A split winner seems to be emerging from Iowa, where results were still slowly trickling in Wednesday, two days after votes were cast. And in a series of contests ahead, polling suggests different candidates could come out on top. That means late-voting states like Pennsylvania are more likely to have a role in choosing the nominee. Even if by only slightly increased odds.
“The road to the Democratic nomination is a marathon — not a short sprint,” said Mayor Jim Kenney, who backs Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “I believe the Pennsylvania primary will be a critical and relevant battleground election.”
Iowa awards only a small fraction of delegates to the Democratic convention: 41. A candidate must get a majority of the party’s roughly 4,000 delegates to win the Democratic nomination. The state traditionally has outsize influence because of the spotlight it gets from its first-in-the-nation status. That’s especially true if a definitive winner emerges. But by midday Wednesday, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., only narrowly led Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, with 71% of precincts reporting.
That’s a big win for Buttigieg, who rose from relative national obscurity as a small-town mayor. But his path to the nomination could be a difficult one. He polls poorly in states with higher populations of black and Latino voters, including Nevada, South Carolina, and several of the bigger Super Tuesday states that vote on March 3, like California and Texas.
Sanders, who is running a close second to Buttigieg in Iowa, is leading in polls in New Hampshire, which votes on Tuesday. Sanders trails former Vice President Joe Biden slightly in polls of Nevada, and more significantly in South Carolina, the only early-voting state where Biden has enjoyed a steady lead.
The way the party awards delegates — proportionally among candidates according to votes — also makes it harder for even those with momentum to rack up big delegate leads. That dynamic could prolong the contest.
Pennsylvania’s primary is April 28.
If Sanders does well in New Hampshire and splits delegates in Nevada with Biden, who in turn does well in South Carolina, there will be no clear front-runner heading into Super Tuesday. And that’s when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters the equation, with a boatload of resources and cash that he’s already started investing in those states.
“Sure it’s going to matter. Pennsylvania’s a big state," Bloomberg told The Inquirer after a rally at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Tuesday. "It’s a diverse state. It fits the bill.”
Bloomberg has invested heavily in Pennsylvania, dropping more than $12 million so far on television and radio advertising in the state, according to the ad-tracking firm Advertising Analytics — an unprecedented level of spending this early in the race. The billionaire, who is self-funding his campaign, also has 10 field offices in the state and close to 100 staffers, the most of any candidate.
Pennsylvania has 176 delegates up for grabs.
Surrogates for the leading candidates were quick to say the race doesn’t begin and end in Iowa, and will likely continue toward Pennsylvania.
Biden backers downplayed his fourth-place finish in Iowa, which Biden himself called a “gut punch.”
Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Philadelphia Democrat who campaigned for Biden at a caucus Monday night, said Iowa was always demographically more favorable to Sanders. He noted that Hillary Clinton narrowly won Iowa, lost in New Hampshire, narrowly won in Nevada, and then won big in South Carolina and on Super Tuesday.
“The road map for Joe is not a hypothetical," Boyle said. “It’s literally what happened last time.”
Boyle also unequivocally said he thinks Pennsylvanians will help determine the nominee.
“I actually thought that well before Iowa," he said.
Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who campaigned for Biden in North Carolina, also said he thinks the math leads to Pennsylvania, with Biden still in the race.
“You’re talking about 176 [delegates],” Evans said. "I’m not diminishing any success anybody would have, but I think what people keep forgetting is, this is about math, this is about counting.”
Evans acknowledged that Bloomberg, a moderate with a lot of money, could be a factor down the road: “I said in the beginning, Biden will have to fight for this. You don’t just get it because you’re vice president. You have to fight to convince people. ... But I still think he’ll be the nominee. I’m not nervous.”
Kenney, who campaigned for Warren in New Hampshire last month, downplayed her third-place finish.
“I’m feeling good about Iowa," Kenney said. “Sen. Warren did great there. She’s right in the mix of things and where she needs to be. I’m confident in the senator’s vision and the national organization she’s built.”
For Sanders, the late Iowa surge could create a path forward similar to 2016, when he narrowly lost to Clinton there.
“I thought for months now he would win Iowa and New Hampshire," Joanne Beer, chair of the group Philly for Bernie, said of Sanders. “I think he’s learning a lot from 2016 and he’s really worked hard to gain more support in areas where he was weaker, like among people of color, and his Latino support is very strong.”
Looking forward, Beer said she’s worried about the Democratic establishment trying to stop Sanders.
“There’s a lot of ‘never-Bernie’ out there,” she said. "They’re sounding alarm bells like he’s going to be called a communist, but we just think people are upset with the political establishment in general, which is also why Trump was such a popular candidate.”
Jack Cahill, cofounder of the University of Pennsylvania group Penn for Bernie, is headed to New Hampshire to canvas for Sanders this weekend with about 20 other students from Penn and 10 from Rowan University in New Jersey. Cahill said he wants to help build on the momentum of Iowa.
“Even if he finishes in a narrow second place [in Iowa], I think this is probably the best-case scenario," Cahill said. He predicted Buttigieg wouldn’t do as well in later states, and said Sanders’ lead over Warren showed "he’s consolidating support among progressive voters.”
Staff writer Ellie Rushing contributed to this article.