Re-Mystifying Iowa

Well that was . . . interesting.

One week ago I tried to demystify the opaque Iowa caucus process in a post about what to expect and how to interpret the results. Of all the possibilities I considered, I somehow overlooked the one where an untested app used by precinct captains to report their results to the state party would malfunction, leaving everyone in the dark about the outcome. I’m not sure how I missed that.

As I write this on Tuesday evening, we only have results from 63% of the caucuses, with the rest promised — eventually. And the results we have are close enough that the final outcome could look different than it does right now. Still, we probably have enough information to draw some preliminary conclusions about what happened in Iowa and what it could mean.

  • As expected, there may be more than one winner. Recall that Iowa reports three sets of numbers: raw totals from the initial alignment of caucus participants; adjusted raw totals from the second round of caucusing where participants who supported candidates who fell below the 15% threshold for viability got to realign to one of the viable candidates; and estimates of the number of delegates to the Iowa state convention (where delegates to the national convention will be determined), based on a formula that uses raw vote totals from the second round. As of this writing, Sanders narrowly leads the initial and adjusted vote, but Buttigieg narrowly leads the delegate count because delegates are awarded disproportionately across the state. This could change when the remaining results are reported because the two are very close. But for now it permits both candidates to claim victory. 
  • Warren over-performed her polling and remains viable. Longtime political observers like to say that there are three tickets out of Iowa, a sentiment derived from the fact that only twice has an eventual nominee finished below the top three there. Warren claimed the bronze on the strength of her organization, boosting her share of the vote in the second alignment to pull her to within three points of Buttigieg and eight points above Joe Biden, who presently sits in fourth place just a few votes ahead of Amy Klobuchar. Last week, I said that winners and losers would be determined in part by how closely the candidates grouped together. Warren performed well enough to make it into the top tier. 
  • So about Biden . . . The charitable interpretation is that Biden underperformed. A consistent but uninspiring frontrunner throughout 2019, Biden’s weaknesses were revealed in Iowa, complicating his prospects. Because of his status as a former vice president, Biden will get a rare fourth ticket out of Iowa and has an opportunity to steady his campaign. But with only 13% of the realigned vote (as of now) and only 16% of the delegates, it’s hard to see the Iowa results as anything but a vote of no confidence in his message that he is the strongest challenger to Donald Trump. In fact, things would have been much worse for Biden if the results had come in last night. But because they didn’t . . . 
  • The losers were the winners and the winners were the losers. The reason candidates spend up to a year campaigning in Iowa is because as the first event with actual voters it generates disproportionate media attention that can result in a momentum boost as the campaign turns to New Hampshire the following week. It always culminates with candidates putting the best spin on the results at rallies in front of their supporters. But with no results on the screen, the candidates were free to create their message. Biden was able to get away with a brief statement about how he was happy to have won a bunch of delegates and was ready to go on to New Hampshire without the constraint of having to face down finishing a disappointing fourth. Likewise, Amy Klobuchar could make an upbeat statement that suggested she had accomplished more than a fifth place finish. On the other end of the spectrum, Bernie and Mayor Pete were denied their moment. Both gave triumphal speeches that lacked the punch they would have had if the results had been known, and it’s likely to blunt the polling bounce either one of them might have expected. 
  • The caucus itself was the biggest loser. Criticized as an undemocratic process transpiring in an unrepresentative state, Iowa has long been the target of reformers who want to eliminate it. After what happened yesterday it’s no longer impossible to imagine that happening, and it would be a valuable contribution to the election process if it did. It’s not uncommon for election night to feature close contests that are too early to call. Yesterday’s results were too late to call. That may be enough to spell an end to the Iowa caucuses.
  • So what happens now? Democrats remain united in their desire to defeat Donald Trump. They are still divided on how to do it. With the top candidate barely clearing one-quarter of the vote, Iowa did nothing to clarify the issue. When the final results come in, Democrats will be left with an “electable” former frontrunner that people don’t want to vote for, a young challenger who has demonstrated no appeal to voters of color, and a multi-billionaire waiting in the wings to challenge them both. They have a democratic socialist who can claim a share of frontrunner status who is poised to do well next week in New Hampshire and possibly Nevada after that. And they have a progressive alternative in Elizabeth Warren who has the potential to emerge as a bridge between the two sides if she can break through somewhere — or fade into irrelevance if she cannot. Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren have the resources to go deep into the primary season. Bloomberg can campaign forever if he wants. There are still a number of ways things can play out. Be patient. This may go on for a long time.