Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses were expected to provide some clarity for what has been a muddled nomination fight for much of the last year.
Voting began across Iowa Monday night as Democrats balanced their desire for fundamental change with their craving to defeat President Donald Trump as they opened the first contest of the 2020 presidential primary season.
Nearly a dozen White House contenders were still vying for the chance to take on Trump in November, although Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses were expected to provide some clarity for what has been a muddled nomination fight for much of the last year.
In the hours before the evening caucuses opened their doors, candidates gave last-minute pep talks and pitches, while hundreds of volunteers pressed on statewide.
By day's end, tens of thousands of Democrats were to have gathered at community centres, high school gyms and more than 1,600 other caucus locations in the premiere of more than 50 contests that will unfold over the next five months.
The caucuses were rendering the first verdict on what the party stands for in the age of Trump — and who it feels is best positioned to take on the Republican president, whom Democratic voters are desperate to beat this fall.
The moment was thick with promise for a Democratic Party that has seized major gains in states since Trump won the White House in 2016.
But instead of clear optimism, a cloud of uncertainty and deepening intraparty resentment hungover Monday's election as the prospect of an unclear result raised fears of a long and divisive primary fight in the months ahead.
"I'm the one who can pull our party together," Massachusetts Sen Elizabeth Warren told supporters on a telephone call, suggesting her rivals could not. They said they were the ones to bring unity.
Polls suggested that Vermont Sen Bernie Sanders might have a narrow lead, but any of the top four candidates — Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg — could score a victory in Iowa's unpredictable and quirky caucus system as organizers prepared for a record turnout.
Sen Amy Klobuchar, who represents neighbouring Minnesota, was also claiming momentum, while outsider candidates including entrepreneur Andrew Yang, billionaire activist Tom Steyer and Hawaii Rep Tulsi Gabbard could be factors.
“If anybody tells you they know who’s going to win, either they’ve got a whisper from God or they're loony because nobody knows,” said Deidre DeJear, who announced her support for Warren on Monday and was the first black woman to win a statewide primary in Iowa.
Roughly two-thirds of Iowa caucusgoers said supporting a candidate who would fundamentally change how the system in Washington works was important to their vote, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters who said they planned to take part in Monday’s Democratic caucuses.
That compared to about a third of caucusgoers who said it was more important to support a candidate who would restore the political system to how it was before Trump’s election in 2016.
Iowa Democrats reported two major issues dominating their thoughts: health care and climate change.
By midday Monday, a handful of satellite caucuses had already taken place_some thousands of miles away from Iowa. In Glasgow, Scotland, Sanders received the most support from the 19 caucus-goers who attended, while Warren came in second and Buttigieg came in third. No other candidates were viable.
In Iowas, some 200,000 voters were expected.
The four senators in the field left Iowa late Sunday to return to the US Capitol for Trump's impeachment trial, but did what they could to keep their campaigns going from Washington. While Warren held her telephone town hall, Klobuchar’s husband and daughter appeared at a canvass launch in Des Moines.
In suburban Des Moines, Buttigieg delivered about 100 volunteers a last shot of encouragement before they stepped out into the chill to knock on doors for him around midday Monday.
“We are exactly where we need to be to astonish the political world,” he said, igniting cheers for the 38-year-old former midsize-city mayor, who was an asterisk a year ago and is now among the top candidates.
Meanwhile, Biden and his wife, Jill, delivered pizza Monday to a few dozen volunteers working the phones at his south Des Moines field office.
“I feel good,” he said as he walked in, sporting his signature aviator sunglasses.
Iowa offers just a tiny percentage of the delegates needed to win the nomination but plays an outsize role in culling primary fields. A poor showing in Iowa could cause a front-runner’s fundraising to slow and support in later states to dwindle, while a strong result can give a candidate much needed momentum.
The past several Democrats who won the Iowa caucuses went on to clinch the party's nomination.
The 2020 fight has played out over myriad distractions, particularly congressional Democrats' push to impeach Trump, which has often overshadowed the primary and effectively pinned several leading candidates to Washington at the pinnacle of the early campaign season.
Meanwhile, ultra-billionaire Mike Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is running a parallel campaign that ignores Iowa as he prepares to pounce on any perceived weaknesses in the field come March.
The amalgam of oddities, including new rules for reporting the already complicated caucus results, was building toward what could be a murky Iowa finale before the race pivots quickly to New Hampshire, which votes just eight days later.
With uncertainty comes an opportunity for some campaigns.
Having predicted victory multiple times in recent weeks, Biden's team sought to downplay the importance of Iowa's kick-off contest the day before voting began amid persistent signs he was struggling to raise money and generate excitement on the ground.
Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders said the campaign viewed Iowa “as the beginning, not the end,” of the primary process.
"It would be a gross mistake on the part of reporters, voters or anyone else to view whatever happens on Monday — we think it’s going to be close — but view whatever happens as the end and not give credence and space for New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina,” she said of the three states up next on the primary calendar.
The tone was noticeably more upbeat for Sanders' campaign, which has repeatedly predicted victory and believes he's running even stronger in New Hampshire.
That's despite increasingly vocal concerns from establishment-minded Democrats who fear the self-described democratic socialist would struggle against Trump and make it more difficult for Democrats to win other elections this fall.
The heated rhetoric underscores a dangerous rift between Sanders' passionate supporters and other factions of Democrats who have clashed in recent days but must find a way to unite should they hope to defeat Trump in November.
New party rules may give more than one candidate an opportunity to claim victory, even if they aren't the official winner.
For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will report three sets of results at the end of the night: tallies of the “first alignment” of caucusgoers, their “final alignment” and the total number of state delegate equivalents each candidate receives. There is no guarantee that all three will show the same winner.
President Donald Trump is the winner of the 2020 Iowa Republican caucuses, a largely symbolic vote as he was facing no significant opposition.
Still, Trump's campaign was using Monday's contest to test its organizational strength, deploying Cabinet secretaries, top Republican officials and Trump family members to the state.
It's unusual for Iowa to even be holding a GOP contest with an incumbent in the White House. The Iowa Republican caucuses were cancelled in 1992 and 2004.
But GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufman said state officials were determined to keep the caucuses in place this year to maintain the state‚Äôs status as the first in the nation to cast its ballots.