Phillipian Commentary: On the Ground for the Iowa Caucus

As the official kickoff of any presidential election year, the Iowa caucuses are won by cashing in on momentum and scrambling to gain more. The caucuses mark the first major contest of the presidential primaries, and there candidates have the opportunity to break out, stay steady, or, in the worst of cases, completely collapse. I had the privilege of attending the Iowa caucuses with the civics group KidUnity from February 1 to 4 and witnessed firsthand the emotional highs and lows of the candidates up close and personal on the eve of the controversial outcome.

Based on my own impressions coupled with the caucus results, I believe that former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg managed to maximize the momentum-creating potential that Iowa has to offer, and that it will benefit him moving forward. On the opposite side of the spectrum, it has become clear that former Vice President Joe Biden was unable to do so, and his campaign has consequently suffered greatly.

Candidates who can turn their campaigns into full-fledged movements emerge from Iowa charging full-steam ahead toward the Democratic National Committee’s nomination for the general election in November. Four years ago, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders galvanized his supporters to “feel the Bern” and sparked dissent among candidates running against Democratic favorite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That discord and a powerful anti-establishment message brought Sanders within just a few coin tosses of taking Iowa.

The results of that divided contest were echoed in the results from the 2020 caucuses. Sanders once again managed to foster a passionate and purposeful base of supporters, as well as Buttigieg. Voters who strongly believe in their candidates are far more willing to turn out to vote. The final results from all precincts, reported by the Iowa Democratic Party three days late due to a coding issue, showed that Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa, while Buttigieg, a few thousand votes behind, was awarded the most state delegates due to the way the caucuses are organized.

A democratic socialist, Sanders promotes bold progressive policies that contrast the more moderate views of the Democratic establishment. Buttigieg, though more moderate than Sanders, is also an outsider as the youngest candidate in the field at only 38, as well as the first openly gay candidate to run a major campaign for president. He is also a newcomer to the national political scene. To many Democrats, the two candidates are breaths of fresh air in relation to more centrist establishment figures like Biden, who significantly underperformed expectations in Iowa and is currently polling at an average of 14 percent in New Hampshire, according to the New York Times. It is hard to inspire voters, particularly young voters—a demographic with whom Biden struggles—when a candidate is representing the same establishment that so many Americans believe has failed them.

The momentum out of Iowa already has made significant impacts to the candidates’ chances of winning the nomination. Buttigieg’s result proved to Democrats that he is the real deal. Buttigieg, who is polling in single digits nationally, needed a strong finish to prove himself to voters and encourage campaign donations. I was able to attend Buttigieg’s post-caucus party in Des Moines on February 3. The packed crowd at Drake University buzzed and anxiously peeked their heads up, eagerly waiting for Buttigieg to take the stage. Once he arrived, Buttigieg confidently walked up to the stage to a standing ovation and delivered a speech with such composure and conviction that several members of KidUnity said that he “sounded just like Obama.”

The defining part of the night, was when just moments after he began to speak, Buttigieg essentially declared victory to a roar of approval, voicing that, “By all indications, we are moving onto New Hampshire victorious.” In my opinion, the inclusion of the borderline victory declaration in his speech was a tactical choice, as even without the results in yet, Buttigieg made himself seem like a winner in the public’s eyes. That singular statement dominated social media and much of the following days’ news cycle, valuable publicity for the up-and-coming candidate.

Sanders’s placement also showed that he is in real contention to win the nomination. But while Sanders is by no means a “loser” after the caucuses results, he may not have done as well as he or his campaign wanted. When the directors of the KidUnity program approached a Sanders campaign staffer later, asking if it was possible for Sanders to come out and meet the kids, they responded that he was not in the mood. The reason for frustration, as explained by the staffers as well as in a face-to-face conversation with Sanders’s son with the directors of the KidUnity, was that he was not able to declare a clear victory. This was understandable, as not only were the results not even being reported at that point, making it nearly impossible to make many conclusions about the race, but also another candidate, Buttigieg, did basically declare victory the night before.

Biden, though still hanging in as the top choice for Americans in many surveys, saw his numbers, both in polls and campaign contributions, fall after the results of Iowa. The former favorite for the nomination placed an underwhelming fourth place, a harsh blow for the former vice president who was once the clear-cut favorite. Biden is also trailing in fourth-place in campaign donations, 35 million dollars behind first-place Sanders.

Biden’s poor result, though shocking, was not completely unexpected. There were signs that a campaign meltdown was coming in the days before. KidUnity had a chance to sit down with the chief of staff for the Biden campaign Steve Ricchetti and Biden’s national press secretary TJ Ducklo at the Renaissance Hotel the day before the caucuses. I would describe the mood in that room as demoralized, and the whole meeting left me with the impression that the campaign was starting to show signs of fragmenting.

Later that night, Biden could not manage to fill a high school gym where he held his rally. Even Andrew Yang, a candidate who managed to rake in only one percent of votes in Iowa, was able to pull in a crowd of 800 in a Marriott ballroom a few nights before, with around 200 people forced to wait outside the room due to the fire code. Without a high placement in New Hampshire, it is hard to see Biden securing the nomination. Only one candidate in the last 44 years has won the presidency after losing both Iowa and New Hampshire: Bill Clinton.

In summary, while the results of the caucuses did not completely eliminate any of the major candidates’ paths to the Democratic nomination, some campaigns now have reasons to worry while some others can see a clearer path ahead. Taking a look at the big-name contenders, Buttigieg emerged as a big winner, while Sanders’s results were confirmation that he can represent the Democrats in the 2020 general election. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s results did not move the needle in either direction. The big story of the caucuses, though, was Biden’s collapse, as his campaign very much needs a strong finish in New Hampshire to make it to Nevada a few weeks later and then South Carolina, where he has a strong base of support.