Kelly McParland: Real winner to emerge from great Iowa tire fire might be Michael Bloomberg

The world has been given a close-up look at America’s quirky approach to picking its leaders — and it isn’t pretty.

The Iowa caucuses have always been an odd, mildly amusing and faintly ridiculous way to measure the relative popularity of would-be nominees as the race for the White House gets serious. A small, Midwestern state, 90 per cent white and best-known for its cornfields, gets together every four years for a sort of mass hoe-down in which neighbours gather in family rooms, basements and school gyms for a good old chat and some good-natured kibitzing while they try to talk each other into sitting on one side of the room or another, based on which of several candidates they most like, kind-of, though they’re always open to persuasion.

On Monday it exploded in a kind of rural Armageddon, as three years of preparation ended in chaos. The first results arrived almost 24 hours late, and then only 62 per cent were available. Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chair, apologized. “We hit a stumbling block,” he told a Tuesday press conference, acknowledging the results “were unacceptable.”

U.S. President Donald Trump must have loved it.

When at last the first numbers were released, former mayor Pete Buttigieg was on top with 27 per cent of delegates, just ahead of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 25 per cent. Former vice president Joe Biden was a surprisingly distant fourth with 16 per cent, just three points ahead of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. In the popular vote, Biden at 14,000 had just half of Sanders’ leading total.

As the pundits and panels swing into belated action, we still don’t know precisely what went so wrong. It was an app, we were told. The party that wants to run the country starting next January — possibly including a massive makeover of the trillion-dollar health industry — couldn’t come up with a workable app to collect and report the results. Stymied in attempts to resort to a backup — the good old telephone — volunteers found themselves sitting helplessly on overburdened call lines before being abruptly disconnected. You could feel the seething anger between the lines of a letter emailed by the Biden camp to the responsible party officials, demanding a full explanation and a chance to respond before any results were released. God knows how much time and money the candidates poured into preparations for this night, only to reinforce suspicions that Democrats are not an organization ready for prime time.

Donald Trump must have loved it. It’s easy to picture him on the hotline to Moscow with his pal Putin: “Hey Vlad, you watching this? Get the champagne ready.” For all the attention heaped on the moment by networks desperate to create some drama, the online news site Axios reported that “social media interactions” over the previous week totalled 208 million for the death of Kobe Bryant versus four million for Iowa, which placed sixth behind Bryant, the Wuhan virus, Trump’s impeachment, the Super Bowl and the Grammys. Considering the mess the Democrats made of their moment, maybe that’s a good thing.

For all the farce, the implications from Monday’s cock-up are deeply significant. Iowans interviewed before and during the voting stated repeatedly that their biggest concern was finding the candidate who could defeat Trump. They didn’t want to make a mistake by picking the wrong person. Pretty much Biden’s entire campaign, unimpressive as it’s been, is based on identifying him as the safe bet, the one guy who’d be able to defeat Trump and “make America normal again.” After Iowa, you have to wonder whether the country would recognize normal if it bumped into it on the street.

The Iowa Democratic party caucus app is displayed on an iPhone outside Iowa Democratic party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 4.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

If there is a single Democrat who might claim some measure of reassurance from Iowa, it could be Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who skipped the caucuses and the upcoming New Hampshire primary in favour of focusing on Super Tuesday, the day in March on which 16 states and territories hold simultaneous primaries. Bloomberg has poured more than US$200 million of his personal fortune into advertising, seven times higher than any previous presidential hopeful from either party and more than the other candidates combined. On Tuesday, in the wake of Iowa, he reportedly authorized campaign officials to double it.

It seems to be working. Even before Monday’s fiasco, Bloomberg had been moving up the popularity ladder, climbing into third spot in some national polls, overtaking Buttigieg in key states as Texas and North Carolina, and moving ahead of Warren into third spot in Florida.

Bloomberg spent Monday campaigning in California, which offers 415 pledged delegates for the Democratic nomination, against 41 in Iowa. “California is a very big state with a lot of delegates, so you’d obviously come here more,” he noted laconically. Like, why didn’t anyone else notice? A Reuters poll indicates he trails just Biden and Sanders on a national basis, and is drawing support from a broad coalition including “baby boomers, high-income earners, rural Americans and Democrats without a college degree.” Many of those are the same people Biden is counting on, setting up the possibility of a choice between the two for voters seeking a moderate they can choose over Sanders and his fellow left-wing firebrand Elizabeth Warren.

Perhaps Iowa will trigger that choice. It might be the only silver lining to emerge from the caucuses debacle. And maybe by 2024 Democrats can come up with a more adult means of launching primary season than Monday’s tire fire.

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