In the battle of a 77-year-old who was ancient when he last ran for president 12 years ago against a 78-year-old democratic-socialist who just had a heart attack, the Iowa caucuses gave us the equivalent of the shrug emoji.
Or maybe they tried to give us a young knight in shining armor, riding in to save the day.
I had no idea how prescient my above headline image, featured twice in the last two weeks (including one column literally titled Whaaaat Is Happening in Iowa?) would be. How perfect that the weirdest Iowa caucuses season ever — one where five candidates kept hitting viability and the vaunted Des Moines Register‘s final poll was totally scrapped — had a night where the Iowa Democratic Party reported out on precisely zero (ZERO!) precincts.
What The actual F.
If trying to solve the mystery, I’ll refer you to the big reporting sites who are looking into it. It’s some combination of “inconsistencies,” wanting “quality control,” a malfunctioning app, and, apparently, everyone forgetting how to either count, use a phone, or both.
I’ll instead focus on my personal reactions to what we learned in five random thoughts:
1. I’m tired and I’m angry. I’ve literally had an Iowa countdown on this website since the day after the 2018 midterms, 15 months ago. This was a big day in PPFA world, one to which I had looked forward for a while. I drank a huge soda with dinner. I was ready to push it to 9:00 or, if necessary, 10:00. (I’m a high school teacher and father of two who gets up at 5 in the morning. Back off.) And then it was 11:00. And then 11:30. And then midnight. And we still had nothing. NOTHING.
So tired. So angry.
And I’m not the only one. I flipped across Fox, CNN, and MSNBC throughout the night, and at some point they all had pretty strong criticisms of the Iowa caucuses. The liberal networks in general had already softened the ground here; for weeks they raised criticism of Iowa and New Hampshire’s hallowed place as the first two states despite them not well-representing the Democratic Party. The undemocratic caucus format, too, had been under fire even before last night. How many older voters are turned off by the long, cold, loud night? How many second shift workers making end’s meet skip work? Could a pregnant woman have handled standing in line for hours? No absentee ballots? The list of complaints stretches further than an Iowa cornfield.
By this morning, momentum is fully behind last night being Iowa’s final unchallenged go-round as the first primary contest. By the next Democratic Primary, it’s likely we see reforms.
That’s what you get for making everyone tired and angry.
2. It was such a weird night! We kept waiting and waiting for results that never came, even as anchors and Twitter kept saying things like, “At this point four years ago, 83% of precincts had reported.” After a while, we had campaigns claiming momentum by giving quasi-victory speeches without any results! So weird.
Of course, knowing me, I began to internally rank the five Weirdest Political Nights of My Lifetime. (I’ll keep it to my lifetime. All time, however, I think the elections of 1800 and 1876 are unassailable. Then again, they didn’t happen in one night.)
5. Iowa 2008. A guy named Barack Hussein Obama just beat the Clinton Machine?!
4. Iowa 2012. Romney and Santorum were separated by barely any votes all night. Romney was finally declared the winner by 8 votes and got his Iowa bump, but weeks later Iowa determined that Santorum had actually won by 34. At that point, however, he was denied the Iowa bump that wrongly went to Romney.
3. Iowa 2020.
2. General election 2000. Who can forget the networks batting Florida back and forth like a ping-pong ball? We didn’t elect a president that night… and for a month after we didn’t know who it would be! That surely outranks last night’s WTF status.
1. General election 2016. Nothing has ever been, nor will anything ever be, as weird as Donald Trump becoming President of the United States.
3. Turnout was low. So much for Sanders and Yang creating newly engaged voters. Despite high hopes — some thought turnout could shatter the record and approach 300,000 — tepid turnout was reportedly on 2016’s pace, which means about 170,000 caucusgoers. The prior competitive Democratic Primary, that of 2008, had 240,000. Considering the Democrats lost four years ago but won in 2008, some wonder if that’s a foreboding sign.
It’s unclear if that signifies anything, though. I didn’t think there was a reason to doubt Democrats’ engagement with politics in the Trump era, particularly after their record-breaking midterm performance, but maybe? Then again, enough Democrats have said it doesn’t matter who the nominee is; others can make the choice and they’ll back whoever it is. Such a voter has little reason to brave an Iowa winter’s night just to elbow their way into a cacophonous gym for three hours.
