iowa caucuses

This Is How He Wins

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Monday, the Democratic Party kicked off the 2020 campaign by broadcasting a marathon infomercial for its own administrative incompetence and internecine enmity over every major
news channel.

The fine details of the party’s general-election strategy have yet to be determined. But it’s hard to name a prominent anti-Trump message that the Iowa caucuses didn’t undermine. Hoping to sell voters on a return “return to normalcy” and presidential professionalism? Your party just orchestrated a historically abnormal and amateurish fiasco. Planning to paint Trump as a synecdoche for the endemic corruption of American politics? Democrats just gave their most unreliable supporters cause for leveling incendiary allegations of election tampering and egregious graft against the party’s Establishment. Eager to make this race into a referendum on Trump’s opportunistic assaults on liberal democratic norms? Your (former?) front-runner’s surrogates have been sowing doubts about the legitimacy of election results that look bad for them.

Put yourself in the shoes of a low-information swing voter. For all of 2016, every well-credentialed expert and organ of respectable liberal opinion assured you that Donald Trump was an agent of chaos whose election would tank the stock market and sow global disorder. Trump, meanwhile, told you that he was a brilliant businessman who would make great deals to strengthen the economy. You do not consume much news. Or else you take in a discordant cacophony of competing narratives from CNN, Fox News, your liberal aunt and MAGA co-workers. But you do know that the unemployment rate is near half-century lows, and that there are fewer boarded-up retail spaces on the downtown mall, and that wages seem to be rising (however tepidly) even among your less well-off friends, and that your 401(k) is way better off now than it was four years ago.

Which of the aforementioned narratives about Donald Trump would you find more plausible? How about if the party that had told you Trump would be an agent of chaos and gross mismanagement then botched an election because it didn’t consider the possibility that the septuagenarian retirees who staff their caucuses might struggle to use an (untested) app without some training?

A comprehensive account of what went wrong at Monday’s caucuses will take time to compile. But at present, we do know that the Iowa Democratic Party:

• Decided to debut a new technology for reporting results on a night when any IT hiccup would mean calamity.

• Did not provide 70-something precinct captains with any training on how to use the app and advised them to simply phone in the results if they couldn’t get it to work.

• Understaffed the Caucus Night hotline that staffers would need to use in the event of a problem with the app.

• Spent $60,000 on a results-reporting app that was always going to be much less secure than more primitive technologies and — when put into practice — reportedly suffered from a “coding issue” that caused it to send only partial results.

Which is to say: This was not some perfect storm that descended on Iowa Democrats. It was the culmination of a series of blatant misjudgments. Many within the party saw Monday night’s calamity coming. On the morning of the election, long before the caucuses commenced, the Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey published a report titled, “The Iowa Caucus Could Go Very Wrong.” The failures were not merely foreseeable; they were foreseen.

And those failures haven’t just undermined the Democratic Party’s attacks on Trump’s incompetence. They’ve also inflamed the party’s most wrenching internal disputes and demoralized its most ardent activists.

In the wake of reports that (a tiny fraction of) Democratic National Committee members discussed rule changes to block Bernie Sanders’s nomination at a contested convention, and the bizarre last-minute cancellation of a highly anticipated Iowa poll last weekend, many of the Vermont senator’s supporters went into Monday night primed to witness Establishmentarian machinations. The ensuing events did little to dispel their paranoia. After early returns showed Bernie Sanders running slightly ahead of Pete Buttigieg for first place, Iowa Democrats suddenly froze the results in the name of performing “quality control” on the vote tallies. And then word of the mysterious app began to spread. And then someone got their hands on FEC documents revealing that Pete Buttigieg’s campaign had paid tens of thousands of dollars to the very technology firm that designed the app! And then, Buttigieg went before the cameras and declared himself the winner despite the absence of any official results.

Oh, and the name of that technology firm that provided Iowa Democrats with a faulty app and Pete Buttigieg with “text-messaging services”? Shadow.

Need I say more?

Of course, the conspiracy theories now percolating across politics Twitter make little sense. The most prominent one ostensibly posits that the Buttigieg campaign conspired to engineer a delay in the reporting of Iowa’s results — by paying a tech firm to sell Iowans a faulty app — as a means of denying Bernie Sanders the boost of positive earned-media-driven “momentum” that the winner of the Iowa caucuses normally enjoys. This narrative strains credulity for many reasons.

