The Iowa Caucuses Don’t Make Sense Anymore

The Iowa caucuses were designed to be slow and messy. They finally broke down in 2020.

The Iowa caucuses are always a bit of a mess, but on Monday, the whole world saw them turn into a calamity.

Caucus site volunteers were required to tabulate and report an additional layer of information — raw vote totals for the first alignment of caucusgoers — straining an already complex reporting process. The Iowa Democratic Party paid for a digital app to help volunteers with the final tabulation, but the app either crashed or its software incorrectly tabulated the results.

That meant that for the first time in the Iowa caucuses’ 40-plus years as a national media event, no official results were reported on election night. And it may mean it’s the last time voters in Iowa get the privilege of weighing in first on a presidential primary.

Ironically, the historical reason that Iowa is the first state to vote in the presidential primary is exactly that the caucus process is so complex. Party officials needed extra time to tabulate the results — sometimes even days, which was not too problematic decades ago. And they only had a mimeograph machine to do it. But today’s cable and internet-driven 24-hour news cycle necessitates a quick decision on who won and who lost — and it’s become clear the Iowa caucuses may simply be incompatible with that demand.

The lack of results was “crazy,” “awkward,” “embarrassing,” “a serious problem,” “a huge, huge embarrassment,” and “so unfair,” CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer said throughout his coverage Monday night and early Tuesday morning.

How could there be no votes reported on CNN’s Magic Wall, the large screen on which to project precinct results?

“By this time in 2016, we had 80% of the results in, and tonight we have none!” Blitzer declared with clear exasperation at one point.

“You and I should be at the Magic Wall by now,” he said to CNN’s John King right before he signed off at midnight.

Attendees hold letters that read "CAUCUS" during a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 2, 2020, in Coralville, Iowa.
Attendees hold letters that read "CAUCUS" during a campaign event for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Feb. 2, 2020, in Coralville, Iowa.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The Iowa caucuses typically evoke wistful sentiments about the ideal of pastoral American democracy. Candidates for the nation’s top office spend time shaking hands at diners and eating deep-fried butter sticks at county fairs. Rural farmers and small-town folk gather in high school gymnasiums and make the first call on who should hold the most powerful position in the nation.

This mythical narrative provided a platform from which presidential aspirants could launch their candidacies with a stamp of approval from “America’s Heartland.” First, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern got positive press for a close second-place finish in the 1972 Iowa caucuses. Then the media put the spotlight on Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter after his first-place finish in 1976.

The media’s relationship to the Iowa caucuses here is key. Every four years, the press descends on the state to interview voters and follow the candidates as they campaign. Candidates hope a strong result in Iowa will give them an early positive media narrative, as it did for McGovern, Carter, George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama.

But for that to happen, there must be a quick and clean result the night of the caucuses and speeches from the candidates who won and lost. Absent that, the whole idea of Iowa delivering an influential election night quickly looks absurd.

This is what happened in the 2012 Republican Party caucuses when Mitt Romney, now a senator from Utah, was initially declared the winner on election night. He got to give a triumphant victory speech. Two weeks later, the Iowa Republican Party announced that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was the actual winner. But the media narrative had already passed.

In 2016, the Democratic Party caucus ended in a near tie with Hillary Clinton a hair ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the two tabulations reported at the time ― second alignment vote and delegate count. Sanders’ campaign reported a handful of irregularities at the time. And when the Democratic Party held a Unity Convention in 2017, Sanders’ supporters pressed the party to recommend that the Iowa caucuses record and report first alignment vote preference for the first time in 2020.

Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter speaks to a crowd of supporters on the Van Ryswyk farm in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 24, 1976.
Then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter speaks to a crowd of supporters on the Van Ryswyk farm in Des Moines, Iowa, on Aug. 24, 1976.

The 2016 confusion put an additional reporting burden on the volunteer staff at the precinct caucuses; the need to maintain the media narrative had become so important it transcended the need for accurate results. The mimeograph machine Iowa depended on to convey results in1972 gave way in 2020 to a dashed-together, single-use election app that was not up to the job.

The Iowa Democratic Party paid a company called Shadow, a project of Democratic Party operatives including former Obama and Clinton campaign staff, for a digital app that volunteers could use to upload their final results. But volunteers had trouble downloading the app or getting it to work. The state party later reported that there was a potential software problem with the app incorrectly reporting partial results after they were entered. Volunteers who had problems with the app tried to call in their results, but the phone line they were provided with was jammed with calls from other precinct volunteers, media inquiries and possibly spam calls.

Beyond the still-murky problem with the app, all of the ordinary problems with the Iowa caucuses were made transparent on social media throughout the night. Final delegate counts got rounded up or down, leading to seemingly bizarre delegate count ties even when one candidate got more raw votes. Ties, even those that resulted from rounding numbers, were resolved by coin flips. The delegate apportionment favors less-populated rural areas over metropolitan regions. The increased transparency that social media provided tarnished the image of the caucuses by allowing the public to see the mess happen in real time.

The Iowa caucuses were designed to be a slow and deliberative example of in-person democratic action. A conflict between speed and accuracy will always exist. It’s time to choose one.

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