The Morning Jolt


Iowa’s Democratic Disaster

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders appears at an election night rally in Des Moines, Iowa. U.S., February 3, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

On the menu today, Iowa’s Democrats give America a night it will never forget, for all the wrong reasons, while Republicans have a delightfully boring and predictable caucus night.

The Night the Iowa Caucus Died

For Iowa Democrats, the night of February 3, 2020 will forever rank among the greatest disappointments, frustrations, and purely enraging humiliations of their lives. As of 6:35 a.m. Eastern this morning, the Iowa Democratic Party simply . . . cannot tabulate the votes!

The delay is baffling, as anyone should be able to do this with a spreadsheet program or even a sheet of paper. Yes, there is a lot of data — there are about 1,600 precincts — but they held these caucuses before the Internet or mobile phone technology. The data-tabulation app may have failed, but the human mind is allegedly capable of functioning without an app.

Note that this is only an issue in the Democratic caucus. Four years ago, Iowa Republicans recorded their vote totals for each candidate; you can look it up today and know that Ted Cruz won 51,666 votes and Donald Trump won 45,429 votes.

You can’t do that for the Democratic results of four years ago, because the party only recorded the number of pledged delegates at each location. The Bernie Sanders campaign objected to this standard, contending that while the outcome was no doubt close, it’s quite possible he had more overall supporters. We will never know, because no one in the Democratic Party thought it was important to record how many people supported which candidate after the first grouping in support of candidates.

After Sanders complaints in 2016, the Iowa state party realized that while the delegates are what really count, it made sense to record who supported which candidate at each step of the caucus’ surprisingly complicated and convoluted process. In the Iowa caucuses, supporters of those below the 15 percent threshold can merge together and form a larger Voltron-like “viable” option for a compromise candidate, or, in some cases, Cory Booker, a candidate who quit the race last month.

The state party insists their problems with the vote totals did not represent a hack or other outside problem. But as Monday turned into Tuesday, Iowa Democratic Party leaders basically declared that no one was allowed to know what the results were, and that no one was allowed to know why nothing could be revealed:

In a call with the campaigns earlier this evening, the Iowa Democratic Party struggled to explain why Iowa caucus results have not been released. According to two sources with information about the call, the party would not say why it was not releasing any information, and struggled to explain what issues had caused the considerable delay.

When the explanation did arrive, the statement generated more questions than answers:

We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” said Mandy McClure, the party’s communications director. “In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report. This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.

Wait, what inconsistencies? Is this a simple matter of somebody forgetting to carry the one, or are the results not seeming to match from one set to the next?

If you aren’t all that invested in who won and resent the fact that this state always gets to go first . . . Monday night was hilarious. The party that constantly reminds us how they are the party of science, the party of education and educators, the party that is forward-looking and embraces the power of technology . . . cannot do math when it counts. The party that wants the federal government to take over the health-care system cannot add up numbers from 1,600 precincts. This was all over again. Staffers for presidential campaigns raged over the fact that when they called up the state party for answers, party officials hung up on them. One precinct secretary was on hold, trying to report results; called in to CNN, finally got through, and then the party hung up on him live on the air.

Come on, guys. Even the Chinese government is giving some answers about the coronavirus outbreak. Saddam Hussein’s old spokesman “Baghdad Bob” may have lied all the time, but at least he was willing to appear in front of the cameras.

Monday night in Iowa was a cross between Franz Kafka and HBO’s Veep, as state party officials insisting that nothing beyond routine issues were being worked out, while everyone stood around, and the talking heads on the cable networks filled airtime, waiting for results that would not come. Shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern, with the deadlines for the front page of East Coast newspapers passing, the candidates started appearing at their Iowa campaign headquarters and giving their victory speeches. We’re used to candidates giving those speeches, with less than 100 percent of precincts reporting, and not knowing exactly how they’ll finish. We’ve never seen candidates give their speeches having no idea how they did, or only the vaguest idea. (From the precincts covered on cable news, Sanders appeared to be having a good night, and Biden not such a good one. But those cities and college towns probably aren’t representative.)

The speeches were not updated to reflect the bizarre circumstances. Sanders referred to, “the message that the voters of Iowa have sent to the nation.” What message?

This morning, Democrats look exactly like what their critics accuse them of being — a bunch of grandiose dreamers whose ambitions greatly exceed their competence. They can’t handle the basics of running elections in a constitutional Republic, but they fantasize of having far-reaching powers over the daily lives of every American.

And it comes on the heels of the results of the Des Moines Register poll being withheld because “a candidate’s name was omitted in at least one interview in which the respondent was asked to name their preferred candidate.”

We can laugh — and we will — but for public faith in free and fair elections, last night was a catastrophe. If we watched this happen in another country, would we believe that the foreign nation was running free and fair elections? Or would we look at the lengthy and inexplicable delay as evidence that some sort of shenanigans were going on?

At some point, hopefully today, we will hear the election results, and those 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention will get allocated. But how many voters will trust those results? How many will think that the convoluted process — with some precincts being decided by coin tosses! — was unfair to their preferred candidate?

Andrew Yang offered an uncharacteristically lame comment on Twitter that “it might be helpful to have a president and government that understand technology so this sort of thing doesn’t happen.” The president of the United States has nothing to do with how the Iowa Democratic Party runs its caucus, or what app it chooses to use, or whether it does sufficient testing beforehand.

I have never liked the Iowa caucuses. Iowans themselves are fine people, but the fact that this state always gets to go first skews our politics in ridiculous ways. You could argue that ethanol subsidies exist and continue entirely because of the Iowa caucuses. You hear Iowans talking about how they’re having a hard time deciding among the candidates because they’ve only met them twice. For most of the rest of us, our contact with the candidates consists of hearing endless echoes of: “I’m Mike Bloomberg, and I approved this message.” And as laid out many times, caucuses don’t offer a secret ballot, have much lower turnout than primaries, require multi-hour time commitments, and are tougher for those who work nights or have kids.

The Ames, Iowa, straw poll ended as a tradition last cycle, and maybe this debacle will finish off the caucuses:

If one thing was certain from Monday’s debacle, Iowa had just signed its death warrant as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said.

“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Yepsen said. “The real winner tonight was Donald Trump, who got to watch his opponents wallow in a mess. A lot of good Democratic candidates and people who fought their hearts out here for … nothing.”

Oh, and as for the Republicans . . .

Meanwhile, the Republicans ran their caucuses . . . without a hitch. Trump won 97 percent, William Weld got 1.3 percent, and Joe Walsh got 1.1 percent. Sure, turnout is much lower when there’s an incumbent, but the GOP is pretty pleased that about 32,000 Republicans came out to participate in a process that had no drama whatsoever.

ADDENDA: Man, I didn’t have “unmitigated disaster with no results” on my preemptive spin scorecard . . .

. . . I guess for one night, Michael Bennet and Deval Patrick are doing roughly as well as everyone else, huh?

Oh, and meanwhile, over in Wuhan China, apparently medical personnel are enforcing quarantine zones with automatic rifles, at least according to video accounts on Twitter. Boy, that doesn’t look ominous, does it? Isn’t that the mid-point of every terrible epidemic-disaster movie?


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