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On the Trail: Making Sense of the Iowa-Caucuses Mess


The 2020 Iowa caucuses will be remembered as a mess. First, the app that the Iowa Democratic Party purchased so that caucus organizers could report the night’s vote tallies broke down, forcing the Party to delay releasing the results. Then, the Party proceeded to parcel the results out in chunks over the ensuing days, only to end up having to retract and amend some of those partial figures, as errors in the data were identified. There was confusion, and there was a data vacuum. Pete Buttigieg, who outperformed expectations, declared that he was leaving Iowa “victorious.” Joe Biden’s campaign, which underperformed, made noise about the delayed results and “quality control.” The Times published an article headlined, simply, “Here’s a List of Everything That Went Wrong at the Iowa Caucuses.”

As of Thursday, when I’m writing this, we still don’t have a hundred per cent of the numbers from Monday night. (And we may not have truly final results for some time longer: early on Thursday afternoon, Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee, called for a retallying of the results.) What’s clear is that the Iowa caucuses ended up being a very close contest between Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg, and, despite Buttigieg’s “victorious” caucus-night speech, Sanders may well wind up edging him out to claim victory. (Or not.) Elizabeth Warren came in third, and Biden came in fourth, with Amy Klobuchar not far behind him.

Of the four early-voting states, Iowa was where Democrats focussed most of their attention this past year. New Hampshire and South Carolina looked favorable to Sanders and Biden, respectively, and Nevada was barely talked about. Which makes it particularly weird that the results from Iowa will now, in many ways, be dismissed as a wash, or unknowable. Sanders’s supporters, in particular, are right to feel that the spoils of victory were denied to them—in the media, at least. Sanders is benefitting from a fund-raising surge and looks strong in the upcoming states, but the story out of Iowa wasn’t “Bernie, Front-Runner”—it was “Iowa, Catastrophe.” His campaign is understandably proud that its high Iowa finish came thanks to strong support from minority voters, whom it made a point of appealing to in the overwhelmingly white state. There’s another aspect of the results that I think got lost in all of the craziness: for the past few weeks, Sanders was telling his supporters, explicitly, that turnout was crucial. “On caucus night, if somebody tells you that the turnout is high, we win,” he said at a rally in Ames last month. “If somebody tells you turnout is pretty low, we lose.” On Monday, turnout turned out to be middling. Sanders may have won, anyway. I don’t know what to make of that. (Anybody out there have any ideas?)

My colleagues have been doing a good job of making sense of the different aspects of the Iowa-caucus aftermath. In a twist out of some kind of cheap potboiler, it turned out that the app at the center of Iowa’s caucus meltdown was made by a company called Shadow, which in turn is an offshoot of a political nonprofit named Acronym. The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz just happened to have stopped by Acronym’s offices a few weeks ago, before all of this happened, and wrote a piece about the veteran Democratic operative behind the outfit, whom he described as “a starry-eyed techno-utopian, prone to believing that a wide array of societal ills can be cured by another innovation, another round of investment, or another app.” Meanwhile, Sue Halpern, who has been sounding the alarm about the shoddy state of election infrastructure for years, broke down how this all came to be and what should be done about it. For a start, she wrote, “The United States needs to move away from having for-profit companies running elections, prohibit candidates from funding companies that also supply election technology for primaries and general elections, and provide sufficient training for poll workers, who are the intermediaries between the voters and the outcome.”

Before I left Iowa, on Wednesday, I spoke to a number of Iowans distraught over what had happened and what was being said about their state and its political processes. The caucuses themselves, in high-school gyms and libraries and town halls, had gone smoothly. The results would come out eventually. This demand for an Election Night that starts with uncertainty and ends with resolution is an arbitrary modern creation of the media, and of television news, in particular. I could sympathize with their frustration, but not with their conclusions. The primary process is arbitrary. Iowa going first is arbitrary. These aren’t constitutionally mandated aspects of American self-government: the parties hold primaries to build momentum around their candidates, to project confidence and competence, to create the justification for a nomination. After the Democratic Presidential candidates spent months campaigning and millions of dollars, the results from Iowa won’t help those ends. There’s no other way to look at it.

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