When the Iowa Democratic Party’s app for reporting caucus results crashed, it took Charlie Wishman, a labor union official and Des Moines precinct chairman, an hour to report his results to the state party by phone. He couldn’t get much sleep afterward as he thought about the hardworking volunteers who might be “maligned” for the evening’s “system failure.”
Wapello County Democratic Party Chairman Zach Simonson, who helped lead a rural caucus and was responsible for reporting the whole county’s results, had an even more aggravating experience. After spending hours on the phone trying to report the county’s numbers to the state party, he headed to bed, only to be awoken by calls from an angry volunteer in the middle of the night.
And Shawn Sebastian, a progressive activist and caucus secretary in Ames, Iowa, spent so long on hold with the state Democratic Party reporting the results that he had time to call into CNN to complain about it, only to find that he had missed the party’s call back during the interview.
But of the trio of caucus administrators who spoke to HuffPost, only Sebastian, who recently returned from an activist life in New York City to agitate for progressive causes in his Iowa hometown, was willing to join the chorus of out-of-staters calling for an end to the rural state’s status as home to the hallowed first-in-the-nation caucus.
Even Sebastian was defensive, though, not wanting his criticisms of the caucus system’s administrative complexity and barriers to participation, as well as Iowa’s lack of racial diversity, to cast aspersions on the integrity of the process. He was especially critical of Republican officials and former Vice President Joe Biden for calling the results into question.
“A lot of people put in a lot of hard work, despite the structural flaws of the caucus system, to make a statement about the direction that they think the country should go in,” he said. “There still was an election that happened. The only thing that did not go according to plan was the rollout of results.”
The reluctance of many Iowa Democrats to turn on the caucus and even to call for the ouster of Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price illustrated the disconnect between the skewering that Iowa Democrats have suffered at the hands of national party operatives and journalists, and the relative patience with which it has been received inside the state’s Democratic ranks.
Nearly all of the Democrats with whom HuffPost spoke said that the caucuses had gone smoothly in their precincts until it came time to report the results.
Why then, they seemed to wonder, was everyone so keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater?
“It’s not chaos,” said state Sen. Claire Celsi, a supporter of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who represents the Des Moines suburbs. “It’s a reporting glitch, which sometimes happens.”
Andrea Philips, a former vice chair of the state party who is running for state representative in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, pointed the finger at national media outlets apparently frustrated by their inability to report results immediately.
“It’s a shame that the media … spent their time discussing conspiracy theories and indicting the party as a whole,” said Philips, who caucused for former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. “I like the caucuses and I like Iowa going first because it’s a place where retail politics is still king.”
Chris Laursen, the president of the United Auto Workers local 74 in Ottumwa and a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), expressed a similar critique of the media coverage of the event, albeit through a more left-wing lens.
“It’s been the same chaos on caucus night for probably as long as they’ve been having them,” he said. “You’ll see corporate media trying to delegitimize them if one of their favorite candidates doesn’t have good results there, or someone like Bernie does have good results there.”
And for all the tales of first-time caucus-goers scratching their head at the caucus system’s arcane rules, there were plenty of other first-timers reporting positive experiences.
Julie Robison, a university administrator who is new to the state, was delighted with her first-time caucusing experience in Ames.
“You can’t hide in a caucus. You’re there. You have to stand up for what you believe in,” said Robison, who caucused for Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). “And personally, I think the caucus is precious, and I would hate to see it go away.”
Robison lamented the technological failure but added, “Fundamentally, democracy can be messy.”
The Iowa Democratic caucuses have been playing an influential role in selecting the party’s presidential nominee since 1972. The caucus system’s defenders argue that it promotes a healthy form of civic engagement by encouraging neighbors to debate their political views with one another.
Proponents of Iowa’s special role maintain that the state’s smaller, more rural population gives political newcomers with more limited resources the opportunity to shine in smaller settings. Some Iowa Democrats even note that Democratic presidential nominees must still win on the existing Electoral College map, making Iowa a good test of their rural strength.
“The reason Democrats lost rural America in 2016 is because we were condescending ― condescending toward a rural lifestyle and rural values,” veteran Iowa Democratic strategist Jeff Link told HuffPost in mid-January. “That’s a dangerous place to go in 2020.”
But the caucus system, and Iowa’s cherished role as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, has been under increasing scrutiny in the past few years.
Critics of the caucus, which, unlike a traditional primary, takes place at a set time in a set place, have argued that it disenfranchises shift workers, people with family responsibilities and other folks who simply can’t spend hours at a caucus site on a weeknight.
After the 2016 presidential primary, when Hillary Clinton defeated Sanders in the state’s arcane delegate allotment system, his supporters clamored for the party to reveal the raw totals of how participants caucused. That led to nationally driven reforms that prompted the Iowa Democratic Party to, among other things, report out three sets of numbers: the number of caucus-goers who aligned initially behind a candidate in each precinct; the final alignment for each candidate after supporters of non-viable candidates switched to another candidate; and the state delegate equivalents earned by each candidate. The party also set up 87 satellite caucus sites to increase access to people who otherwise have had trouble participating.
Then, as the caucus date approached, other criticisms of the process that centered on Iowa’s lack of racial diversity erupted into the public debate. This past November, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, in particular, lambasted the outsize power granted to predominantly white Iowa, which he noted does not reflect the racial diversity of the contemporary Democratic Party. (He dropped out of the race in December and endorsed Warren.)
We shouldn’t be doing party-run primaries or caucuses. Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party chairwoman
Even the caucus’s defenders understand that the flaws in the reporting of the results Monday night are almost certain to add pressure to end the system.
Simonson, the Wapello County party chair, thanked Castro for being “brave” and drawing attention to the diversity issue during his campaign. He sees the criticism the state has endured as impetus to improve the caucuses.
“We can’t change the demographics, but if we’re also using a system that makes it harder to participate if you’re a shift worker or if English is your second language, it’s going to be that much harder to argue in favor of keeping it,” he said.
In the end, the future of the Iowa caucuses is liable to be outside of Iowa Democrats’ hands.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez hinted in a Tuesday statement that there might be consequences for the state party’s errors.
“What happened last night should never happen again,” Perez said.
If he decides to redraw the map of states with an early say in the presidential primary, Perez may find less resistance from the generally progressive, reform-minded state party leaders and DNC members with whom he often tangles.
Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb, a supporter of Sanders’s 2016 bid and a frequent Perez critic, backed ending her state’s caucuses in the wake of the 2016 elections and replacing them with open primaries run by the state government.
“We shouldn’t be doing party-run primaries or caucuses,” said Kleeb. “We should use caucuses for organizing, which is what they are meant for and where they shine.”
Kleeb cited the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s caucus system, which is used to determine official party endorsements and policy positions, as a model.
But Jim Zogby, an ally of Kleeb’s who is backing Sanders a second time this cycle, is a defender of the caucus system and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. He cited the need for “face-to-face politicking” and questioned the idea that the political tradition embedded in Iowa could so easily be transferred to another small state.
“It was the app and the consulting firm that screwed it up ― not Iowans!” said Zogby, a Washington resident who also runs the Arab-American Institute. “And I think it’s unfair to make them the scapegoat for the failed consultancy.”