An hours-long delay in reporting results from the Iowa caucuses raised serious questions about the process.
It was not immediately clear exactly why Iowa Democrats were slow to report the results — they said in a statement they were checking for accuracy after finding inconsistencies — but that didn’t stop candidates already in a rush to leave for New Hampshire from crowding out to give speeches before any results were reported.
It was a reminder that there are some structural problems with the caucus system, which is barely democratic even though it has such an outsized importance in the American political process.
But there are issues with the caucuses that extend far beyond the “inconsistencies” Monday night.
“I would get rid of all the caucuses, first of all,” Terry McAuliffe, a former DNC chairman and Virginia governor said on CNN. He pointed out that Iowa’s population, at more than 90% white, is very different than the rest of the Democratic party. But the problems are bigger than demographics.
“They’re undemocratic processes. People don’t have time to go spend the time like you heard today,” McAuliffe said, arguing that instead Americans should “go vote, pull the curtain, close it vote and leave. That is a democratic way.”
Candidates with committed core groups of followers, often pushing a movement or an issue, can do very well at caucuses. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders cleaned up with caucuses in 2016, when he was the outsider challenging Hillary Clinton. They can be more a test of organizing strength among committed base supporters than genuine support across the electorate.
Nearly every state has moved away from the system, but two of the four early states — Iowa and Nevada — still use them, as does Wyoming. Several other states still hold them on the Republican side.
All general election voting and the vast majority of primaries these days are done in private. At caucuses, people who are neighbors go to the same location, stand in corners along with other people who support the same candidate and pressure each other to change sides.
It’s a complicated process to be sure. In 2016, when Clinton defeated Sanders by the narrowest of margins, there were coin flips to allocate some delegates. There were also issues with a Microsoft app used that year.
This year, the party also pledged to report three sets of numbers — a first round popular vote total, a second round popular vote total after supporters for low-scoring candidates realigned, and the all-important state delegate totals, which are the real prize for campaigns. The holdup Monday resulted from “inconsistencies” in reporting of the three totals.
A former Iowa Democratic party chairman, Gordon Fischer, told CNN’s Gloria Borger that everyone should take a deep breath.
“If there’s a delay of several hours, to make sure the results are accurate, is that so bad?” he asked, pointing out the party had to deal with an unprecedented number of candidates and new data. “Also unprecedented: we live in a different age, an age of super speed! Internet! Social media! People simply aren’t used to waiting for anything anymore. Should the Iowa Caucuses remain first-in-the-nation? Absolutely, no question, without a doubt.”
An “undemocratic” system with low turnout
McAuliffe pointed out there are about two million voters in Iowa and many of them — 745,000 registered voters — are unaffiliated with a party, and so they are shut out of this process.
If 250,000 people take part in the caucuses, that’s a fraction of the more than 600,000 registered Democrats in the state.
“We are talking ten, 15% of the eligible voters are going to have a gigantic sway at who the nominee is,” he said.
Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist, pointed out the Iowa Democrats this year had addressed some of these concerns by adding additional “satellite” caucuses throughout the day for people who could not make the evening events. And they added satellite caucuses outside the state.
“We have come so much further in this conversation this cycle than I have ever heard before,” McIntosh said on CNN. “It’s widely recognized as an undemocratic, discriminatory process that most of us want to fix. This is not going to help their case,” she said.
A reaction to violence in 1968
Iowa has come first since after the 1968 Democratic convention, when violence erupted in the streets of Chicago amid complaints from those who felt the process was undemocratic.
The caucuses — distinct from the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire — have helped launch some key presidential careers, such as Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Bill Clinton, however, won the White House after coming in fourth in Iowa. Donald Trump came in second there to Ted Cruz in 2016.
The worst Iowa mistake was a Republican one, when Mitt Romney was thought to have narrowly won on Caucus Night, but the state party admitted sixteen days later that Rick Santorum was actually the winner.
Too late for Santorum, Romney had sailed off the momentum and was already stomping to the Republican primary that year.
Santorum wasn’t willing to write the caucus system off on CNN early Tuesday morning, however.
“I’ll defend the Iowa caucuses even though it didn’t do right by me in some respects,” he said. “Having a state that individual candidates — not the most well funded candidates — having the opportunity to go out there, connect with voters, not buy an election, that’s an important part of our democracy.”
To his point, if former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for instance, emerges from Iowa with momentum, it’s a story that perhaps could not have happened if California or another more representative but extremely expensive state came first. Even this year, billionaire Michael Bloomberg made the calculation he could win without Iowa and spending his money in states with primaries. Most candidates don’t have those resources.
As the hours ticked by Monday, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale, true to form, tried to stoke up a conspiracy theory and borrowed a page from Trump’s 2016 playbook. “Quality control = rigged?” said Parscale on Twitter. He added a thinking emoji.
There’s no evidence to support that conspiracy theory, but Trump’s allies were happy to gloat that the Democrats didn’t have any results yet.