After months of anticipation, Iowans caucused in school gyms, churches and union halls on a freezing Monday evening, officially kicking off the 2020 presidential contest. As I watched the coverage of the antiquated form of ‘voting’ that somehow persists in Iowa, I was not filled with interest or satisfaction, or even speculation about the implications of the outcome. As the coverage and lack of results dragged on, the only sentiments I could muster were disappointment and concern.
American democracy as we know it feels fragile at the moment. Efforts have been made across the country to disenfranchise voters. President Trump claimed that the 2016 election was rigged against him, and that he lost the popular vote because millions of illegal immigrants cast votes against him. These examples show the deterioration of our collective commitment to, and faith in, the democratic process. The Democratic party has done its share to undermine faith in democracy as well. In 2016, the superdelegate system, a separate class of delegates allocated to candidates not based on votes but rather personal preference, led to claims by progressives that the party was working to rig the primary against Senator Bernie Sanders. In addition to American institutions attacking the integrity of our system, fear is widespread that foreign interference may take place again in 2020. The real likelihood of these threats is almost immaterial. The success of our democracy relies not only on its functional legitimacy, but on the faith of the people in it. That faith seems weak right now.
It was against this backdrop that the Iowa caucuses went so wrong. As the night wore on, results remained shockingly absent from news websites and the live broadcasts that were supposed to offer punditry as precincts reported. The big question shifted from “who won?” to “what the hell happened?” The lack of result came down to the failure of an app commissioned by the Iowa Democratic party, an effort at streamlining precinct reporting that fell flat on its face.
If the failure of the system and nearly 24-hour delay in results were not confusing enough, the candidates’ speeches added to the disarray. Pete Buttigieg essentially claimed victory, despite no numbers having been released. Bernie Sanders, the favorite for several weeks, did not claim to have won but struck a victorious tone. As time wore on without official results and Buttigieg continued to imply victory, the Sanders campaign released internal data from precincts that suggested the former South Bend mayor had actually come in a close second to Sanders. Elizabeth Warren was simultaneously optimistic and tempered in her speech, and Klobuchar spoke of a better-than-expected outcome. Biden had the poorest showing of the night, relative to expectation, falling well short of the top tier in all estimates. In his speech, he emphasized the upcoming states where he is expected to do better.
While the results will eventually come in, something has certainly been lost in Iowa. The caucuses have the ability to make or break campaigns, and this lack of a result will stoke concerns about legitimacy and party interference. One thing is certain: If a failure of this degree happens in the general election, the validity of the presidential outcome will be seriously damaged.