Home / 2020 Democractic Primary / Not Aquatic, Though Farcical

Not Aquatic, Though Farcical


I would like to introduce Chris Koski, who is a professor of public policy scholar who thinks occasionally about politics. He specializes in environmental policy, state and local politics, and pretty much anything the government chooses to do or not to do. He teaches at Reed College which is [insert funny Reed Nonsense here]. He is from Montana and will gladly tell you why it is the best place on earth. Please welcome him warmly.– Farley

[From left to right Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar]

The Iowa caucuses are over and everyone seems to be pretty darned upset. CNN for forcing them to actually wait for results, people who were upset before about Iowa, and the candidates who think they might have done well. The list goes on. My sense having spent the last few days in Iowa, including observing three caucuses, is that Iowans are likely the most upset with this particular outcome. The caucus is something that most Iowans take seriously; at least more seriously than most people take voting. In part this is because of the reasons for which the caucuses are less democratic: takes a lot of time, strict rules about when you can actually participate, intense policy demanders are better represented than regular folks, etc. My sense is, after talking with members of campaigns and with Iowans attending campaign events, that they are likely the most upset with this outcome. Probably less because the outcome jeopardizes their fabled status as kingmakers (though this is dubious anyway) and more because they were the victims of a problem that could happen anywhere and does happen often: election mal-administration. The end result is that Iowans, after decades of practice, were forced into a new rules set without much training with the technophilic hope (see Loomis’ post today) that the app will save us.

My recent trip through Iowa suggested engaged people, but, the turnout numbers are likely to show that fewer people actually participated in the caucuses than expected. Entry polls also suggest that a third of the people participating in the caucus did so for the first time which no doubt added to the confusion over the new rules for caucusing. So, fewer experienced people, more excited unexperienced people need some kind of leadership; however, the 1,700 or so caucuses occurring across the state are led by volunteers from the Democratic party. And, it seems, that the Iowa Democratic Party really botched things up. No doubt we’ll get an autopsy on how information about the caucuses were transmitted to precinct leaders, but, suffice to say that the distribution of knowledge was highly variable centered on a mean of confusion. At one precinct I observed, for example, the party administrator read the rules 90 minutes after the caucus had begun as if for the first time. In two other precincts, confusion about when people could shift allegiances caused uneven first counts – in a precinct in a gymnasium of a high school, this mean that Steyer folks simply moved before the first count (but after they had their ballots) to other sections; in another precinct the same high school auditorium the opposite occurred where a lackluster Biden group refused to consolidate to allow for Sanders folks to sit in a way that was easier to count until the second round. The very fact that I was freely moving between three precincts I think is a no-no but, to be honest, no one cared. No one also seemed to care about observers attempting to persuade participants.

As I said, though, there are a lot of bright spots here. There were many first time caucus goers who also were likely first time voters – they were excited and sometimes confused. One woman walked in at 8 PM and told me she wanted to vote for Bernie. I told her she should talk with an election administrator but that she’d miss the window and couldn’t vote. I couldn’t find an administrator because, well, they were all busy. I have no idea what happened to her. Likely left disillusioned with the process or participated in a democracy technically against the rules. That stung a bit. Likely not as much, though, as the Iowa viability question has stung Castro, Harris, and Booker – all of whom dropped out for many reasons, but, surely top among them the ability to do well in the IA caucus that now seems to matter a lot less.

The death warrant of the Iowa caucuses, though, might not be signed just yet. First, we don’t have any of the data, so, let’s just take a breath. I wouldn’t trust a whole lot of it given how I saw the counting go at the ground level, but, perhaps the IDP is going to do a better job at the top. Second, this is a new system that they can fix – though, they’ll have to wait four years to fix it. My sense is that there are lessons to be learned here and, well, they will be learned. One of those lessons might be not to leave the caucuses in the hands of party officials but instead put them in the hands of election administrators. This isn’t a guarantee by any measure (see Richard Hasen’s work on this), but, it might put the administration in the hands of people who have experience conducting elections with more frequency. Third, there is a scenario in which the Iowa caucuses stay the same (that is, the current same, which is new – see how confusing that is?), but, that people simply pay less attention to them. And this might not be all that nice for Iowans in terms of seeing candidates with less frequency and having less of a spotlight, but, I must say that I’m not sure Iowans would miss this whole circus. As a Sanders precinct captain told me: “If anyone else wants to be first, be my guest. You can have this!” The caucuses could still be first in the nation, but, people could simply pull a Bloomberg or a Giuliani and avoid them. Of course, anyone who bets the farm on Florida is likely ready to live there permanently and Bloomberg is neither a Democratic nor a democratic ideal.

I, and others, may have witnessed the last of the Iowa caucus as we know them. There is something to mourn there, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary. But, we can all move on – and will very quickly, I think.

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