Chris Bradshaw


While the Iowa caucuses were trailed as the first test of the Democratic Primary season, the winner first thing on Tuesday was the sitting President, Donald Trump. With little opposition in the GOP contest, the president was able to link the Iowa confusion to Democratic party incompetence in office. As results filtered through from Tuesday to Thursday the Democratic party winners emerged in former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. The big loser was former VP Joe Biden, but will Iowa matter in the longer term?


The final results showed Buttigieg (26.2%) with a narrow win over Sanders (26.1%), with Massachusetts senator, Elizabeth Warren in third (18%) and former VP Joe Biden a poor fourth (15.8%). Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar exceeded expectations on 12.3%. The remaining candidates who stood will continue to the New Hampshire primary next week, but with less than 1%, they are not long for this race.


The fiasco surrounding ‘reporting issues’ has led to commentators, candidates and party leaders questioning the validity of the results, the usefulness (or otherwise) of the caucus approach per se, and – heretically for some -  the position of white, middle class small Iowa as the ‘first in the nation’ state. Expect more on this after the dust has settled.


The triumph of Buttigieg and Sanders was blunted by their limited ability to claim that victory on Monday evening, instead all the candidates have decamped to the relative calm (one hopes) of the secret ballot, New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. The reality is that while Warren and Biden, can hide their disappointment behind questionable results, they face the fact that they are in a fight for the progressive and moderate votes respectively. With Klobuchar and Buttigieg in the centre, Biden must hope that he remains viable before voting moves to more diverse states where he should do better.


So, do these early contests matter?

Yes and no

In pure delegate terms, Iowa is insignificant. It matters because historically, it has given some candidates momentum (Obama) and therefore campaign funds and crucial media attention. Equally, a candidate who doesn’t come up to expectations – and matching expectations matters more than the actual results – can be derailed. Comeback Kid Bill Clinton in 1992 was the exception but Hillary didn’t learn from that for 2008 and 2016.


The story this week is therefore worrying for Democrats as it’s about the process, not the winners and losers. An open goal for Trump.


So, what do the early results and polls tell us after over a year of the invisible primary. Who are the winners? Who are clinging on to the last vestiges of hope? Who have fallen at the first hurdle?



Some commentators say Sanders’ showing - if he also does well in New Hampshire and South Carolina – makes him ‘unstoppable’. Even with his extensive local operation, I think it too early to call that, partly because the Democrats might not want to nominate someone so far to the left that they spend the fall in a futile march to the centre.


A second winner is Pete Buttigeig, he also needs to do well next time out and get to March as a viable centrist alternative to Biden.


The last two of the big four who have led the polls for most of the last 6 months are not quite clinging on but need a boost in New Hampshire. Biden and Warren might be lucky that the media attention was diverted from their showing, but the spotlight will be back. Biden, as long-time frontrunner, had to win Iowa or face criticism – it will be the same in each contest he doesn’t win.  Warren, as the second-choice progressive has to do better in New Hampshire, next door to her home state of Massachusetts, or risk losing more progressives to Sanders. In my book Biden – the establishment choice – is still a force, as Bloomberg might be if he does well on Super Tuesday – given his financial clout.


Amy Klobuchar will stay in the race, in the hope that moderates in future voting states decide Biden is too old and Buttigeig too inexperienced to carry the standard in November. The rest are DOA at the New Hampshire contest and we won’t see much more this year of Andrew Yang, Tulsi Gabbard, Michael Bennet, Tom Steyer or Deval Patrick.



Common sense dictates that Democrats pick the candidate most likely to beat Trump and that they do it quickly so the nominee and VP pick can direct their force on the GOP with a unified party behind them. History since 1968 suggests this is unlikely to happen so expect a long primary season and perhaps a less than unified convention in Milwaukee in July.


In Democratic primaries nothing is certain so here are three tentative predictions ahead of the New Hampshire primary – I’ll revise them as we go along!

  1. Someone will put her or his foot in it and a candidacy threatening media storm will follow
  2. There will be a surprise that no-one predicts
  3. The eventual nominee will be Joe Biden and the general election will be knife edge close.


Dr Chris Bradshaw is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of the West of Scotland and is a member of the Political Studies Association. Image credit: CC by The White House/Flickr.