The Democratic candidate who gained the most from the unmitigated debacle in Iowa is not Pete Buttigieg or Bernie Sanders, though both have claimed victory there. The biggest winner was Mike Bloomberg.

The billionaire former New York mayor entered the race with a novel strategy of skipping the first four states, hoping the results were a discouraging muddle, and using television ads and paid campaign staff to put himself in contention on Super Tuesday. This approach was, and remains, a real long shot. But the morning after the Iowa fiasco, Bloomberg announced he would double his spending on television ads, which had already approached saturation levels. He does not have a reputation for knowingly throwing good money after bad. The impossible now looks merely improbable.

From Bloomberg’s point of view, the campaign thus far has gone better than he had a right to hope. His stated thesis for his campaign is that President Trump must be defeated at all costs and that none of the other candidates is likely to beat him. He hopes to sell himself as the genuine article to Trump’s fakery: an actual billionaire with the management skills to turn the country around. If one of the candidates who competed in Iowa were emerging as a strong front-runner, Bloomberg could look more like a self-indulgent ego-tripper than a potential savior. But that hasn’t happened. And the chaos in the Democratic Party and Trump’s White House are making Bloomberg’s argument for him.

In a misguided attempt to make the caucus process more transparent and efficient, Democratic Party officials in Iowa inadvertently made it into an embarrassing display of dysfunction. They altered procedures that Iowa voters were accustomed to, and not everybody understood the new rules. They made it unclear how victory would ultimately be measured. Most fatefully, they threw an untested cellphone app into the mix. What could possibly go wrong? 

The one reliable result thus far from Iowa is that turnout at the caucuses — which state party officials had predicted could set records — was middling at best. If Iowans were excited about this field, they sure didn’t show it. Beyond that, we know that Sanders and Buttigieg did well in Iowa, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden did poorly, Amy Klobuchar lived to fight another day, and nobody had to drop out. If Iowa’s job was to clarify this race, it failed.

 Three full days later, results were still trickling in. The vote-counting was so chaotic and uncertain, and so many problems with the data have been reported, that Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez called on the Iowa state party to “immediately begin a recanvass.” Perhaps we will know who won before Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire. Perhaps not.

 And this week in Washington, Trump illustrated the stakes of the election. On Tuesday, Trump gave a State of the Union address that was an appalling mixture of bombast, mendacity and reality-television shtick. On Wednesday, Trump was acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial, with all Democrats but only one Republican, Mitt Romney of Utah, voting to remove him from office. And on Thursday, Trump invited loyal supporters to the White House for a victory celebration, claiming total vindication in a sometimes profane stream-of-consciousness rant that was anything but presidential.

The question for Democrats is an urgent one: Coming out of Iowa, do they see a candidate who can beat this man?

Biden faces questions about whether he has the vigor to prosecute a bruising general election campaign. Buttigieg’s experience in government consists of having been mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana.

Warren sorely needs a fundraising boost. Klobuchar finished a strong fifth, if there is such a thing as a strong fifth, but Iowa looked like her best shot for vaulting into the top tier, and she couldn’t make the leap. That leaves Sanders, who has the money and organization to win in New Hampshire and perhaps get on a roll. But the Democratic Party establishment, or what’s left of it, worries that Trump would successfully demonize him as some sort of latter-day Bolshevik.

Which brings me back to Bloomberg, whose campaign operation with its “sheer size and machine-like efficiency” is a sharp contrast to the utter shambles in Iowa. It is hard to imagine a party that includes Sanders and Warren coming together behind a mega-billionaire. It is hard to imagine a party that believes income inequality is a critical problem coming together behind one of the 10 wealthiest individuals on the planet. It is hard to imagine a party so reliant on African American turnout coming together behind the man responsible for stop-and-frisk.

After Iowa, though, it’s a bit easier.

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