4. How do we think the campaigns did?
Though we have few official results, my impression, based on entrance polls and various precinct tallies as shared through reporting and Twitter, was as follows:
- Sanders was running up the largest margins in areas he did well, but sometimes he would finish third or fourth in a precinct that was bad for him.
- Elizabeth Warren was either the second or third strongest candidate on initial alignments.
- My endorsed candidate Amy Klobuchar met viability in many precincts, but only barely. She seemed to be an as-expected fifth place.
- There was no hidden groundswell of support from the #YangGang.
- Tom Steyer’s millions bought him zero viability, thank goodness.
- Joe Biden was likely heading toward a disappointing fourth place, even falling short of viability in a surprising number of precincts.
The headline: Pete Buttigieg’s organization may have made him the night’s big winner. It appeared he rivaled Warren with the second most support heading into the caucuses, but as the night went on it looked like he was the best maneuverer of the evening. I think he was the biggest winner of realignments. Where Klobuchar wasn’t viable her supporters went to Buttigieg more often than Biden, which seemed to surprise reporters (though it made sense to me, who has been a “1. Klobuchar, 2. Buttigieg” guy for some time). I think he’ll have an easy top two in delegate count, and until the results are revealed he can even dream of topping Sanders for first. That means Mayor Pete wins the expectations game.
5. Ultimately, however, the night will likely not be seen as dispositive by anyone other than whomever most beat expectations — likely Buttigieg. Biden’s campaign is already calling the process a failure, but that’s only because he probably finished in a disappointing fourth. Klobuchar — as high as a four-way statistical tie for second in one New Hampshire tracking poll — is already in the Granite State claiming momentum since she can hide her probably disappointing fifth place finish. Heck, even the Sanders people think they got screwed by all this, and they probably won. (Then again, they think they get screwed by everything, so take that with a kernel of corn.) Conspiracy theories abound.
Meanwhile, candidates’ quest for an Iowa bump will be mitigated by this week’s relentless news cycle. Tonight is the State of the Union. Tomorrow is the Senate vote on President Trump’s impeachment. Those factors now combined with a chaotic Iowa mean we might not see any Iowa bump whatsoever. Remember, Iowa successes are only as strong as they appear, as revealed through media coverage. The delegate counts are likely to be close, with just a handful separating the top two, with third and maybe fourth place a handful back of that. But how the results are spun means everything. (See Santorum, Rick.) If the results are drowned out or drawn into question, even Rumpelstiltskin’s princess couldn’t spin that into political gold.
With chaos reigning, here’s what we can look forward to for the rest of the month. We’ll see how much time and energy I have left, but the PPFA needle approaches empty.
Some time this week: Iowa results (if we can be so lucky)
Friday, February 7: New Hampshire debate (likely with seven candidates: Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, Yang, and Steyer. Gabbard needs a miracle to make it eight. If she doesn’t get it, she’ll pretend she never wanted to go in the first place. After Biden’s presumably disappointing Iowa, he will be desperate to match his one good debate.)
Tuesday, February 12: New Hampshire Primary (perhaps with raised stakes after this Iowa disaster. That’s good for Bernie Sanders, who will romp. The race for second and third is enormous. Biden will need to begin his comeback, Warren wants to emerge as the establishment/progressive compromise against Sanders, and Buttigieg might be one more surprise showing away from totally transforming the primary.)
Wednesday, February 19: Nevada debate (Maybe with 100% more Mike Bloomberg! Starting here, the DNC has dropped debate donor requirements. Candidates need to earn at least 10% in four national and/or Nevada and/or South Carolina qualifying polls released from January 15 to February 18, or 12 percent in two qualifying polls from Nevada or South Carolina during the same window. Bloomberg has a decent shot at the 10% route with his strengthening national polling. He just hit 14 with Morning Consult — a tie for third with Warren.)
Saturday, February 22: Nevada caucuses (the weird, weird Nevada caucuses)
Tuesday, February 25: South Carolina debate (a creaky Biden slowly gets up from his lounge chair…)
Saturday, February 29: South Carolina Primary (…and makes his last stand)