The Iowa Caucuses Are Broken Forever

The situation in Iowa last night quickly devolved into chaos as it became clear shortly after 9 PM central time that there were significant delays in reporting the results. As minutes passed, reports started leaking out that there were inconsistencies in the results being reported by precincts to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP), that a new app built to streamline the caucus process was not performing properly, and that back up reporting systems like phone lines were jammed. Campaigns who were desperate to declare victory and move on to New Hampshire were forced to leave airplanes idling on tarmacs as they watched whatever momentum they were hoping to gain from a strong result in Iowa slip away as each minute passed. Pundits across the media sphere scrambled to fill unexpected gaps in air time. Chaos reigned.

Stories of incompetence soon flooded the Twitterverse. In many instances, organizers had trouble using the new app, citing a confusing user interface and glitches that wiped data while inputting information into the app and causing phone screens to turn off. Some precinct captains ended up submitting the wrong numbers accidentally. Eventually, many abandoned the app altogether. 

That is when things really started to spin out of control. In one instance, a precinct captain who was on hold with the IDP attempted to simultaneously perform an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN as he waited to report his results. He had been on hold for an hour by the time the interview began. In the middle of the interview, by chance, the IDP representative finally answered the phone. The precinct captain tried to deftly end the interview with CNN so he could perform his democratic duty, but Wolf pressed on.

“Can we listen in as you report [the results]?” Wolf asked.

“Yep,” the precinct captain said.

On the other end, an IDP official could be heard saying, “Hello? Hello?” followed by a clicking sound as the line disconnected.

“They hung up on me,” the precinct captain said.

In another instance, a precinct captain who could no longer put up with the long wait times simply tweeted out the results of their caucus in the hopes that the IDP would see the tweet and went to bed. At least one precinct ended up resorting to allocating delegates by a coin flip when two candidates tied instead of splitting the delegates evenly between the winners. By 11 PM, the scale of the disaster was clear and candidates decided to move on, but not before taking to the stage to declare victory, or at least a strong finish.

For Americans, the current disaster in Iowa has an element of deja vu to it. This isn’t the first time that Iowa has impacted the legitimacy of US elections. Indeed, Iowa has caused problems in the previous two presidential elections. In 2012, a close result between GOP candidates led to a recount that cast doubt over the results. Rick Santorum was declared the victor two weeks later, but by then, Mitt Romney had already declared victory and moved on. In 2016, the results for the delegate allocations were basically a tie between Sanders and Clinton but somehow Clinton managed to "win" by half a percentage point. The Sanders campaign demanded a recount because, of course, half a percentage point is well within any reasonable margin of error. But the precincts had only recorded the final delegate numbers, not the first and second alignment counts. Echoing Romney, while Sanders supporters worked to sort out the confusion, Clinton declared victory, seizing the momentum of the moment, and moved on to New Hampshire.

In order to prevent such confusion again, the IDP asked for first and second alignment counts in addition to the final delegate allocations this year. But asking the precincts to report three sets of numbers instead of one added to the complexity of keeping the numbers straight in an already complicated caucus process. Combined with the addition of a new, under-tested app, as well as good old fashioned human error, this extra level of complexity in reporting the results introduced new systematic failures instead of fixing old problems.

All of this now brings us to the question at hand: what does all of this mean for the future of the Iowa caucuses? As many, including myself, have pointed out, the position of the Iowa caucuses as the first contest in the primary season is already a deeply problematic accident of history even when everything goes smoothly. As I wrote this past weekend: “Iowa is roughly 90% White, while the Democratic Party is, well, not. Also, Iowa only sends 49 delegates to the DNC, which means that it is far less significant in terms of delegate math than states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania. Yet Iowa has been the first state to weigh in on Democratic Party candidates for almost half a century.” 

To make matters worse, the impact of this debacle threatens the legitimacy of the DNC and the Democratic Party writ large. To understand why, consider the legacy of the 2016 elections. As one Sanders supporter explained to me, the DNC’s reputation had been damaged in four ways in 2016. 

