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Democrats storm the Iowa caucuses eager to take on Trump

Iowa Democrats streamed Monday night to more than 1,650 community meetings — or caucuses — in church basements, senior centers, school libraries and other warm places, the first step in choosing the party’s nominee to face President Trump in November.

Early tallies showed the main competition was among former Vice President Joe Biden, ex-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the perceived front-runner, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Counting on the state’s penchant for political surprises, others in the field — New York businessman Andrew Yang and billionaire political activist Tom Steyer — were each hoping for a better-than-expected showing to stand out even if they failed to finish atop the crowded field.

The uncertainty that shrouded the outcome — compounded by the state party’s delay in announcing the results — was a fitting coda to a campaign rife with unpredictability. Interviews with voters arriving at their caucuses showed more than 1 in 3 made up their minds just in the last few days, a considerably higher number than previous contests.

A weekend of sunshine and unseasonably warm weather yielded to a cold and blustery day, with temperatures hovering near or below freezing by the time it grew dark. Still, there appeared a good chance that turnout would set a record, topping the nearly 240,000 who voted in 2008, reflecting the closely fought nature of the race and the fervor among Democrats eager to defeat Trump.

Moments before caucusing started on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Shayla Ides, 19, carried an Elizabeth Warren flag around the student union ballroom as more than 750 caucusgoers — mostly fellow students — shouted over one another in competing chants.

Ides, a junior studying informatics, described Warren as a strong woman whose life and career have inspired her.

“It’s really powerful to see someone I want to be like up on that stage,” said Ides, who’s from Pensacola, Fla. “What’s the quote? ‘Quiet women never make history.’ She would set an incredible example.”

Not all were voting out of excitement for a particular candidate. Deanna Marley, 62, explained her process of elimination during a caucus at the golf course in Newton.

“Bernie is too socialist,” said the retired respiratory therapist. “Buttigieg is a nice young man who has high hopes, but he doesn’t have any experience.” Warren’s policies were too liberal for Manley and she was ambivalent about Klobuchar.

That left her supporting, resignedly, Biden.

Candidates continued stumping up to virtually the last moment.

Senators tied down in Washington by the impeachment trial of Trump called into radio programs and appeared on TV via satellite before jumping on chartered flights to hurry back to Iowa. An hour before the caucuses began, Buttigieg emailed a fundraising plea.

“If you know anybody in Iowa, now is the time to call them,” he wrote, “and make sure they’re caucusing tonight to help turn the page to what must come next.”

Sanders, who barely lost four years ago in Iowa, triumphed decisively in the first precinct-level caucus, a daytime gathering that drew food-processing workers scheduled for evening shifts in Ottumwa. Those voters otherwise would not have been able to take part Monday night, so they participated in one of several satellite caucuses intended to boost attendance.

Of the 15 who gathered at a local union hall in southeastern Iowa, all but one backed Sanders, according to the Des Moines Register.

In an effort to further broaden engagement, other caucuses were held in more far-flung places, including Palm Springs and Glasgow, where Sanders once again prevailed, with 9 votes, followed by Warren with 6 and Buttigieg with 3.

“It was everything I wanted it to be — spirited, lively, friendly,” said Colyn Burbank, a 31-year-old master’s student at the University of Strathclyde, who hosted the caucus in the living room of his West End flat.

For all the idiosyncrasies — a limited voting window, the requirement to publicly declare one’s preference, the negotiations that take place — Iowa’s caucuses represented a signal moment in the long, turbulent Democratic contest.

A field that at one point surpassed two dozen contestants, the biggest ever in modern times, has already shrunk by more than half and will be reduced, for all intents, even further after Monday night.

The results also promised to offer clues to what Democrats most prefer as they set out to defeat Trump: familiarity or a fresh face? A reassuring figure who builds on the work of prior Democratic administrations, or a fist-shaker promising change that is more far-reaching and radical?

Sanders, who four years ago waged an unexpectedly strong insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton, represents the latter, speaking of political revolution in terms that frighten many in the party establishment even as its energizes his base of younger voters.

Biden, making his third try for the White House, has built his appeal around the argument he is most electable because of his appeal not just to centrist Democrats but also independents and Republicans who have grown disaffected with Trump.

Between those poles were Warren, bidding to become the country’s first female president, the 38-year-old Buttigieg, who offers himself as the candidate of generational change, and the rest of the field. (Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg did not compete in Iowa, focusing his massive spending on several later contests, including California’s March 3 primary.)

For all the complaints about Iowa — too white, too rural, too lightly populated, say the critics — the state’s political impact is indisputable: five of the last seven winners have gone on to claim the Democratic nomination, including the last three.

From here, the race heads to New Hampshire, which holds the first primary Feb. 11, then on to Nevada and South Carolina, with either of two scenarios possible: a quick wrap-up on Super Tuesday, when California and 13 other states vote, or a prolonged fight to the last day on the calendar, June 7, or beyond.

The caucuses operate under a distinct set of rules that make them unusual and highly unpredictable.

Democratic voters gathered at an assigned place where they stated their support for their preferred candidate. If that candidate failed to meet a 15% “viability” threshold they were eliminated from consideration and their backers had a choice of throwing their support behind another candidate — that is where the bargaining takes place — or going home.

The Iowa Democratic Party planned to release three sets of results Tuesday night: tallies of the first preference of caucusgoers, the final alignment, and the total number of “state delegate equivalents” each candidate received.

The latter will be used to apportion 41 of Iowa’s 49 delegates to the national nominating convention in Milwaukee this summer and was the basis for declaring the first-place winner of the caucuses.

The release of different numbers was a concession to Sanders and his backers after his hair’s-breadth loss to Clinton four years ago. It was intended to address concerns the process was too opaque and failed to reflect the true depth of a candidate’s support.

The issuance of so many tallies, however, threatened to further muddy the outcome and add to the criticism of Iowa’s outsized influence.

Several states, including California, moved up their contests on the primary calendar to undercut the caucuses. Instead, Iowa gained in import and influence, as candidates deluged the state and voters around the country counted on caucusgoers here to begin culling the field to a more manageable size.

“It’s going to change the dynamic,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic strategist who is sitting out this nominating contest. “Despite all those who’ve been screaming ‘watch the debate’ or ‘listen to this,’ a lot of people are going to be tuning in for the first time” to assess the Iowa results.

Candidates held roughly 2,500 events throughout the state, per the Des Moines Register, and aired so many commercials it was impossible to watch television without feeling overwhelmed.

Regardless of the outcome, for many Iowans the greatest sensation Monday night was relief the politicking was over.

At least until the general election begins.

Times staff writers Jenny Jarvis in Atlanta, Melanie Mason in Iowa City, Seema Mehta in Newton, Matt Pearce in Des Moines and special correspondent Arit John in Los Angeles contributed to this report.