Clumsy start for Democratic White House race in Iowa

US pre-election divisions on display during Trump's annual State of the Union

Photo: AP Pete Buttigieg speaks to supporters at a caucus night rally in Des Moines.

Americans kicked off the first vote of the 2020 presidential race on 3 February as Iowa opened its caucuses, the closely-watched first step in deciding which Democrat would face incumbent Donald Trump in November. Pete Buttigieg held a narrow lead over Bernie Sanders, showed results released with a day delay, and former Vice President Joe Biden trailed badly in fourth place. US Senator Elizabeth Warren placed third after Iowans poured into more than 1,600 public locations to begin the five-month process of picking a challenger to the businessman-turned-president.

Buttigieg, the moderate 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had 26.2% of state delegate equivalents, the data traditionally reported to determine the winner. Sanders, a US senator, had 26.1%, while his fellow progressive, Warren, was at 18% and Biden at 15.8%. Senator Amy Klobuchar was fifth at 12.6%.

Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay US president if elected, has argued it is time for a new generation of leaders and that his lack of experience in Washington makes him an ideal candidate to break the partisan gridlock in the nation's capital. Speaking to supporters in Laconia, New Hampshire, after the first results were announced, he recalled he began the race a year ago with four staff members, no name recognition and no money.

After more than a year of campaigning and more than $800m in spending, the results in Iowa had been expected to provide some answers for Democrats desperately trying to figure out how to beat Trump. But the unusual delay got the Democratic race off to a clumsy start. Officials blamed inconsistencies related to a new mobile app used for voting. Some Democrats have long complained that the largely white farm state has an outsized role in determining the party's presidential nominee. The uncertainty enraged Democrats worried that it would only strengthen Trump's bid for re-election.

Republicans asked how Democrats could run the country if they could not conduct a caucus, while Trump mocked them on Twitter: “Nothing works, just like they ran the Country.”

Republicans also held a caucus Monday, easily won by Trump. The president was already backed by his party but Republicans decided to hold the caucuses anyway to pump up their race to re-election and keep some much needed air time from Democrats.

America's pre-election divisions were on excruciating display in Congress during Trump's annual State of the Union, late on 4 February. After an address of one hour and 18 minutes, filled with Trump's boasts and claims of a “great American comeback”, the Democratic speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, ripped up her copy of the speech live on television. But the event had begun with no less animosity, when Trump first walked in and refused to shake the speaker's hand - as is customary. Pelosi put out a hand and Trump turned away, leaving her arm in thin air.

Democrats responded to Trump's speech by refusing to follow Republicans in repeated standing ovations, often booing, and in several cases walking out. As expected, the Republican majority in the US Senate acquitted Trump in the presidential impeachment process on Wednesday.

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