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Deep freeze

After a giant caucus-fail in Iowa, Democratic hopefuls turn to New Hampshire, while some look farther down the road

Deep freeze

Caucus-goers hold up their first votes at the Knapp Center in Des Moines. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

It was 28 degrees in Des Moines on Monday night, but Iowa voters were hot when they learned Democratic Party officials botched the state’s first-in-the-nation contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

One precinct leader tweeted: “I don’t think this is a way to do democracy.”

Call it a colossal tech failure, but the heat is on party officials in the Hawkeye State for not keeping a closer eye on the software they bought from a private firm to report results from 1,700 caucus sites. 

The app apparently contained coding errors that led to reporting problems, but some precinct leaders said they couldn’t log into the application at all. When they called the state’s Democratic Party to report results by phone, some couldn’t get through or stayed on hold for hours. 

The debacle robbed any single candidate from an election night victory in Iowa. But by Tuesday evening, two candidates were claiming the glory: With 71 percent of the results reported, Indiana native Pete Buttigieg narrowly appeared to lead the delegate count, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., narrowly held the popular vote. 

The ground was probably too frozen for Democratic candidates to shake any dust off their feet as they left Iowa and moved onto a similarly frigid state: Democrats in New Hampshire will hold their primary contest next week.

Even with early victories, Buttigieg and Sanders will need to pound the pavement as hard as any of the other Democratic hopefuls barnstorming the Granite State: A recent CNN poll showed about half of New Hampshire primary voters hadn’t made up their minds on a candidate by the end of January. 

Another important stat: Nearly half of registered voters in New Hampshire identify as undeclared, instead of Democrat or Republican. All voters registered as either Democrat or undeclared may vote in next week’s primaries.

That makes the contest between Buttigieg and Sanders particularly notable. Buttigieg—who has positioned himself as a moderate alternative to Sanders—has been spending time in parts of the state where voters tend to lean moderate or independent. Sanders has concentrated on bigger cities that lean more liberal.

Buttigieg’s claim to the moderate mantle may come under closer scrutiny in New Hampshire, a state sometimes described as fiscally conservative and socially liberal. 

The Concord Monitor reported voters at town hall events have been asking candidates Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., about the feasibility of their Medicare for All proposals. They’ve also asked how the candidates expect to pass such a sweeping overhaul if Republicans retain control of the Senate in the fall.  

Buttigieg might benefit from that skepticism, but he’ll face questions of his own: His proposal of Medicare for All Who Want It is still a massive government spending plan that likely would face a massive challenge in a GOP-controlled Senate.

Still, New Hampshire voters have proven their willingness to go far-left in the past: Sanders prevailed over Hillary Clinton in the state’s 2016 primary by 20 percent. That gives Sanders an advantage but also means he has plenty to prove.

As Buttigieg and Sanders battle, Warren hopes her apparent third-place finish in Iowa will keep her competitive in the upcoming primaries. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s distant fourth-place finish in Iowa (barely above Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.) raises questions about whether his prospects can revive. At a campaign rally in New Hampshire, he told a crowd: “Hope springs eternal.”

But Biden also knows that campaigns dry up quickly when voters lose interest. Even with reminders that President Bill Clinton lost Iowa and New Hampshire before winning the presidential election in 1992, the political realities Biden faces are different: He’s already well known, and the longer his results lag, the harder his fight becomes.

For now, Biden is focusing much of his attention on South Carolina, a state where he leads polls by a comfortable margin, and Buttigieg barely registers support. (The state holds its primary on Feb. 29.) 

Biden isn’t the only candidate playing a longer game: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he’ll double his personal campaign spending, with an all-out push for big results on Super Tuesday on March 3. 

It’s a reminder that early leads in presidential contests still require long-term endurance in a potentially protracted race to come.

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is WORLD’s national editor based in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.