vision 2020

The Iowa Caucuses Were Supposed to Be Important

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

In the face of uncertainty, we return to what’s comfortable. Around the Iowa caucuses, that means the lobby of the Marriott in downtown Des Moines. It is a hideous space with even worse energy. Without question, many bad decisions have been made here throughout many election cycles. On Caucus Eve, I walked through here and found two different people I know in tears. Right now, well after 1 a.m. local time, the leather chairs and faux-granite tables are crowded with reporters and political operatives and fundraisers and supporters, gossiping among themselves, wondering what on earth is happening.

The Iowa caucus was supposed to be important. First in the nation, they love to remind us — the first place votes are cast; the contest that might predict the president. But tonight that’s all over, or so it seems right now. If you haven’t heard: We don’t yet know the results of the caucuses, due to some kind of fuckup involving a new app the Iowa Democratic Party decided to use, perhaps, or due to some other human error. Nothing is clear. Earlier, when the delay in reporting was becoming apparent and the first murmurs about What Went Wrong were trickling out, the Iowa Democratic Party held a call with representatives from each campaign to discuss the attempts at what it called “quality control.” It ended with the party hanging up on everyone. Later in the evening, the party held a call with reporters that lasted for less than two minutes. It hung up on the reporters too. “They’re hanging up on everyone,” someone here remarked.

Over their cocktails, people are remarking on how they may never return to this state, how this might be their last experience getting into their rental cars and careening over the ice on I-80 past the jackknifed semi-trucks and sedans overturned on the snowy median. They might never again drive over dirt roads through cornfields to see the candidates address union halls and Fourth of July parades and the State Fair, where they see the Butter Cow and eat corn dogs and pork chops on a stick.

Some campaign staffers and network embeds — the reporters who report on the candidates’ every word and step — have been living here for months. People upend their lives to serve and observe our democratic process, and early on, most of the attention is directed here, by virtue of the supposed importance. Iowa might pick the president, because statistically that’s been true for roughly half the nominating contests in modern history. But with no results, or with results that we can’t trust, it was all for nothing.

It’s Tuesday morning, and we have no answers. “Today is already today. Today is tomorrow. The future is now,” one reporter said.

Earlier, Amy Klobuchar made the decision to address the cameras first — a savvy decision for a less important candidate, giving her the full attention of a political media desperate to hear anything from any campaign. But she had no information to share, just pleasant nothings for her supporters and a promise to head into New Hampshire, the state that holds the next primary contest on February 11.

Other candidates eventually emerged to address the crowds at the sites of their respective celebrations around town. After Klobuchar’s team had claimed its internal numbers showed her beating Biden, Warren’s campaign said that the night was a disaster for Biden. Biden, who stands to benefit from the mishap, swiftly got out of the state, while Bernie Sanders’s campaign publicly released some of its own numbers, which showed him doing as well as he was anticipated to do. But it was Pete Buttigieg who shrewdly observed in this chaos an opportunity, opting to declare, in his remarks, that he was going on to New Hampshire “victoriously.” Other campaigns snarked: This is exactly the type of arrogance they’ve come to expect from Buttigieg.

In the lobby, Klobuchar’s husband, John Bessler, and daughter chatted with people in green and white campaign merch. Klobuchar herself was already on a plane to New Hampshire, Bessler said, and she was “excited” to arrive there. He wouldn’t say she was arriving there “victoriously,” however — he said it was up to other candidates how they wanted to characterize things.

Meanwhile, staffers were getting restless. Some people ordered pizza. Last call came and went.

“I have been working so fucking hard I just need a night to black the fuck out and fuck someone!” one campaign staffer remarked.

“Campaign staffers are people with needs, too,” a reporter said.

The Iowa Caucuses Were Supposed to Be Important