I agree with Tim Carney that this is the most important result from last night that we kinda sorta know at this point. Not the only important one, and it’ll matter just how badly Biden did relative to the other top three. But if we’re grasping for winners and losers from what little information we have, there’s no question who the loser is.

The large campaigns have precinct captains in nearly every precinct who call in results. The Sanders campaign released all the results it had, coming from about 40% of precincts, and it showed, by all three counts, Sanders winning with nearly 30%, Buttigieg in second, Elizabeth Warren in third, and Biden way back in fourth. The Warren campaign said its numbers showed Biden also in a distant fourth. The Biden campaign hasn’t reported any results.

Nearly every reporter who reported results last night showed Biden underperforming. (In the two precincts I covered, Biden wasn’t viable and actually had fewer supporters than Andrew Yang.)…

But definitely, Biden bombed. He was first or second in all the polls, he is the former vice president, he has near universal name ID — and yet he finished fourth.

Based on their partial results, Team Bernie had it Sanders 29.7, Buttigieg 24.6, Warren 21.2, and Biden at … 12.4. They also had Mayor Pete gaining more than Bernie between the first round of voting and the second round, which is plausible and intuitive and lends credibility to their estimates. Since Warren was viable in most precincts last night, it stands to reason that there’d be few hard-left votes available to migrate to Bernie during the second round. Not so for Buttigieg, who could pick up votes from supporters of Biden and Klobuchar, each of whom missed the viability cut in various places.

As Carney notes, Team Warren’s best guess is also that Biden finished way back in fourth. Biden’s own allies sounded glum yesterday afternoon before the caucus began, which makes me wonder if their internal polling was showing bad vibes to come:

“Most [aides] feel it’s not going to be great,” one longtime Biden ally who has had conversations with top aides inside the campaign, acknowledged Monday.

Biden’s aides and allies said they were hoping to place in the top three. But even if they fall short, the campaign is “built for the long haul,” one Biden confidant said…

“If Amy or Pete does better than expected and is getting a ton of buzz going into New Hampshire, that’s really bad for Biden,” said one Democrat who has raised money for Biden. “The longer there are more moderate candidates fighting over table scraps while Bernie gains strength, the more narrow the path gets for him going forward.”

The final RCP average of Iowa placed Biden in second place at 19.3 percent. He led the final Monmouth poll there by two points late last month. If in fact he finished statewide at 12-13 percent, that would be a bad, demoralizing miss. Not only would he have finished second in his “moderate” lane to Buttigieg, he might be more or less on par with Klobuchar’s vote share. New Hampshire was shaping up to be a low-stakes election since Bernie has surged ahead there and seems likely to win, having won easily in 2016 and enjoying a home-field advantage by dint of Vermont’s proximity. But if Biden did in fact get blitzed in Iowa, his finish in New Hampshire will be watched closely by Democratic movers and shakers. Right now he’s in second place at 17.8 percent in NH based on the RCP average, but if Buttigieg is declared first or second in Iowa today — which seems highly likely — and Klobuchar’s Iowa numbers are in the same ballpark as Biden’s then Joe’s centrist fans in NH will have a hard decision to make. Do they stick with him or do they abandon him for Pete or Amy?

And if they do, and he finishes fourth again by underperforming his polls, where does that leave him? His allies will remind the world for the umpteenth time that Biden does best with black voters, who are conspicuously lacking in Iowa and New Hampshire. “Wait until South Carolina and Super Tuesday,” they’ll say. Okay, but the media will dine out for weeks on the narrative that poor old Joe has disappointed in his quest for the presidency yet again, just like he did in 1988 and 2008. At a minimum they’ll start gaming out a contested convention in which Biden potentially wins enough delegates to deny Bernie an outright majority but not enough to win himself. Some will go for the throat by wondering if Dem voters in South Carolina aren’t better off cutting him loose and finding a more viable alternative.

If Biden does rebound from last night, I wonder if we’ll look back and see the meltdown in vote-counting as his saving grace, however inadvertent it was. If the votes had been counted properly, newspapers today would be bludgeoning this guy for having looked so weak. As it is, they’re preoccupied with bludgeoning the Iowa Democratic Party. Biden has an opportunity now to show up at Friday’s debate in New Hampshire and say, “That mess is thankfully behind us,” or even “Who knows if we can trust the numbers they finally gave us? They don’t know what they’re doing.” And in the meantime, notes Nate Silver, there’s less media oxygen for Bernie and Buttigieg to tout their results last night, which may limit any bounce in the polls that the winner and second-place finisher in Iowa might normally receive.

Silver’s also sensing rising chances of a contested convention:

By giving the winning candidates a boost, the presence of Iowa also reduced the chance of an unstructured race and a potential brokered convention. The chance of there being no delegate majority was 17 percent without Iowa, but would have been 20 percent with it…

Iowa is typically a state that winnows the field. But with every candidate either having performed well there, potentially having an excuse for a disappointing finish there, or somewhere in between, it might not do that. Delaying the winnowing process would tangibly increase the chance of a contested convention.

Depending upon how poorly she did last night, Klobuchar might have quit the race if the results had been reported in a timely way. As it is, she now has a reason to compete hard in New Hampshire, potentially drawing away moderate swing voters who might have broken for Biden or Buttigieg. On the flip side, Warren ends up robbed of a night of hype she might have enjoyed for finishing a surprisingly strong third (or second). Hopefully the Iowa Democrats cough up the actual results today or at least before Friday so that each of the candidates can utilize them at Friday night’s New Hampshire debate. But even if they release the data today, last night’s media cycle is gone and can’t be recovered. Everyone who might have benefited from good buzz is screwed.

And everyone who would have suffered from bad buzz — a.k.a. Joe Biden — benefits.

But only for so long. If he loses badly in New Hampshire and Nevada and comes back with an expected win in South Carolina, will it do much to pad his fundraising? That’s Biden’s real problem, as Joe Scarborough notes in the clip below. He can’t keep pace with Bernie’s money machine because Sanders runs on small donations from hundreds of thousands of people whereas Biden runs on support from the donor class, whose donations are capped beyond a few thousand dollars. He needs to give centrist Dems a reason to invest in his campaign. Doesn’t look like it happened last night. And there’s no good reason to think it’ll happen next week in New Hampshire.

In lieu of an exit question, go watch a pro-Biden caucusgoer last night in Iowa try to sway people by reminding them that even though he’s very old he might still choose a good VP to take over for him if need be. Hoo boy.

Update: Sounds like this is only a rumor for the moment, but Biden filing an injunction to try to block the Iowa results from being released is perfectly in keeping with the “Joe tanked” buzz.

Update: We’re not seeking an injunction, says Team Joe, which is smart. Trying and failing to bottle up the results would make a bad performance smell even worse once they inevitably leaked anyway.