As I write this analysis of the 2020 Iowa Caucus – the first major contest of what is to be a fiery 2020 primary – I, like most Americans, depend on the Hawkeye State for an essential first impression, for it is our dependence on the Des Moines-led state and its voters that gives us our foremost picture of what has been, and what will certainly remain, a truly ambiguous contest. Most primary races throughout our history have been mired with tension and uncertainty, but this one – given its plethora of candidates and their myriad collection of arguments of why they are the only ones that can beat Trump – is especially important because it determines the fate of the Democratic party itself. Should progressives prevail early on, that momentum could put moderates in a bind and grant candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) an unprecedented tailwind that could reshape the left wing. Should moderates like former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, I.N., Mayor Pete Buttigieg win, however, it could symbolize the revenge of the Obama years and mark a potential third term (symbolically, at least) for America’s first African American president. Either way, it gives the party a path to take at a fork in a road immersed in a fog of doubt.
And as I write this analysis of the 2020 Iowa Caucus, the only things to emerge from that fog are fragmented results, a technological meltdown, downright chaos, and the fate of the caucus itself. So much for clarity.
First, the “results:” as of 5:15 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, only 85 percent of precincts have reported their results, leaving 15 percent still unaccounted for…after almost three days (The framework behind this delay is a farce all onto itself, but we’ll get to that shortly). Right now, as far as we know, it’s practically a dead-heat tie between the moderate Buttigieg (26.7 percent) and the progressive Sanders (24.4 percent), both of whom are tied at 11 delegates each. Meanwhile, it seems as if Clinton’s 2016 nightmare scenario has come to pass yet again: Sanders technically won the popular vote with roughly 34,000 votes, but Buttigieg still declared victory despite a 1,000-vote deficit. While some may echo calls of a “rigged” election, looking closer, it’s easy to see why Buttigieg won fair and square (for now): per Politico’s per-county map of the state, Sander’s circles, which represent the size of a candidate’s lead in a particular county, show that the socialist septuagenarian showcased commanding leads – some by nearly 10 percentage points – in counties like Story, Black Hawk, Linn and Muscatine. While Buttigieg possessed mostly smaller leads than Sanders, however, he simply won more counties than his older rival – 60 vs. 19, to be precise.
On a qualitative level, Buttigieg’s win gives him an opportunity to legitimize his clout in the Mideast, especially given his Indiana background, and potentially bodes well for his campaigns in future key states in that region such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin – states that Trump won in 2016 after working-class voters left the Obama coalition with promises of keeping their manufacturing and oil jobs. Sander’s close second place and delegate tie, meanwhile, proves his lasting popularity among younger urban voters for his platform and version of democratic socialism. As for the other candidates…well, so much for Joe Biden being the “frontrunner:” thanks to his empty fourth-place win in Iowa, New Hampshire matters more than ever as it serves as Biden’s final bellwether before states like Nevada and South Carolina, where he has maintained his lead up to this point. Warren remains in the top three with five delegates, but Sander’s crushing popular vote and six-delegate lead keeps her in catch-up mode in the Granite State.
Second, the meltdown, and it all boils down to this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The last dozen or so Iowa Caucuses went without a hitch doing it the old-fashioned way, and it does not help Iowa Democrats when the new, shiny toy from Denver-based Shadow, Inc., (great name, btw) designed to speed things up ends up slowing things to a week-long crawl while turning out to be unvetted by the Department of Homeland Security. It also doesn’t help that the app in question was created by a firm run by former Hillary Clinton campaign executives, and that multiple candidates, such as Buttigieg and Biden, paid the app’s makers for services; Buttigieg, per federal campaign finance records, paid nearly $43,000 for “software-related services” last summer, while Biden paid $1,225 for “text messaging services” around the same time, according to The Intercept, among other sources. I’m not making any assumptions here, but it just can’t look good for the party that wants to keep money out of elections if their candidates are paying this much money for this risky and unknown a venture.
Third, the chaos that resulted from the meltdown: like the lava that spews from a volcano, the collapse of this year’s Iowa vote has left pretty much everyone on the left in limbo. From candidates declaring premature victories (even if they were right in the end), to news organizations desperate for a final tally, to voters anxious and angry that their votes may have gotten lost in a tech-fueled jumble of a process, no one is safe from the burn of this embarrassment. It’s so much of an embarrassment, in fact, Trump wasn’t actually in the wrong to make fun of the episode and call it an “unmitigated disaster.” And that’s because it was; if I was a Democratic Iowan, I would be pissed if my vote got scrambled by Troy Price and those on his team wishing to bet the farm on the “next big thing” coming from a company who stemmed from their questionable namesake.
As chagrined as I am about this fiasco to my west, I’m equally disappointed in my more professional counterparts in the journalism field, who have been so quick to slap “rest in peace” on the entire tradition itself.
From CNN: “The Iowa caucuses just died forever.”
From New York Magazine: “R.I.P. the Iowa Caucuses (1972-2020).”
From Truthout: “The Iowa Caucus Has Choked Itself to Death at Last.”
From Politico: “The Death of Iowa.”
Now, I know an editorial when I see one, but these are still really extreme positions to take: you are essentially blaming Iowa for one botched up year that, as screwed up as it was, was not entirely its fault, because there was one thing more vital to this year’s vote than the bean counters behind the scenes: the voters out in the open, the men, women, young and old that took time out of their day to exercise their democratic right to voice their governmental preferences.
What makes Iowa so special as a voting state, aside its prominence as one of two “first in the nation” contests alongside New Hampshire, is how dynamic and personal this “gathering of neighbors,” as it’s often called, can be. In Iowa, the caucus, basically the more causal town-hall equivalent to the formal primary model, allows the public to openly discuss the candidates, their positions and their beliefs, and allow for the people to gauge which candidates have the most support on their level without facing the pressure of the paper ballot or national polls conducted beyond their reach. Yes, both contests ultimately cast votes, but by winning Iowa, a candidate gains initial momentum in that they have the best support of the every-man and the public conversation at that time (though, as with other primary contests, that can change in a heartbeat).
One can argue that Iowa may not reflect the diversifying national electorate. One can argue that its rural setting does not reflect the nation’s preferences toward more urban environments like New York City or Los Angeles. But all that is what makes Iowa so important for Democrats: it gives them a challenge. It forces them to try and persuade a more conservative electorate that their more liberal stances are worth their ballot, and it forces voters to directly raise awareness for each candidate on the ground, something you cannot do nearly as well with a more formal primary in states like New Hampshire or Florida.
So, despite what happened this year, I can promise you – and to my readers in Iowa – that the Hawkeye State is alive and well, and that a one-time mess-up is just that: a one-time mess-up. Iowa is just one contest, and the other 49 are bound to be equally exciting (and hopefully less awkward).
Just…don’t let it happen again.