For fans and defenders of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Super Tuesday brought some good news and bad news.
First, the good news. Because this is a happy space.
Mike Bloomberg’s quick flame-out in the Democratic primary had to be comforting to people who defend Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. Bloomberg jumped into the race late, skipped all the early voting states, including Iowa, and eschewed traditional, on-the-ground campaigning for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising.
Bloomberg was the first candidate in a while to test whether it truly is important for a candidate to start in Iowa. He did not compete here at all, instead throwing all his eggs in the Super Tuesday basket.
It did not work.
Bloomberg earned 60 delegates. That’s more than a little off the pace of the 600-ish delegates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have earned thus far.
The day after Super Tuesday, Bloomberg dropped out and endorsed Biden.
So it appears candidates can’t skip Iowa and the other early voting states and still hope to be successful. It seems as if the early voting states are needed to build momentum before getting to the big delegate prizes on Super Tuesday. That’s a win for Iowa.
But Biden’s surge this past week does not reflect well on Iowa’s first-in-the-nation role.
The former vice president dominated the South Carolina primary, which coaxed fellow moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar out of the race. Both endorsed Biden, who then enjoyed spectacular results on Super Tuesday.
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Biden’s success, at the least, made the nomination a two-candidate race between himself and Sanders. And it may have put Biden on a path to victory.
Should Biden get the nomination, it could reflect poorly on Iowa. Biden finished a slow fourth in the caucuses, well behind Sanders and Buttigieg — and Elizabeth Warren.
We know that once again, and more than ever, Iowa will be forced to defend its leadoff role in 2024.
So it may not be particularly helpful for Iowa Democrats to have to go into that fight also having to defend the fact that the party’s standard-bearer for the general election was their fourth-favorite candidate in the caucuses. Iowa’s critics may use that as fodder to argue that it shows the state’s voters are out-of-touch with the rest of the nation.
(In the interest of not letting fellow first-in-the-nation state New Hampshire off the hook, it would have some explaining to do, too. Biden did even worse there, finishing fifth.)
It was one thing when eventual nominees finished second or third here. Iowa was never about picking the winner; it’s about winnowing the field. And in most years, the Iowa caucuses have done that.
But Biden finished fourth — a distant fourth. Buttigieg and Sanders topped the field by earning 26 percent of state delegate equivalents apiece; Biden finished at just 16 percent and was not even viable (meaning he did not have at least 15 percent support) in many precincts across the state.
This could just add to the arguments against Iowa going first. And Iowa didn’t need any more of those.
New leaders, same as the old
There’s something striking about how the Democratic primary has become a two-person race between Biden and Sanders. It’s exactly where we started this thing more than a year ago.
In spring 2019, early polling, in Iowa and nationally, said Biden and Sanders were the top two candidates. Name recognition, to be sure, was a big reason for that. And now here we are — after more than a year of campaigning, more than two dozen candidates, myriad lead changes and thousands of events in Iowa and other early states — right back where we started: a race between Biden and Sanders.
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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.