1. There is nothing particularly suspicious about the fact that Buttigieg’s campaign had a contract with the same firm that provided the Iowa Democratic Party its app. Shadow is a prominent Democratic campaign contractor that provided services to Joe Biden’s campaign; Kirsten Gillibrand’s short-lived run; the Texas, Nevada, and Wisconsin Democratic parties; and a variety of congressional campaigns and progressive grassroots organizations.

2. Tech firms do not generally like to associate themselves and their products with historic IT failures. It would make no financial sense whatsoever for Shadow to introduce itself to the nation’s consciousness as a designer of catastrophically defective apps in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars.

3. Pete Buttigieg appears to have been the main victim of last night’s omnishambles. The available data remains limited and could be biased by its geographical origins. But the partial, internal results released by the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns both indicate that Mayor Pete outperformed his polls and — at worst — came in a close second, far outpacing his rival “moderate” Joe Biden. If today’s headlines had touted Sanders victory and Buttigieg’s besting of Biden, that would have been much better for the former South Bend mayor’s campaign than the news cycle we got instead: namely, one focused on the caucuses’ administrative difficulties, with Pete’s controversial declaration of victory featuring as a B or C story. Iowa was Pete’s best opportunity for a major polling bounce. To the extent the Hawkeye State’s results get upstaged by succeeding events, or compromised past the point of usability, the salience of next week’s primary in New Hampshire increases — and New Hampshire happens to be the state where Bernie Sanders polls best. Sabotaging the Iowa caucuses to blunt the Vermont senator’s momentum would be an irrational scheme for any Democrat to dream up. For Pete, it would be stark-raving mad.

4. The non-conspiratorial explanation for what we witnessed Monday night is logically coherent. This was the first time that the Iowa Democratic Party had ever been required to report three distinct sets of results — the vote tally on “first alignment,” the vote tally on “final alignment” (when backers of candidates who lack 15 percent support redistribute their votes to higher-polling candidates), and the final delegate tally. In the past, the party was only on the hook for that last metric, which is much easier to tabulate (it seems possible that both parties have always compensated for the inherent messiness of caucuses by not sweating the precision of each count). This, by itself, could be sufficient cause for a poorly organized, volunteer-dependent organization to screw things up. Add in the Democrats’ susceptibility to tech fetishism and/or the campaign-contractor industrial complex (and/or graft), and you can see how the party might have come to see a “killer app” as the best means of compensating for the logistical challenge that it faced. Sprinkle atop all this the tech illiteracy of the volunteer base and incompetence of the organization, and you have a recipe for the disaster we just witnessed.

Diabolical conspiracies are things that exist (Google “Operation Northwoods”). But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And most of the ones currently being disseminated on the left don’t even meet the threshold of logical coherence. The fact that some Sanders supporters have glommed onto these narratives — despite the fact that broadcasting the message “The Democratic primaries are rigged” is antithetical to mobilizing the anti-Establishment and, thus, to realizing the Vermont senator’s theory of change — is disheartening. But Sanders’s campaign has handled the fiasco more responsibly than Buttigieg’s or Biden’s. And ultimate responsibility for the present climate of paranoia and recrimination lies with the Iowa Democratic Party. Conspiracy theories follow Election Night irregularities as thunder follows lightning — especially when one’s adversaries are consummate “ratfuckers.”

But Monday night’s fiasco didn’t just serve to confirm swing voters’ skepticism about Democrats’ claims to superior professionalism or the left’s fears of DNC treachery — it also risked the disillusionment of the party’s most committed activists. Thousands of idealistic people spent several months’ worth of nights and weekends knocking on doors, dialing up strangers, and traveling back and forth across the country in an effort to use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for advancing their vision of the civic good. Their efforts are now at risk of being erased.

In sum: We are 24 hours into the 2020 campaign, and Democrats have already humiliated their party on national television, alienated their least reliable progressive supporters, demoralized their most earnest activists, and handed Trump’s campaign a variety of potent lines of attack.

It’s early. There’s plenty of time for the party to get itself together. But for the moment, Donald Trump is winning the 2020 Democratic primary.

A Gallup poll released Tuesday morning put the president’s approval rating at 49 percent — the highest it has ever been.

This Is How He Wins