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With all the votes counted, Pete Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses — but Bernie Sanders is challenging

The Iowa Democratic Party is done delivering results, but Bernie Sanders won the popular vote and is calling for a recanvass.

Pete Buttigieg addresses supporters during his caucus night watch party in Des Moines, Iowa, on February 3, 2020.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Pete Buttigieg appears to be, at the final count, the winner of the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

But the story isn’t quite over yet. Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign has said it will ask the Iowa Democratic Party to recanvass some of the vote.

Regardless, after a glitch-filled and laborious counting of votes, a narrow victory in earned delegates is a vital validation for the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s presidential campaign, which was initially treated as more of a curiosity than a serious bid for the White House a year ago. It has certainly shaken up the race, giving Buttigieg an opening to make a serious run for the nomination — and he has been surging in the polls in New Hampshire ahead of that state’s primary on Tuesday.

The question is where the race goes from here. Because these are the results Democrats have, and now the primary contest will move on.

As the New York Times reported last week, the results in Iowa initially appeared to be “riddled with inconsistencies and other flaws.” It looked bad:

According to a New York Times analysis, more than 100 precincts reported results that were internally inconsistent, that were missing data or that were not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.

The Times did point out that the effects did not appear to be biased toward any candidate, making it more likely they were simply unintentional mistakes. The overall effect on the results therefore might have been small.

On Sunday night, the Iowa Democratic Party released its final count, with some alterations made after political observers noticed apparent errors, and Buttigieg kept his edge.

But that likely won’t satisfy many, as Vox’s Riley Beggin reported:

The review that concluded Sunday was requested by the Warren, Buttigieg, and Sanders campaigns over concerns of inconsistencies between the reported results and official records. It did not involve recounting any results.

According to emails reviewed by the New York Times’s Trip Gabriel, an Iowa Democratic Party lawyer said the party could not change the voting records tallied on caucus worksheets even if blatant mistakes were found in the review, because doing so would violate election law. The lawyer said the only way to correct mistakes — other than those made in the reporting of the worksheets — would be a formal recount.

The deadline for the campaigns to challenge those results doesn’t come until 1 pm on Monday. The Sanders campaign said on Sunday night that it would ask for a recanvass for some of the results.

It was a messy end to a process that always seemed more likely to yield messy results.

Iowa released its results based on “state delegate equivalents” — that is, after the initial vote on caucus night and then a second vote limited to only candidates who got 15 percent of the first vote, each precinct tallied how many delegates would go to each candidate. Those county-level delegates are then translated into “state delegate equivalents” — how many delegates each candidate will have at the Iowa state convention later that year. By that admittedly rather convoluted metric, Buttigieg narrowly beat Sanders at the caucuses.

How Buttigieg managed to come out on top

Buttigieg may have gotten the most state delegate equivalents, but Sanders earned the most votes on the initial vote at the caucuses across the state, in both the first and second round. His campaign will try to lean on that win in the “popular vote” to build momentum heading into New Hampshire, the next state on the primary calendar, where Sanders has been consistently leading in the polls.

Buttigieg’s edge in state delegates is largely a reflection of his geographic spread: He was winning 60 counties to Sanders’s 18 as of Wednesday night. Because the state delegate math is based at the county level, that proved to be a big advantage for Buttigieg.

Political forecasters thought he needed to win Iowa to have any chance at the nomination. He’s done that, but once the New Hampshire primary is over this week, the electoral terrain will become more diverse and therefore more challenging to the young white millennial ex-mayor.

How everyone else did

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts took third place. Political forecasters thought she needed at least a top-three finish to remain viable, and Warren cleared that threshold. New Hampshire will be critical for her.

Former Vice President Joe Biden came in back in fourth place, a very disappointing finish for the national polling leader, who may have been at a disadvantage in the ground game that is so important for caucuses.

Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, and Biden will all win delegates for the Democratic National Convention in July, when the party’s presidential nominee will be anointed. The Iowa Democratic Party said Buttigieg would receive 14 national delegates, Sanders would get 12, Warren eight, and Biden six. Remember, nearly 4,000 delegates will be awarded over the next few months and a candidate needs half of them to win the nomination. There’s a long way to go.

Amy Klobuchar, the senator from neighboring Minnesota, finished with more than 12 percent of the state delegate equivalents and she will win one DNC delegate, according to the state party.

If you want the full retelling of the technical problems for these caucuses — which went undeclared for five days before, in the end, no winner was declared — read this story from Vox’s Emily Stewart. In brief, Iowa tested out a new app for precincts to report its results, and it’s been a disaster:

Part of the problem was the new app to report results, made by a tech company called Shadow and backed by a Democratic dark money group named Acronym, wasn’t working as intended. Many precinct chairs reported problems downloading and using the apps, and while the Iowa Democratic Party had backup systems in place, including a hotline for reporting results and a paper trail, a lot of those didn’t work seamlessly, either. New rules around results reporting have exposed a multitude of errors in precinct tallies and recordings.

It wasn’t just the app, though. The Democratic Party insisted on implementing new rules for the caucuses (Iowa and Nevada are the only early states that still have them), which may not have been translated well to the caucus-goers or captains. Untangling the inconsistencies took the party days before fully reporting the results.

New Hampshire will hold its first-in-the-nation primary, without any of the wonky caucus mechanics, on Tuesday.


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