So, one final take on where things stand in Iowa as I head home.
There was no sense that chaos was about to break out as I left the Des Moines caucus site last night. Indeed, everyone I’ve talked to noted how smoothly the caucuses themselves went, even those with large crowds, because of the training of the chairs to coordinate the human aspects of the caucus. But, within minutes after leaving, it was clear something was really wrong as the whole world knows now. Indeed, as we were a bit paralyzed about which candidate’s election night event made the most sense based on the (lack of) results, we actually never made it before the candidates all started giving their version of “victory” speeches.
My flight schedule meant that I spent most of the day in Des Moines coffee shops eavesdropping on the conversations of rank-and-file Iowans and campaign operatives headed to their next adventure. One of the coffeeshops was so thoroughly pro-Sanders that “Bernie” was incorporated into the wi-fi password. (They did serve up a mean vegan burrito, however, and the Tracy Chapman music was nice.) Others were more of a mixed crowd.
I know all the problems with caucuses outside of the unique fiasco that was Iowa 2020 — hardship on single parents, the working poor and the affirmed. Indeed, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg were both advantaged by the relative affluence and middle-aged dominance in their constituents and Amy Klobuchar and Joe Biden were both disadvantaged. (Indeed, at DM 43, a significant number of the Biden supporters were immobile and accomodations had to be made for them.) But as was clear about Des Moines residents’ conversations I heard today, there was a real sense of joy and empowerment in retelling the story of what happened in their caucuses the night before. There was a sense that they felt more deeply connected to their democracy as a result. Just as town hall government is fundamentally different from representative democracy (with downsides for full participation but upsides in terms of the level of engagement in policy decisions by citizens), caucuses are different (in both good and bad ways) from primaries. Neither has a monopoly on their health as democratic institutions.
On the other hand, the campaign operatives across the board were simply pissed off at all aspects of the fiasco and, in particular, about the absence of communication about what had happened. Despite their candidates’ voicing support for the eventual outcome, vague conspiracy theories gurgled through the Sanders operatives’ comments. Other candidates operatives, aside from the Biden folks who knew things were going to be bad going into caucus night, just wanted the results out so they could start raising the money they all need based on a spin of the results.
As the day went along, both political operatives and rank-and-file citizens alike were constantly refreshing their devices waiting for the Democratic Party of Iowa to finally release the partial vote returns late afternoon on Tuesday. They showed a few things important things:
Buttigieg’s overperformance was grounded in several things: his truly statewide organization that allowed him to run up delegates in areas that are given a bit more power in the delegate counts; his effective incorporation of the large numbers of out-of-state volunteers that flowed into the state in the closing days of the contest; and the fact that ideologically he had the best ability to reach to Biden and Klobuchar when they were not viable. Unless he quickly catches fire in New Hampshire, it remains unclear where he gains traction, but his quick rise based on raw political talent is remarkable, particularly considering his historic candidacy.
Despite the fact that Bernie Sanders may still find a way to eke out a close win in Iowa delegates, it is noteworthy that he lost about half of his support from the three-candidate 2016 race. Despite the way that Sanders has succeeded in shifting the party’s electorate further to the left, he has not showed an ability to grow his support. This was shown at Monday’s caucuses as he had little growth between the first and second sorting of caucus-goers. Indeed, at my caucus and many others, his supporters didn’t even try to draw in new support.
There was a clear sense that Warren recovered some momentum in the closing days of the campaign and had solid organizations, but has just come up a tad short of breaking through to capture the sort of momentum that might carry her to victory in New Hampshire. While Buttigieg doesn’t have a natural next step in his candidacy, Warren is also lacking a clear pathway and the continuation of her campaign may quickly become difficult to justify.
The most disappointing candidacy in Iowa, of course, was Biden, who has never performed well in the state. It was a brutal night for the former vice president following a series of events in the closing days that were nearly Jeb Bush-esque in their lack of energy. His campaign is now putting all its eggs in a big comeback in South Carolina relying upon African-American votes there. If the wheels come off there, there may also not be a path forward for him.
But, the biggest losers were the volunteers, activists and local party officials who all worked their asses off for democracy and were left frustrated and disappointed after doing everything right only to have an app and a state party establishment undermine their work.