Any candidate who competes in an election knows to prepare a victory speech and a concession, just in case.
But what do you say when the election is over, the eyes of the whole world are on you and no results are coming? What do you do with that adrenaline, the stomach-churning state of suspense and then the frustration at being left hanging by a state political party’s bungled process, years after you began courting its voters?
That was the agonizing position eight or nine Democratic presidential contenders and their staffs found themselves in Monday night, when a technological meltdown kept the Iowa Democratic Party from releasing the Iowa caucus results.
A few candidates claimed victory. “Tonight an undeniable hope became an improbable reality,” Pete Buttigieg told cheering supporters. “So, we don’t know all the results, but by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation. Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”
Yes, Iowa shocked the nation — on many levels.
Bernie Sanders on caucus night told supporters, “I have a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well.” By Tuesday, he sent out a fundraising letter saying his precinct captains had him in first place and Buttigieg in second. The letter also said it was “simply unacceptable that the Iowa Democratic Party cannot release votes in a timely way.”
Andrew Yang told supporters that his Iowa performance had shocked the whole world, partly because he had brought in support from Republicans, too. And Joe Biden said, “We feel good about where we are.”
Amy Klobuchar sidestepped the question of who won to say her candidacy had been underestimated from the beginning and, “you know, we have beaten the odds every step of the way.” Elizabeth Warren framed the outcome as a victory for Democrats as a whole, and focused attention on the main opponent. “Tonight, as a party, we are one step closer to defeating the most corrupt president in American history,” she said.
But President Donald Trump may have scored the biggest on caucus night, coming away with 97% of Republicans’ votes soon after the GOP caucuses opened Monday night. Two other more moderate Republicans were competing. That constituency loyal to Trump helps explain why Republican U.S. senators are so unwilling to vote for his impeachment. It doesn’t matter if evidence shows the president tried to bribe Ukraine’s president to dig up dirt on Trump’s political foe, Joe Biden. The U.S. senators don’t want to risk their reelection chances by acknowledging it or making Trump pay a price.
The really discouraging thing here is that, even as Trump has corrupted the system for his own benefit and managed to dodge accountability, he now gets to capitalize on the Iowa caucus fiasco to stir distrust of Iowa’s Democratic Party. Joe Biden’s anemic showing in the caucuses also gives fodder to Trump supporters in Congress. And Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst can claim validation for her prediction that Biden would suffer because of his son’s business dealings in Ukraine that Trump tried to entice its president to investigate.
The vote count disaster, though merely a delay, has also fed suspicion, without evidence, among progressive Democrats that the party establishment didn’t want Sanders or Warren to be the nominee, but preferred a more mainstream candidate like Buttigieg.
As the Democratic caucus results continue to unfold and candidates now move their attention to New Hampshire voters, Iowa Democrats need to start a serious conversation about whether the caucus system is worth holding onto. I’m not talking here about whether Iowans should get to continue voting before other states. That’s a discussion for a later time, though there are many calls from other states to strip our privileged first-in-the-nation status. And this time they’ll have something more than our unrepresentative demographics to base that on.
Every campaign spokesperson told CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny they questioned the future of the Iowa caucuses, he said on air Tuesday.
It’s looking increasingly like the caucus process, for all its vaulted neighborliness, has outlived its value. First it was swelling attendance that made them unmanageable. The counting system, even using paper cards for the first time, is complicated, and the method of awarding delegates is cumbersome. Society has changed since the early 1970s. Increasingly, people prefer to vote in private. And as Monday’s debacle showed, those who run the caucus sites in Iowa are often older people who are less adept at new technologies like that infamous app that failed.
Also, quite frankly, the high-minded debates and persuasions used to win over people to a candidate are either a thing of the past or a fable. There’s little real conversation at caucuses.
“I will say that this should be the end of this nonsense with Iowa and the caucuses in general,” CNN commentator Van Jones said on TV Monday night.
Ouch. That hurts. But so does the truth sometimes.