberg is pursuing a highly unconventional approach to the party’s nomination that involves massive ad spending and a focus on the delegate-rich states that hold contests in March.
The New Hampshire primary takes place next Tuesday 11 February.
“Iowa is supposed to be the place lots of candidates go to die,” the Democratic strategist Jim Messina, campaign manager for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, told the Guardian.
“Now, it seems like almost everyone is getting a ticket to ride to New Hampshire,” he continued. “Folks like [Andrew] Yang, [Tom] Steyer and maybe [Amy] Klobuchar all should have and would have had to get out today. Now they all can soldier on.”