Skoog: The great Iowa Caucus of 2020

If the mishaps of the Democratic primaries are any indication of the next four years, maybe every candidate will get to take a turn in the White House.

by Caroline Skoog

I was initially concerned that writing about the Iowa Caucus a week after it took place would be a done-to-death, trivial column by the time it came out. And now it just won’t end. Not to say that the Caucus’ bureaucratic stroke was ‘good for content,’ but the slow hemorrhaging of information really snitched on the fragility of the democratic process. This is what happens when you outsource democracy to a gimmicky start-up app. 

It’s like the Iowa Democratic National Convention walked out of a movie 62% of the way through and then tried to write an essay on it. Reporting the results on a rolling basis served as a narrative boost for Pete Buttigieg. The results suddenly froze at an advantageous point in time for Buttigieg, allowing media outlets to create, speculate and publish content alluding to a victory for the former mayor. That is, the unclear political limbo period (which we haven’t left yet), combined with Buttigieg declaring victory before all of the results were reported, gave him undeserved momentum from undecided voters. The Iowa Democratic Party may be wearing pants around their ankles for the most absurd political breakdown, but at least they averted attention from Bernie Sanders’ success. Their incompetence worked to their advantage.

Although Buttigieg beat Sanders by a margin of 0.09 percentage points, the Associated Press has refrained from declaring a winner, citing “numerous precinct results that contained errors or were inconsistent with party rules,” for their pause. Notably, the AP found “dozens of precincts reported more final alignment votes than first alignment votes, which is not possible under party rules,” and there were “a handful of precincts in which officials awarded more state delegate equivalents to candidates than there were available to be won.” Taking Sander’s 3.5 percentage point lead in the first alignment, and 1.5 point in the second alignment, I speculate that these errors worked in Buttigieg’s favor. Accordingly, both the Buttigieg and Sanders campaigns formally requested a partial recanvass this weekend. 

Sanders supporters undeniably showed up last Monday. And it counted. Sanders won the popular vote, which by ordinary democracy metrics, should mean he won Iowa. The amount of votes Sanders received in the first alignment demonstrates the passion and rigor of his supporters. It’s not a number based on technicalities or bureaucratic loopholes; Sanders’ campaign targeted the satellite caucuses, which allow people who are unable to attend the traditional, 7 p.m. event at their regular precinct caucus location to participate at another approved location and time. 

Considering the regular caucuses can go on for hours, require standing and are just generally inaccessible, the satellite caucuses represent an amalgam of disenfranchised people. The disability community, late-shift workers, people caring for children or people with language barriers – just some of the people that the satellite caucus accommodates. Which is why Sanders’ undeniable popularity at satellite locations (55.5 state delegate equivalents compared to Buttigieg’s 1.2) is so meaningful. It’s grassroots mobilization at work. This is the excitement that the Iowa Caucuses are notorious for generating, and I hope it has put the electability qualm to bed (goodnight, Joe Biden).

This is the first year the Iowa Democratic Party recorded and released numbers from the first and second alignments in the Caucus, as the election is determined by which candidate receives the highest state delegate equivalents (SDEs). When putting the metrics side by side, SDEs versus total votes in each alignment, isn’t it obvious how irrelevant state delegates are? They’re a technicality. Technicalities exist to protect status-quo. Does the Democratic Party honestly believe that the candidate who won by an obscure formality and the hair on his chin can beat Donald Trump?

Sanders left Iowa with a victory regardless of the results of the recanvass. This debacle just further de-legitimizes the institutions that are actively attempting to stifle the movement behind Sanders; the first and second alignment votes also showed that this, electing Sanders, is possible. Exceedingly possible. A political platform stirring this much excitement, inspiration and hope at the grassroots level is a remarkable force, and attempts to suppress this enthusiasm come as no surprise. We remember 2016. That’s why it’s important to celebrate this as a victory, to not let mainstream centrist journalism dictate the trajectory of the Sanders campaign, and to keep working at it. This is not over, and last week we got a glimpse at the challenging road ahead. Rest assured, we need to keep rallying.