DES MOINES – Democratic officials in Iowa on Tuesday provided a measure of clarity to the muddled outcome of its statewide caucuses, releasing a delayed first wave of partial results that showed Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Bernie Sanders with a preliminary lead and former Vice President Joe Biden falling well behind the other top-tier candidates.
The release of the partial data, which accounted for 62% of caucus precincts, came after a night and day of suspense, confusion and silence from the Iowa Democratic Party after major problems with its new results reporting system. Even as the party began preparing to release the partial results on Tuesday afternoon, it drew sharp criticism from several campaigns that wanted a complete result, either to have a definitive outcome or frame their Iowa performance in the best possible light.
While the results of Monday night's caucuses could change with more data, the highly competitive race between Buttigieg, a moderate, and Sanders, a liberal, reflected the divisions among Democrats about the ideological direction of the party, and sets up a critical test for both wings of the party in the New Hampshire primary, on Feb. 11, where Sanders leads in the polls.
The partial Iowa results also showed Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in third place, with Biden trailing her by several points and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota behind him.
Yet there was little evidence in the data released Tuesday that any candidate was on the way to the kind of dominant victory that would have a good chance of transforming the Democratic race. No one appeared on track to receive more than about a quarter of the vote, and five held support in the double digits — a further indication that the Iowa caucuses were unlikely to play a decisive role in deciding the Democratic nominee.
Several other candidates, including Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer, registered about 1% support or less.
In Iowa, the candidates' support is measured chiefly in the number of state-level delegates that each amasses, which in turn determines how many delegates they can collect for the Democratic nominating convention next summer. The state party is in the process of releasing popular vote totals as well, though their significance can be diluted in the arcane, multi-round caucus process.
In a sign of how uncertain the final outcome remained, Sanders held a lead over Buttigieg in the popular vote but trailed him narrowly in the state delegate count, with three-fifths of the totals reported.
It was not immediately clear whether the initial tranche of caucus returns were reflective of the overall dynamics in the state, nor did the state party indicate when the complete results would be available. Several campaigns, including Biden's, expressed frustration to state officials earlier Tuesday with the idea of publicizing a partial data set, amid widespread confusion about the breakdown in reporting the results.
But under pressure to salvage the caucuses from a humiliating logistical debacle, Iowa Democratic leaders decided to go ahead with releasing numbers from a majority of precincts without waiting for the counting process to be completed.
The halting and hectic process in Iowa was an unsightly spectacle for the Democratic Party at the start of its presidential nominating process, offering President Donald Trump an easy target for gloating and ridicule and raising serious questions about whether Iowa would be allowed to retain its first-in-the-nation status in future elections.
Troy Price, the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, appeared downcast on Tuesday as he described the process as "unacceptable" in remarks to reporters. "As chair of the party, I apologize deeply for this," he said.
Price repeatedly stressed that the data was accurate and said the security of the returns was his "paramount concern."
The returns posted on Tuesday largely mirrored the scenario that the leading presidential campaigns detected during the caucuses, gathering precinct-level information on their own and in some cases releasing it to the media to make up for the void of hard results.
Should the rest of the Iowa results mostly mirror the data published on Tuesday, it could represent a significant embarrassment for Biden, who entered the race as a front-runner last spring but has struggled mightily in recent months to compete with fresher-faced and more liberal rivals in both Iowa and New Hampshire. For a period in January, his campaign had grown hopeful that he had a chance of winning Iowa and establishing early dominance, but by caucus night that seemed a remote prospect.
Biden is aiming to retake control of the race later in February, when the competition moves to Nevada and South Carolina, two far more diverse states long seen as friendly to his candidacy. But first he may have to explain his Iowa slump to the political donors whose support he needs to compete in the larger primary states that vote at the beginning of March.
Yet if Biden's dismal standing appeared clear enough, the actual identity of the Iowa winner remained a question mark.
Both Sanders, I-Vt., and Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., have attempted to claim an overall victory in the state, based on their internal campaign data, and they were too closely matched in the initial returns to declare a single winner.
The result also underscored the divisions on the moderate side of the Democratic Party, with three candidates closer to the political center — Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar — collecting a majority of delegate votes so far, but a candidate of the left, Sanders, still in a position to prevail because of the strength of his progressive base.
The chaos surrounding the caucus process may limit the effect of the Iowa outcome: It is already apparent that, in a departure from past presidential campaigns, no candidate intends to drop out as a result of a disappointing finish in Iowa. Several candidates, including Biden and Warren, emphasized on the night of the caucuses that the nomination would be decided over a long process.
By late afternoon Tuesday, every major candidate — and a number of lower-profile competitors — had already moved on to New Hampshire, the next state in line, which holds a primary on Feb. 11.