The Iowa Democratic Party released partial results of its kickoff presidential caucus after a daylong delay late Tuesday showing former Midwestern mayor Pete Buttigieg with a slight lead over progressive Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the opening contest of the party's 2020 primary season.
The results followed 24 hours of chaos as technical problems marred the complicated caucus process, forcing state officials to apologize and raising questions about Iowa's traditional place atop the presidential primary calendar.
It was too early to call a winner based on the initial results, but Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar were trailing in the tally of State Delegate Equivalents, according to data released for the first time by the Iowa Democratic Party nearly 24 hours after voting concluded.
The results reflected 71% of precincts in the state.
The two early leaders, Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders, were separated by 40 years in age, conflicting ideology, and more.
Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has been a progressive powerhouse for decades, while Mr. Buttigieg's early standing cemented his transformation from a little-known Indiana mayor to a legitimate force in the 2020 contest. Mr. Buttigieg is also the first openly gay candidate to earn presidential primary delegates.
"We don't know all of the numbers, but we know this much: A campaign that started a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition, no money, just a big idea – a campaign that some said should have no business even making this attempt – has taken its place at the front of this race," Mr. Buttigieg declared, his voice filled with emotion, as he campaigned in next-up New Hampshire with his husband looking on.
Mr. Buttigieg's early rise was rivaled for possible importance by the struggle of another moderate, Mr. Biden.
One of his party's most accomplished figures, the former two-term vice president and longtime senator was mired in the second tier of Iowa candidates with almost two-thirds of precincts reporting. Mr. Biden's campaign sought to downplay the caucus results even before they were released, hardly a measure of strength for a high-profile contender who has led national polls for most of the last year.
"We believe we will emerge with the delegates we need to continue on our path to nomination," said Symone Sanders, a senior adviser.
While all campaigns were eager to spin the Iowa results to their advantage, there was little immediate indication that the incomplete results erased the confusion and concern that loomed over the caucuses. It was unclear when the full results would be released.
During a private conference call with campaigns earlier in the day, state party chairman Troy Price declined to answer pointed questions about the timeline – even whether it would be days or weeks.
"We have been working day and night to make sure these results are accurate," Mr. Price said at a subsequent press conference.
The leading candidates pressed on in New Hampshire, which votes in just seven days. And billionaire Democrat Michael Bloomberg sensed opportunity, saying he would double his already massive advertising campaign and expand his sprawling staff focused on a series of delegate-rich states voting next month.
The party's caucus crisis was an embarrassing twist after months of promoting Iowa as a chance for Democrats to find some clarity in a jumbled field. Instead, after a buildup that featured seven rounds of debates, nearly $1 billion spent nationwide, and a year of political jockeying, caucus day ended with no winner, no official results, and many fresh questions about whether Iowa can retain its coveted "first" status.
Iowa marked the first contest in a primary season that will span all 50 states and several U.S. territories, ending at the party's national convention in July.
Before he left Iowa late Monday, Mr. Sanders said, "Today marks the beginning of the end for Donald Trump."
Facing New Hampshire voters a day later, Mr. Sanders said thank you to Iowa and, tongue in cheek, expressed confidence that New Hampshire election officials would have more success counting votes.
"And when you count those votes, I look forward to winning here," he said.
For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party reported three sets of results this year: a tally of caucusgoers' initial candidate preference; vote totals from the "final alignment" after supporters of lower-ranking candidates were able to make a second choice, and the total number of State Delegate Equivalents each candidate received.
The Associated Press will declare a winner based on the number of state delegates each candidate wins, which has been the traditional standard.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who represents Iowa neighbor Minnesota, was also in the early running, while outsider candidates including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard lagged behind.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Ms. Warren also said she was "feeling good" about her performance in Iowa.
The state party told campaigns Tuesday the problem was a result of a "coding issue in the reporting system" that it said had since been fixed. It said it had verified the accuracy of the collected data and said the problem was not a result of "a hack or an intrusion."
A Biden campaign representative objected to the party's plan to release partial results before checking them against paper records, saying in the conference call that the plan didn't address "growing reports" about problems on caucus night, such as precinct captains unable to get through on the phone to report results.
Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver thanked party officials, and encouraged other campaigns not to undermine the party.
"Folks who are just trying to delay the return of this because of their relative positioning in the results last night, I think that's a bit disingenuous," Mr. Weaver said.
Mr. Bloomberg announced plans to double his national television advertising spending – which has already exceeded $100 million – as he expands his paid staff to more than 2,000 people.
Mr. Bloomberg is looking to next month, having decided to bypass Iowa's contest and the three other states voting this month in favor of the delegate-rich states in March.
"After more than a year of this primary, the field is as unsettled as ever," Bloomberg spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said. "No one has made the sale or even come close to it."
Beyond 2020, Monday's debacle invited fresh criticism about Iowa caucuses, a complicated set of political meetings staged in a state that is whiter and older than the Democratic Party in general. Many questioned anew whether it was a quaint political tradition whose time had passed.
"I think Iowa is a dumpster fire," said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and longtime Biden supporter, who served as an Iowa precinct captain for Mr. Biden on Monday.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.