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Making Sense of the Iowa Caucus Chaos

The first round of voting in the Democratic primary was marked by uncertainty and confusion. The winner is still unclear.

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The Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses convened at 7 p.m. local time on Monday, and while they adjourned within a few hours, it’s hard to say when exactly they ended. The uncertainty about the outcomes ran long into the night and into the next morning. There was trouble. The Iowa Democratic Party couldn’t count the results from the state’s 1,679 voting precincts, where election officials struggled to report the hand-counted tallies through a network of fussy apps and busy hotlines. It was a shit show. “I suspect I speak for all of the candidates,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said. “I am extremely disappointed by the inability of the Iowa Democratic Party to come up with the results in a timely manner. I don’t know why in 2020 it should take so much time.”

The Iowa Democratic caucuses are a neighborly, deliberative format that presents more logistical challenges than a ballot box election. Still, Iowa tends to function as expected on election night. Since Jimmy Carter, Democrats have relied on Iowa to distinguish the front-runners from the long shots. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have bet their broader “electability” on a breakout performance in Iowa, the first state to cast judgment on the presidential candidates in both parties. Iowa relishes its first-in-the-nation privilege to tell all the other states how to vote. Twelve years ago, Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton there, and then won his party’s presidential nomination on the strength of his momentum: That’s the Iowa story. The Iowa caucuses apportion 41 delegates from a total of 3,979 delegates to the Democratic National Convention in July. The presidential candidates don’t need the delegates as much as they need the spin: The first, big, victorious speech in the long march toward Milwaukee.

Hence, the massive frustration among election-watchers Monday night as the Iowa Democratic Party withheld the caucus results for what were initially unclear reasons. The state party’s sparse and contradictory statements bred speculation about causes for the delay: hacking, corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, all of the above. The presidential candidates exploited the uncertainty. Joe Biden’s campaign asked the Iowa Democratic Party to withhold the results until the election officials accounted for the complications. Buttigieg declared victory in Iowa immediately. He celebrated his “victory” in the Iowa caucuses well before the state’s Democratic Party shared any official results. “By all indications,” Buttigieg announced, “we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.” Sanders may have led the most recent polls heading into the Iowa caucus, but the other candidates could each claim some measure of “victory,” however illusory, as the absence of any clear winner in Iowa meant that there were no real losers, too. Klobuchar spoke first Monday night, delivering her stump speech as if it were in fact her victory speech. “We know there’s delays, but we know one thing,” Klobuchar said. “We are punching above our weight.” Realistically, Klobuchar polled at 9 percent support among Iowa Democrats, ranking fifth among her rivals. She might have otherwise suspended her campaign after a poor performance in a Midwestern state. But now, “victoriously,” Klobuchar soldiers on to New Hampshire.

The problems with reporting the results do not appear to have affected anyone’s ability to cast their vote. But the delay denied social media and cable news networks the spectacle of analyzing conclusive pronouncements in prime time, which dictate expectations for campaigns. There’s no rational reason for the average voter to panic about the 18-hour delay in counting delegates in a national convention that opens six months from now. The backlash to the Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses, in general, predates the recent fiasco. Democrats have struggled to defend the Iowa caucuses: The state is too white and too rural to justify its outsize prominence in national politics, and the caucuses are too quaint and too transactional to romanticize as an underdog state’s electoral gantlet. The parties, the campaigns, and the networks have conspired to exaggerate the state’s significance in the presidential cycle. It’s a problem for the Iowa Democratic Party, but it’s also a problem for the people banging down the state party’s door every four years.

The backlash against the Iowa Democratic Party reveals the degree to which cable news culture—its plug-and-play narratives, its election-night trackers, its mercurial news cycles—dictates the democratic process. It may well dictate Iowa’s eventual demotion as the first state to vote, and its reversion to the primary election format, in subsequent presidential campaign cycles. The cable news networks moderate the debates and spot the winners and losers in statewide elections even with zero precincts reporting. As of Tuesday night, over 60 percent of Iowa precincts had reported their results. Buttigieg placed first, followed (in descending order) by Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Klobuchar. In retrospect, Buttigieg’s victorious declaration on Monday night makes sense; he wasn’t predicting the result so much as he was anticipating the need to circulate footage from a victorious election-night rally, and not from some drab press conference assembled to announce his victory the following day. He meant to resemble Obama pronouncing his own triumph in Iowa 12 years ago. It’s a winner’s footage. Better late than never.