Caucuses — Iowa Democratic Party Sabotages Every Presidential Candidate

From left: Activist Tom Steyer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former vice president Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Amy Klobuchar on stage for the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

With each hour that passes without any results, the ramifications of the botched Iowa Caucus grow bigger. (The latest word is that the party will release partial results at 4 p.m. this afternoon.)

The candidates and campaigns have moved on to New Hampshire, and some might shrug and say this merely pushes back the “real” start of the presidential nominating process. Only 41 delegates were at stake, nobody wins or loses the nomination in Iowa, and so some Democrats will tell themselves this is a short-lived embarrassment.

But if you’re Amy Klobuchar, you were counting on a good night in Iowa to demonstrate you could win back Midwestern voters who had drifted to Trump in 2016. The same applies to Pete Buttigieg, who, judging from the live coverage of precincts on cable news, appeared to be having a good night. Bernie Sanders might have won last night, after feeling robbed four years ago. There was some anecdotal evidence that Elizabeth Warren had a good night, when she really needed one. And the conventional wisdom had turned bearish on Joe Biden in the last few days. If he had a good night, he needs the world to know. (If he didn’t, this quiet chaos is just fine.)

At least one candidate, and probably two or three, got cheated out of a good night and a news cycle about their “strong ground game” or “effective closing message” and various other not-so-frequent praising coverage. Ask veterans of Obama’s 2008 campaign how much his win in mostly white, mostly rural Iowa meant to that campaign. No, Iowa doesn’t determine the winner, but it can make a long shot a little more plausible, hurt an overconfident front runner, and knock out a struggling campaign. (No reason for Michael Bennet or Deval Patrick to give up if everybody’s still at zero percent and zero delegates.) Winning tends to beget more winning.

It’s one thing to run hard to win a state and lose. But last night a couple candidates ran hard, got the most votes or beat expectations, and not only do those candidates miss the chance to give the election-night victory speech, not only do they miss the “Candidate wins Iowa” headlines coast to coast, but now they get their victory or solid finish announced a few hours before the State of the Union and the impeachment vote.

When do we get an official winner? Wednesday? Thursday? Right before Friday night’s debate?

Now think of all the money spent on ads in Iowa. Think of all of the local staff hired, the volunteers recruited, the events organized. All of that time, all of that effort, all of those resources . . . and now none of it amounted to a functional victory for any of the candidates.

And this doesn’t happen in a vacuum; this was a caucus where three of the top five candidates couldn’t campaign for the past few weeks because of the impeachment trial, and that was after an odd, pointless three-week delay by House speaker Nancy Pelosi. You don’t have to be a fan of Sanders, Warren, or Klobuchar to find all of this wildly unfair.

Again, some candidates are getting delegates to the convention out of this. But the Democratic Iowa caucus turned into an enormous amount of sunken costs that ended up yielding almost nothing. If the campaigns knew this was going to be such an epic mess, more of them might have skipped Iowa entirely.

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