DES MOINES, Iowa — With a glaring question mark hanging over the Iowa caucuses, a frustrated pack of Democratic presidential candidates sought to turn the mood of chaos to their own advantage Tuesday morning as they barreled toward the next nominating contest, in New Hampshire.
Even before the candidates boarded chartered jets late Monday and headed east, their senior aides were effectively backstabbing one another — and leaders of the Iowa Democratic Party. Some campaigns were trying cast their likely Iowa caucus outcome in the best possible light, as the final results remained in limbo because of inconsistencies in the reporting of data. Others were angling to make a rival pay for a potentially dismal finish.
And a new order could be glimpsed in the race, as former Vice President Joe Biden did his best to play down the significance of Iowa and several other candidates positioned themselves as victors even in the absence of official results.
Much of the political maneuvering may turn out to be temporary, as Iowa Democrats announced in a 1 a.m. conference call on Tuesday that they would release the election results later in the day. The top candidates have events scheduled across New Hampshire, beginning with a 7 a.m. appearance by Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. Candidates who sat out Iowa, like Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, will also be campaigning in New Hampshire.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts landed in Manchester, New Hampshire, shortly after 4 a.m., surrounded by senior aides and top surrogates. In brief remarks to supporters, Warren said she felt good about her campaign’s position — even as the official Iowa results remained unclear.
“When I left Iowa, I said it is too close to call and it still is — but I feel good,” she said. “We are in 31 states and have thousands of people on the ground.”
What unfolded in the hours before was an extraordinary spectacle of political gamesmanship, from a group of campaigns that had long anticipated the Iowa caucuses as a moment that could bring the first dose of clarity to a volatile primary season.
The delay kept the still-unknown winner from being able to quickly harness his or her triumph to raise money and build momentum while shielding those who finished poorly from an immediate reckoning. It was also an embarrassment for a party trying to show unity and strength as it prepares to take on President Donald Trump.
The Iowa contest was already wedged in between a number of high-profile news events that threatened to siphon attention from the caucuses and dull their impact, including the Super Bowl, Trump’s State of the Union address and an expected vote in the Senate to acquit Trump of impeachment charges.
Democratic officials in Iowa said the delays on Monday were because of a breakdown in the reporting of results, but as the night proceeded caucus leaders and volunteers described a system mired in confusion. Workers grappled with a byzantine new system of tabulation and an app that confused many of those responsible for reporting final tallies.
With no official returns to trumpet as the night proceeded, a handful of leading candidates released their own data portraying themselves in a favorable light and sought to use the uncertainty to cripple Biden, who has led in most national polls but appeared highly vulnerable in Iowa. Advisers to three different campaigns suggested that the final outcome could represent a tepid finish for Biden based on their own internal data, and his campaign did little to refute that analysis.
The campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Buttigieg released portions of their own caucus-night intelligence, both claiming that they were on track to emerge triumphant. And aides to Warren forecast a close finish among her, Sanders and Buttigieg while chastising her opponents for releasing partial information.
“Any campaign saying they won or putting out incomplete numbers is contributing to the chaos and misinformation,” said Joe Rospars, a top adviser to Warren, alluding to Sanders and Buttigieg.
But Sanders’ campaign made no apologies for the projection of strength, arguing that it would be reflected in the final results.
“We feel very confident about our performance in Iowa,” said Ari Rabin-Havt, a senior adviser to Sanders.
It was not only the top-tier candidates who clashed as Monday gave way to Tuesday, however. The campaign manager for Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota posted on Twitter that their data suggested that Klobuchar could overtake Biden in the vote count — an unverifiable claim for outside observers, but one that could be debilitating for Biden if it came to pass. Klobuchar has been running well behind the four leaders in both national polls and surveys of Iowa.
“With the numbers we’ve seen internally and publicly, we’re running even or ahead of Vice President Biden,” wrote Justin Buoen, Klobuchar’s top aide. “Wheels up to New Hampshire!”
Biden’s campaign released no data of its own and appeared eager to turn the page on the contest. In brief remarks to supporters on Monday, Biden raised an eyebrow at the disorder; both he and his campaign manager, Greg Schultz, said little about what they expected, other than Biden would win his “fair share” of delegates in Iowa.
“Our own model shows that Biden over-performed in key districts we needed to be competitive in, and we feel confident that this is a tight race with bunched up candidates,” Schultz said in a statement.
In a far more aggressive tactic, a lawyer for the Biden campaign sent a letter to the Iowa Democratic Party expressing alarm at the “acute failures” of the procedures intended to tabulate votes on caucus night.
“We believe that the campaigns deserve full explanations and relevant information regarding the methods of quality control you are employing, and an opportunity to respond, before any official results are released,” wrote Dana Remus, general counsel to the Biden campaign.
Altogether, it appeared to be the approach of a candidate aiming to throw a permanent shadow over the Iowa results — and to obscure what could be a poor showing.
Biden’s campaign was not the only one to raise questions about the caucus process: speaking to reporters after midnight, Roger Lau, Warren’s campaign manager, said the interminable delays were damaging the vote.
“Every second that passes undermines the process a little bit,” Lau said.
Lau said that the campaign saw Warren in a “really tight” race with Sanders and Buttigieg, but declined to list an order.
Like senior strategists for other campaigns, Lau offered a clear and negative prognosis for one prominent competitor, even without definitive results to back up his argument.
“It’s clear that Biden’s a distant fourth,” he said.
Alone among the candidates in enjoying the Iowa meltdown may have been Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who is not contesting any of the earliest primary and caucus states. Bloomberg has been counting on a split decision or a weak finish by Biden in February, opening the way for him to vigorously compete for delegates starting in March.
One of Bloomberg’s closest aides made little effort to hide his delight at the events of Monday evening. Bloomberg’s campaign manager, Kevin Sheekey, quipped in a television interview that had Iowa Democrats used the financial-information technology marketed by Bloomberg’s company — the source of the fortune he is now spending on his campaign — they would have assembled the results in a timely fashion.
“Obviously a Bloomberg Terminal would have delivered your results by tonight,” Sheekey said.