vision 2020

The Biggest Failure of the Iowa Caucuses

Probable fifth-place finisher Amy Klobuchar, all but claiming victory on Caucus Night. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

One of the traditional functions of the Iowa caucuses has been to winnow the field of candidates unworthy to make the long haul into the primaries. Indeed, the legendary saying was, “There are three tickets out of Iowa,” meaning that anyone who finished fourth or lower there needed to pack it in.

And this really did seem to be the case in some cycles in the past. In 2004, nine candidates started the race, but the competition soon devolved to the top three finishers in Iowa (Kerry, Edwards, and Dean). In 2008, a similarly sizable field quickly shrank in Iowa; two estimable contenders, Joe Biden and Chris Dodd, withdrew on Caucus Night, and three others — John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Dennis Kucinich — were gone by the end of January, making it a two-way Obama–Clinton race the rest of the way.

Yes, more candidates than usual survived Iowa in the giant 2016 Republican field (the alleged “three tickets” were won by Cruz, Trump, and Rubio, but the original front-runner, Jeb Bush — along with Chris Christie and John Kasich — stayed in the race through losses in New Hampshire). And it’s been obvious for some time that in 2020 four Democratic candidates (Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders, and Warren) were doing well enough in Iowa and had sufficient prospects in later states to stick around at least for a while.

Below that top tier, however, the delayed results from Iowa may have undermined the usual winnowing effect. The most obvious candidate for Palookaville was Amy Klobuchar. Her claim to fame was proximity to Iowa, and a particular claim to electability based on natural strength in places like — well, Iowa. Heading toward the caucuses, her campaign was enjoying some buzz. But based on returns from 70 percent of Iowa precincts, it looks like she will finish fifth in first-alignment raw votes, final-alignment raw votes, and state-delegate equivalents — all three metrics for determining performances in the caucuses.

So by any conventional standard, Iowa should have probably been curtains for Klobuchar. But instead, in the uncertainty of Monday night, she was smart enough to get out there first with what almost sounded like a victory statement.

It’s also possible, of course, that when the final final results from Iowa are in, Klobuchar will have edged ahead of Joe Biden, which would indeed qualify her for a “ticket out of Iowa” while casting much larger doubts on Biden’s viability than the uncertain situation we have now has justified.

There are two other candidates who invested serious resources in Iowa and did poorly, but did not get the sort of voice-of-doom pronouncements under-performers typically receive on Caucus Night.

Sixth-place finisher Andrew Yang spent an estimated $6.9 million on ads in Iowa — more than Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar. He wound up winning just over 5 percent of the raw “first alignment” vote (according to returns from 70 percent of precincts), but his forces didn’t often reach the viability thresholds so his support dropped to one percent in both final alignments and SDEs. On Caucus Night, Yang deemed his effort a success:

Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang spoke to supporters in Iowa on Monday night as the results of the state’s presidential caucuses were coming in. He said his campaign had “shocked the world time and time again,” and would continue to grow all the way to the White House. He vowed to continue campaigning and encouraged supporters to keep donating to the cause.

And why not? No one could definitively gainsay him at that point.

An even bigger loser by past standards was billionaire Tom Steyer, who led all spending in Iowa by buying over $16 million in ads. He also spent a lot of time in the state. In the latest results, he has 1.7 percent in first-alignment raw votes (2,247 souls); 0.2 percent in final-alignment raw votes; and 0.3 percent in SDEs. He, too, hurried to profess optimism before any results had been reported on Caucus Night:

Tom Steyer told a room full of supporters Monday night that he plans to use the Iowa caucuses as a building block for his campaign, regardless of what place he finishes. 

“No matter what happens tonight, this is the foundation,” he said in front of a crowd at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines, where staffers and supporters gathered to watch the results roll in. “We will keep going, and we will build from here.”

The bottom line is that among the other consequences of Iowa’s slow count, you can add that the state’s winnowing power may have been transferred to next-in-line New Hampshire. There were so many tickets out of Iowa that the train remains overfilled beyond any safe capacity.

The Biggest Failure of the Iowa Caucuses