vision 2020

The Mourning After in Iowa

It’s not a good day to be in Des Moines. Photo: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For political media and regular old political junkies, the meltdown in the Iowa caucus results tabulation and reporting system was deeply annoying. Very highly paid TV gabbers were left with little to say, other than to lash out at the very self-conscious people of this proud and sometimes sensitive state. For the presidential campaigns most directly affected by the uncertainty of it all, it was a logistical and messaging challenge of the highest order. Amy Klobuchar showed the way by getting out there first with a happy speech claiming a level of success in Iowa that no one had the hard data to refute — and then jetting off to New Hampshire. Everyone eventually adapted to the weird half-light of the first voting event of the 2020 presidential cycle culminating in a long night with no results at all other than an entrance poll no one trusted.

But for political — and even apolitical — people here in Iowa, this has been a catastrophe all out of proportion to the technical and training glitches that produced it. The caucuses in their complexity have always represented a half-miracle pulled off quadrennially by a vast army of volunteers and a relatively small cadre of professionals. This year’s trebled reporting requirements (forced on Iowa by the national party) and the technological means chosen to accommodate them finally broke the Iowa Democratic Party. And that happened at the worst possible time, when critics and coveters of Iowa’s privileged perch in the nomination process had already built up a head of hateful steam.

The harshest judgment of what last night meant came from a journalist who owes every bit of his national fame to the caucuses:

Et tu, David?

Here in Des Moines, as the TV pundits spat fire at the caucuses last night, there was a growing sense of horror among locals that this was indeed a breakdown moment for the state’s political influence and legacy. It wasn’t confined to Democrats. This morning, even as taunts from their president echoed across the Twitterverse, Iowa’s Republican governor and senator leapt to the defense of the Iowa Democratic Party:

The bipartisan schedule that made Iowa the first of the protected “early states” isn’t going to be upturned in just one of the two major parties. And an entire national infrastructure of political professionals who made their bones in places like Iowa and New Hampshire is now more than a little adrift. Those who have for so long agitated for a more rational system of nominating presidential candidates will finally have to come to grips with the fact that there’s no “system” at all, other than a long, interlocking set of decisions by state legislatures and state parties nudged this way and that by the national parties. You cannot just will “rotating regional primaries” or any other new approach into existence without complications that make the current “system” look logical and natural by contrast, if only because of the weight of history and habit.

But if the nominating process for 2024 and beyond isn’t clear, there’s a feeling of what can only be described as mourning this morning in Des Moines. And best as I can tell, Iowans are not angry about the 2020 caucus meltdown the way so many members of the traveling political circus seem to be. After all, who’s to blame? The state party professionals struggling as always to comply with new party rules under the watchful eyes of campaigns? The hundreds of volunteers, many of them elderly, who couldn’t deal with the new reporting app? The volunteers at party headquarters trying to juggle late-night calls on overburdened phone lines as puzzled and frustrated precinct chairs tried to use the 2016 reporting system? It’s not like Caucus Night was the first random catastrophe of the cycle for Iowa, given the surveying mishap that killed the much-awaited Iowa Poll this last weekend, which fed the uncertainty felt by all going into the contest.

Everyone and no one is to blame for an almost inevitable collapse of a tradition-bound process in which there was too much room for human error. And so people here are now left wondering about the civic and economic consequences of this perhaps being the last of the Iowa caucuses as we have known them since 1972. Iowa haters will enjoy the moment before they set upon one another along the treacherous path to a different “system.” But for Iowans, and the many adopted Iowans who have spent winter weeks and months here every four years, it’s a sad morning.

The Mourning After in Iowa