First, “The DNC was struggling financially in 2015. Hillary Clinton offered to give money to the DNC, but only if she had a say in how the money was spent. In practice, this meant she got to make decisions on staffing and on primary decisions, such as dates and times of debates or primary poll locations. This is an established fact revealed by Donna Brazile, a longtime Dem operative (and not a Bernie supporter). The more questionable accusation is that she used this position to time debates and to influence the DNC in her favor. This isn’t well established, but I personally think it has merit (particularly the debates, which were all on odd times when no one would watch, like Friday nights). There were also a lot of polling problems in competitive states such as Michigan and New York.”

Second, “The DNC hack revealed a bunch of emails by Democrat leaders that were openly against Sanders. There is a lot of stuff here, but the general point is that everyone from DNC lawyers to the DNC chair herself were all sending emails to each other trying to figure out ways to neuter his candidacy. If I recall correctly, some were directly communicating to the Clinton campaign on how they should attack him, that was really the worst example. The DNC is supposed to be the neutral referee of the primary process.”

“The third thing has to do with 1) the number of candidates in the field and 2) the open endorsement by almost all of the “superdelegates” of the party to Clinton before any primaries had even begun.  The low number of candidates was very strange considering it wasn’t a Dem presidential re-election campaign. I think you could argue that this low number actually helped Sanders gain traction because everyone else (like Joe Biden) refused to run. The second part is that for most of the primary history there were 2 types of delegates, the state delegates which were appointed based on the primary votes and then “superdelegates” who were allocated to different candidates but could choose whatever candidates they wanted. The superdelegates are all party elites in the various states and in DC. They all openly said they would vote for Hillary before primaries started and it was reported to look like Hillary already had 1000+ delegates in her corner before any primaries started. Sanders campaign asserted that this skewed the voting, as the superdelegates made it seem like Sanders was unelectable.”

The fourth factor that damaged the DNC’s reputation in 2016 was the way the Iowa Caucuses were handled, as explained above. Putting all of this together, it was clear that the legitimacy of the DNC was at stake going into this 2020 primary season, which is why it was extremely important that the very first primary go as smoothly as possible. 

Now that Iowa has once again thrown a wrench in the democratic works, it is time to accept that they need to be reformed, if not completely overhauled. As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” There are two relatively small ways to salvage the situation in 2024 without overhauling the entire primary system, as many are calling for. First, Iowa should not go first in the primary season. There is no logic behind its privileged position as the first state in the nation to weigh in on presidential candidates. Second, Iowa should end the caucus system and convert to a primary system, which is arguably more democratic anyway. Unlike the current system, people with jobs and children or other obligations that would prevent them from caucusing can participate. In addition, primaries require less infrastructure and organization to administer.

Whatever the outcome of the Iowa caucuses are this year, the results will surely be questioned. And future candidates will have to wonder whether it is worth their time to pour millions of dollars into the state when there is no guarantee that of a pay off electorally. Moreover, the debacle has given Republicans a new angle from which to criticize the Democratic party. Already, Twitter trolls are rolling out the talking point that, if the Dems can’t even manage the Iowa caucuses, they can’t be trusted to run the country. That is, of course, malarky, as Biden would say, but it points to a larger issue: this situation may very well help Trump win in November by discrediting the Democratic party entirely. Along the same lines, younger voters could be turned off and trust in democratic systems is bound to suffer. That in turn, could lead to lower turn out and put a damper on whatever hopes the Democrats had for a Blue wave in November. 

The bottom line is that the Iowa Caucuses are broken, possibly forever. It is unclear how the system recovers from this situation. Looking forward to 2024, the Iowa caucuses are now more of a liability than an advantage to candidates who put money into them, and the DNC will be loath to repeat it’s mistake for a third time. If nothing changes before 2024 and Iowa retains its spot as the first in the primary schedule, voters will certainly be more wary of taking time off from work or hiring babysitters to participate in caucuses. The IDP and the DNC have a long road ahead of them if they wish to recover from this, and for now, it is unclear they ever will. 

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