By Sean Casey
It’s finally over. After months of polling, punditry, selfies, steak fries and the most mismanaged electoral event in modern history, the much-vaunted Iowa caucuses have one undisputed victor: the Republican Party. Seriously. Nobody on the left went home happy, least of all the candidates — and really, can you blame them?
So let’s take it from the top. Pete Buttigieg, the two-term Hoosier mayor and Democratic dark horse, put on an incredible performance at the polls. He enjoyed broad support from rural and suburban voters, markedly surpassing expectations and recent polling to claim more of Iowa’s 41 delegates than any of his rivals (beating out Bernie by a tenth of a percent). Nobody thought it was possible, including me, and I work for the guy.
Yet one has to wonder how the state party’s bungled reporting procedures will dampen his chances. Iowa’s outsized impact on the nomination originates not with its modest delegate pool but with its unique ability to create a sense of strength in a campaign. The winner is well-positioned to claim the post of tested frontrunner, and the public is inclined to take them at their word, thus generating a wave of maxed-out donations, glowing editorials and spiking popularity. It remains to be seen whether Buttigieg can finagle some upward momentum out of his improbable triumph. Nevertheless, the delays and subsequent tsunami of negative press seem likely to blunt his boost before it gets off the ground.
Nor are his opponents satisfied with the outcome of Monday night. Bernie craved a blowout to consolidate the progressive wing of the party, entice new members into the fold and — hope against hope — capture the eye of some moderates. That didn’t happen. Although Sanders’ following is as loyal as ever, it seems unlikely the photo finish swayed any hearts and minds to his side, a worrying prospect for a candidate who already finds it difficult to draw converts. Even worse, the Sanders camp was slow to comment on the caucus non-results, allowing Buttigieg to fill the media vacuum with an early victory speech before official tallies were released. Twitter convulsed in response, but the story stuck. After the first wave of data hit the airwaves on Tuesday, the headline chyron on every network spoke of Mayor Pete’s poll position in the delegate count, not Bernie’s plurality of the popular vote.
The apocalypse is nigh for the other two frontrunners. Warren had expected Iowa to reintroduce her to the Democratic electorate after a winter of plunging numbers. Biden needed a competitive finish, if not an outright win, to dispel concerns that his support was shakier than it seemed. In reality, they each confirmed their own worst narratives. Warren demonstrated that she’s too extreme for the moderates and too mild for the progressives: technically viable in most counties yet losing all but one. And Biden validated those who thought his base hollow, losing half of his backers somewhere between Monday morning and Monday night. At the time of this writing, he has yet to receive a single pledged delegate.
The caucuses from hell proved no less damaging for the rest of the field. Klobuchar, having staked everything on this first bout, will receive little recognition for her better-than-expected showing, thanks to late reporting, a Bernie-Buttigieg nailbiter and the nature of the 24-hour news cycle. Yang vastly underperformed his fundraising numbers, Steyer remained a non-entity, and Bloomberg can’t be thrilled that Iowa, a state he chose not to invest in, has captured even more national attention than usual.
And this week’s debacle is poised to wreak havoc on the rest of the Democratic Party. It now seems unlikely that, come 2024, the first state to cast its ballots (or stand in its corners) will be Iowa. Its population is too white, its political leanings too conservative, its recent humiliation too public. The ensuing changes are sure to be unpopular, imprudent and hotly contested in a time when the DNC can little afford internal dissent, especially as the possibility of a virulent brokered convention looms large on the horizon.
Expect the consequences for civic discourse to reach even farther. There’s already talk of conspiracy, invalidation and rigged polling from across the party. Some of the accusers are unsurprising — looking at you, Twitter — but many have their roots in sources that should know better. The Biden campaign released a wildly presumptuous letter Monday night calling for an explanation of the “acute flaws” in the caucus process. Seems reasonable — until one understands that the letter was disseminated well ahead of any information on the status of the votes and far before it was responsible to raise questions of election integrity.
This brings us back to the Republicans. At about the same time Biden published his letter, notorious Daily Wire reporter Ryan Saavedra tweeted, “If you think Democrats’ total screw up of the Iowa caucuses is bad, just wait till they kick you off your health insurance plan.” Donald Trump Jr. asked, “If the Democrats can’t run a caucus that they had four years to prepare for, how the hell can anyone think they could actually run the country?” And conservative media royalty Sean Davis wrote simply, “They stole Iowa from Bernie Sanders in 2016 and they’re going to try and do it again in 2020.”
The point: the Iowa caucuses were disastrous. A lot of people are angry, and rightly so. But it is telling that, on this issue, the rhetoric of Trump officials echoes the Biden campaign’s letter. It is telling that some of Bernie’s loudest advocates sound a lot like their counterparts across the aisle. And it is telling that the people the left seeks to defeat in 2020 are the same people spurring on its current civil war.
Is it reasonable to banish all internal division from the Democratic electorate? Of course not — nor would that help. As the GOP can attest, a party in lockstep is a party dying. Even so, it seems the left often forgets the real opposition. It neglects to realize the only beneficiaries of a vicious primary season are the Republicans, the big winner of an Iowa controversy is the incumbent president, and the people who will capitalize on outrage over the predictable failures of a well-intentioned though quaintly deficient nominating process are the same people that process is meant to combat. Rather than work together for the good of the party, Democrats take to the internet, caught up in self-righteousness, blind to the mere possibility of unintended consequences. Tragic? Of course. Avoidable? Completely. American? You bet it is.
Contact Sean Casey at spcasey ‘at’ stanford.edu.