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The End of the Caucus?


A metaphor for the future of caucuses? A caucus-goers' bottle of wine lays spilt on the floor during last night's Iowa caucus.

So that didn’t go as planned. While politicos inside the Beltway and across the country were expecting to get our first real results in the Democratic presidential primary last night, problems with tallying the vote in Iowa have caused a significant delay in reporting the results. In a story posted yesterday, The Associated Press reported Iowa Democratic Party officials had promised that “an early issue with a mobile app designed to report results” would “not hinder the Iowa caucus process.”


Famous last words. Forget 2000, Florida, Bush and Gore, and hanging chads. The 2020 Iowa caucus might go down in history as the most chaotic and confusing election night in modern times.


Voters in Iowa gathered last night at nearly 1,700 different sites around the state to hash out who would earn Iowa’s delegates in the Democratic presidential nomination. Here is how this year’s caucus was supposed to work: voters gathered at sites at 7 p.m. local time and, for the first round of voting, assembled in groups based on their preferred candidate. Any candidate who did not generate the support of at least 15 percent of the individuals gathered at any single site was not “viable” in the second round. Voters whose candidates did not generate 15 percent of first-round votes did not have to go home. In the second round, they could join a group representing any remaining “viable” candidates.


Then caucus officials would count again and issue their report to the Iowa Democratic Party. Then the results were supposed to go live. The Iowa Democratic Party was supposed to release three pieces of data from each site: the results of the first round, the results of the second round, and state delegate equivalents that were based on the results of the second round.


As of mid-day Tuesday, none of that data has seen the light of day. (Though that has not stopped several candidates from giving remarks that sound an awful lot like victory speeches.)


So what went wrong? Despite promises to The Associated Press, the app crashed. Precinct captains simply could not connect and therefore could not get their results to party headquarters. When the captains tried to call in results, the phone lines jammed. But even if they had, there still would have been problems. There were “discrepancies” in the data that did make it to the state party.


As Politico put it, “Everything that could've possibly gone wrong in Iowa … did.”

Monday was not the first time the Iowa caucus has ended in confusion. As Atlantic, staff writer Russell Berman noted, “In 2012, Republicans never truly knew whether Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney had gained more support. And, four years later, confusion about the close gap between Clinton and Sanders led Iowa Democrats to reform their process with the hope of providing a more precise picture of which candidate had won the most votes and which candidate would receive the most delegates.” At the time of the 2012 contest, The New York Times reported, “[M]istakes had been found in so many districts that the state Republican Party chairman declared that it would be impossible to determine a winner.”


The problems last night will put the eventual results under a cloud of skepticism, but they also could bring down the whole system.


Let’s first examine the immediate impact.


Last night, the general counsel for former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign wrote a letter to the Iowa Democratic Party outlining the caucus failures, and calling for a full accounting of what happened. Today, Deputy Campaign Manager Kate Bedingfield said the Iowa Democratic Party should hold off releasing any results until the state party can determine exactly what happened.


Make no mistake: this rhetoric is campaign strategy. Like him or not, Biden had been falling in the polls prior to caucus night. And if you were scrolling through social media on Tuesday night, at several caucus sites it was clear that Biden had failed to get the 15 percent of support needed to move him past the first round of voting. By calling the results into question, Biden de-legitimizes whomever is eventually named the winner—and, from his perspective, hopefully arrests their momentum going into the next three nominating contests in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.


The Iowa Democratic Party is not likely to take the Biden campaign’s advice, however. In a statement released at noon Eastern time, the Iowa Democratic Party said it would release “partial” caucus results by 5 p.m. ET this evening.


Even if the party can get the results out today, it will not end questions about the future of the caucus.


Even before the last night’s chaos became apparent, Twitter was ablaze with remarks about how, well, odd the caucuses are. There are no secret ballots. Voters—willingly—stay around for hours despite the dark, frigid conditions outside. One person reportedly tried to sneak in wine at their site and a commotion ensued when the bottle dropped and shattered on the floor.


So just where does this strange idea originate?


According to historians in the U.S Senate, “a party-based system of nominating caucuses” emerged as the main way to select presidential candidates in 1800. Members of Congress participated in these early nominating contests. That process lasted for precisely 24 years. By 1824, “the congressional nominating system lay in tatters.” The vast majority of caucus-goers never showed up after candidates, including Andrew Jackson, “encouraged their supporters to boycott” the events. That disarray “kept any candidate from winning an Electoral College majority and threw the contest into the House of Representatives” under the Constitution.


Additionally, it “sealed the fate of the congressional nominating caucus,” reviving “two-party structure” and “creation of party nominating conventions.”


That system lasted until 1972. According to Fox News, “After the violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, party leaders decided to spread out the nominating contest schedule in each state.” Gone were the days of convention floor fights and backroom deals – and the drama surrounding the party’s conventions.


Iowa chose to caucus, but after last night, its regime might come to an end.


U.S. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, a Democrat who hails from Iowa’s neighboring state of Illinois, has had enough. In a television interview Tuesday morning, he said, “As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting … People who work all day, pick up the kids at daycare, do you think they’re headed to the caucus next? Of course not. We’ve got to have a means for people to express themselves that is reliable. Unfortunately, the caucus system is not.”

Party officials in New Hampshire – the second state to hold its primary contest – also could not help taking shots at the Hawkeye state. State Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley told New Hampshire Public Radio that his state’s primary is “easy.” Voters just “go in, mark the ballot.” Importantly, Buckley also noted, “If there’s ever any issue, we can do a recount.” (Precisely what we want: more chads.)


It is not only individuals from outside who are calling for change, though. Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen, who has covered national politics and the Iowa caucuses since 1976, said, “This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should.”

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