Pete Buttigieg took a narrow lead in the first batch of long-delayed results from the chaotic Iowa Democratic Party caucuses on Tuesday, and former Vice President Joe Biden trailed badly in fourth place with about 62% of precincts reporting.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was a close second place and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren placed third in the first results, released nearly 21 hours after Iowans poured into more than 1,600 public locations to begin the five-month process of picking a challenger to Republican President Donald Trump.
In Tuesday's first results of state delegate equivalents, the data traditionally reported to determine the winner, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had 26.9%, Sanders had 25.1%, Warren 18.3% and Biden 15.6%. Senator Amy Klobuchar was fifth at 12.6%.
If elected, Buttigieg, 38, would be the first openly gay U.S. president. A military veteran, he served in Afghanistan before becoming mayor of South Bend, a city of 102,000 people.
Sanders, 78, was ahead in the popular vote, which is not used to determine the delegates who will cast ballots at the Democratic National Convention in July. An independent, Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist.
It was a clumsy start to voting. Officials blamed inconsistencies related to a new mobile app used for vote counting for the unusual delay in Iowa, the state that traditionally kicks off a U.S. presidential election campaign that culminates this year on November 3.
The uncertainty enraged Democrats worried it would only strengthen Trump's bid for re-election and prompted some Democratic candidates' campaigns to question whether the results would be legitimate.
"As leader of the party I apologize deeply for this," Iowa State Party Chairman Troy Price told reporters. "We've been working day and night to make sure these results are accurate."
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Some Democrats have long complained that the largely white farm state has an outsized role in determining the party's presidential nominee.
Republicans asked how Democrats could run the country if they could not conduct a caucus, while Trump mocked the Democrats on Twitter, calling the delay an "unmitigated disaster."
Trump took a swipe at the Democrats, 11 of whom are contenders in the state-by-state battle to face him in November. "Nothing works, just like they ran the Country," he tweeted.
While Republicans pounced on the problems, their party has its own history of presidential election chaos in Iowa. On the night of the party's 2012 caucuses, Mitt Romney was declared to have won by only eight votes. But two weeks later, the party announced that Rick Santorum had actually won by 34 votes. Romney went on to be the nominee.
Before the Iowa results were released, campaign aides for Biden cited gross failures in the caucuses.
"What we're saying is there are some inconsistencies, that the process, the integrity, is at stake. And the Iowa Democratic Party needs to check that data, check it again, check it a third time, check it a fourth time, because it's important to get it right," Biden campaign senior adviser Symone Sanders told reporters.
"It looks like a disorganized mess," said Jessica Leonard, 41, who runs a food truck in Winterset, Iowa, and normally votes Democratic.
After more than a year of campaigning and more than $800 million in spending, the results in Iowa had been expected to provide some answers for Democrats desperately trying to figure out how to beat the businessman-turned-president.
But the Democratic candidates had already departed Iowa and turned their attention to the next contest in New Hampshire on February 11 before the first results had even been released.
Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who entered the race late and has decided to skip the early-voting states to focus on later contests, seized on the muddled results, announcing he would buy more advertising and hire more staff.
"After more than a year of this primary, the field is as unsettled as ever. No one has made the sale or even come close to it," campaign spokeswoman Galia Slayen told Reuters.
Price, the Iowa Democratic chairman, said the problems were "unacceptable." He said the app was recording data accurately but only tallying part of it. The coding problem was fixed and state officials are verifying the data from the app with required paper documentation, he said.
Some local officials reported having trouble using the mobile app to report results from schools, community centers and other locations. But when they turned to the traditional method - calling results in by telephone - they were put on hold and could not get through.
The Nevada Democratic Party said that for its February 22 presidential caucuses it will not be using the same app or vendor employed in Iowa.
Iowa Democrats had been keen to be more transparent in this year's caucuses after complaints from Sanders about the 2016 caucuses when he and rival Hillary Clinton earned roughly the same number of delegates who go on to choose the party's presidential nominee. He asked the party for an audit.