After months of campaigning, the first real test has come for the 2020 Democratic candidates: the Iowa caucuses. While Iowa only awards 41 pledged delegates out of the  3,979 that will ultimately determine the Democratic presidential nominee, its position as the first primary event in the nation makes it a consequential night. The last Democratic candidate to lose the Iowa caucuses and still go on to win the nomination was Bill Clinton, who lost to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin in 1992. In 2016, Hillary Clinton narrowly won against Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses.

As of the Iowa caucuses, eleven candidates remained in the  running for the nomination: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Vice-President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, businessman Tom Steyer, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and entrepreneur Andrew Yang. However, given his late entry in the race, Bloomberg decided to skip the Iowa caucuses and focus on Super Tuesday in early March.

Polls leading up to the caucuses showed a four-way race between Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren, with Klobuchar also often obtaining double digits polling numbers. However, because caucuses involve multiple rounds of decision-making , it is not enough to simply earn the most votes. Supporters of candidates who did not reach the 15 per cent viability threshold once the caucuses were underway were able to support a candidate that did meet the threshold. Therefore, it was important for the four frontrunners to also be a popular second choice.

After an unprecedented, chaotic night where no official results were released due to “quality control checks,” Buttigieg declared victory based on internal campaign results. Since Tuesday, official caucus results have slowly been released by the Iowa Democratic Party. After 97 per cent of results were released, Sanders also declared victory on Thursday, specifying that he had won the popular vote. 

Both Buttigieg and Sanders can claim victory, since they tied in the  number of pledged delegates from the state. Sanders won the popular vote by a margin of around 6,000 votes. However, following a vote realignment and a translation of the vote into state delegate equivalents (SDEs), Buttigieg slightly edges out Sanders, 26.2 per cent to 26.1 per cent. These SDEs, not the popular vote, are used to determine pledged delegates, which explains why the gap in popular vote does not change the pledged delegate count in Sanders’ favour. 

The Associated Press was unable to declare a winner after the final results were released on Thursday, due to a “tight margin between former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders and the irregularities in this year’s caucus process.” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez also announced that he would be asking the Iowa Democratic Party to do a recanvass of the results.

Apart from Buttigieg and Sanders, three other candidates will also receive pledged delegates: Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Amy Klobuchar. However, this proved a disappointing night for Biden, long seen as the front-runner of the race, given that he only finished in fourth place. Since Monday night, Biden has dropped in polls for New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary (which differs in format from a caucus) happening next week, and national polls. Meanwhile, Buttigieg has been rising in New Hampshire polls, currently polling second only to Sanders, who won the state in a landslide in 2016. 

Iowa is far from representative of the United States electorate, and the number of pledged delegates won by candidates is only a fraction of what is needed to win the Democratic nomination. However, post-Iowa polling shows that the caucuses have given momentum to the two candidates who performed best in Iowa: Buttigieg and Sanders. Buttigieg also announced that he raised $2.7 million in the days following the caucuses.

The split victory between Sanders and Buttigieg, a progressive and a moderate, is representative of the greater division within Democratic ranks. Sanders and Warren, the two most progressive candidates of the race, won around 43 per cent of the vote on Monday night, while more moderate candidates got the rest. Therefore, there is a clear divide in the Democratic electorate over the desired ideology of the nominee. Furthermore, since more than one candidate currently represents each ideological stream, the vote is divided and could lead to a brokered convention, which would happen if no candidate reaches a majority of pledged delegates. As of now, the chances of such an event happening are 1 in 4. 

Given all the irregularities with the results, it might take weeks to get an official winner. By then, candidates will have moved on to other states. 

Edited by Catharina O’Donnell.

This article is part of a series on the 2020 United States elections. To see more analysis and opinion on the American presidential and congressional elections, click here. 

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Lauren Hill.