Thanks Loads, Iowa

I watched the Iowa Caucus on MSNBC for a couple of hours last night, then went to bed before the speeches. I have to say that I was dismayed and depressed by what I saw even before it was revealed that the results were gummed up in technological glitches.

One caucus-goer after another was interviewed, and one after another proclaimed they were basing their vote on “electability.” In other words, their decisions often were based on the near-endless propaganda that we must choose a nominee that conservative white people will vote for. Never mind the rather poor track record of past “electable” Democratic nominees (example).

One more time, people — we don’t know who is “electable” until there is an election. The pundits don’t know. Senior Democratic Party officials don’t know. Nobody knows. All they have are theories, and the theories have been proved wrong in the past. From now on, let’s do something crazy and vote for the person we think would make the best POTUS. The result would, at least, be a reflection of what we actually want and not what we’re told we have to settle for. Whoever gets the most votes really ought to be electable.

Even so, it appears Biden really flopped in Iowa, so perhaps he’s less “electable” than he used to be.

Also, although I’d read about how the caucuses are run, I’d never before seen how screwy they are. For example, this is from one high school gym last night:

I am told the math is accurate; I have no way to know. Arithmetic to me is akin to witchcraft and the work of the devil. But this is self-evidently screwy. The rounding is distorted because of the small number of delegates (someone suggested cutting the delegates into smaller pieces to make the total more representative of the vote). Multiply that distortion by the number of caucus venues, and you get a very distorted statewide result. They should allocate delegates by statewide totals, IMO. But nobody listens to me.

I was also watching people who came to caucus for “non-viable” candidates who switched sides based on which “viable” group was having the most fun or where their friends were going. Again, this is a distortion that doesn’t reflect, as a rule, what happens in a voting booth.

It would be a lovely experiment to hold both a primary and a caucus in Iowa to see if both procedures gave us the same result. I bet they would not.

Caucuses are notoriously non-representative because they are intimidating and confusing and require people to spend at least a couple of hours, probably more, hanging out in the venue. People with disabilities complain they can’t manage them. People who need babysitters or who have night jobs can’t go. People who are likely to vote in the general but who don’t have really strong feelings about any one candidate may not bother. Turnout at caucuses generally is much, much lower than turnout in primaries. I understand that caucus participation usually reflects fewer than 10 percent of voters.

There is weeping and wailing today because there was not a record turnout last night. There were many predictions of a new record, but I understand turnout was about the same as in 2016 (that’s what they’re saying so far). The all-time record turnout was 2008, when people pumped up about Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards (yeah, remember him?) caucused in relatively vast numbers. Whether this year’s turnout means anything, I do not know. It might just mean that many potential caucus-goers didn’t have any one favorite candidate and decided not to bother.

Now, on to the technical glitches. Here is a detailed explanation at Vox. In brief, in addition to proposing to report more data than in the past, the Iowa Dem party decided that all this data would be reported through a new, untested, app. Those who didn’t want to use the app were supposed to report numbers by phone.

According to the New York Times, many precinct chairs didn’t use the app at all, citing difficulty downloading or using it. These volunteers said they had always preferred to call in the results as they had in the past, and that’s what many of them tried to do when the app wasn’t working. Many reported that phone lines at party headquarters were busy for hours, as potentially hundreds of volunteers from more than 1,600 precincts tried calling in their results.

It’s unclear so far why the phone center had so much trouble responding to the calls. Some precinct chairs even tried taking photos of their results and hand-delivering them to Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, and even then they weren’t able to get through to party officials.

Somewhere last night I saw a comment that caucuses should not be run by the state parties but by the state election commission. I don’t know if that would necessarily be any better, though.  From the New York Times:

For the third consecutive presidential cycle, the results here are riddled with questions, if not doubt. First it was the Republicans, when Mitt Romney was initially declared the winner in 2012 before that was later reversed, and then the Democrats suffered when a virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Mr. Sanders in 2016 set off a number of rule changes that culminated in the 2020 debacle.

There is a paper record, I understand, so they ought to be able to sort the votes eventually. But I’m leaning in the direction of Paul Waldman, who writes that it’s time to kill the Iowa Caucus. And the rest of the caucuses also.

If you tuned in to cable news and watched correspondents running around middle school gyms explaining that one candidate’s supporters didn’t reach the threshold of viability and so had to find another candidate, you probably asked, “What’s the point of that?”

It’s a good question. Why on earth should a candidate who gets 14 percent of the vote in a given precinct get zero votes when the results are tabulated? How is that supposed to be democratic?

Good question.

We’ll find out who won Iowa eventually, but the impact of that victory will be significantly attenuated, which is a good thing. It’ll still be big news, but it won’t be transformative in the way it often is.

To be clear, if you care at all about the fairness of this process, you should be glad about that however your favorite candidate is affected, whether it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (probably) being denied headlines celebrating his victory or Joe Biden (probably) avoiding headlines skewering his poor showing. If your candidate has what it takes, they’ll win without Iowa distorting our view of what the whole Democratic electorate wants.

And if we’re really lucky, this might be the occasion for some significant reform. The absolute minimum that should be done is for Iowa to switch from a caucus to a primary, in which — and see if you can follow along here — voters cast ballots, either at a polling place or mailing them in from home, and then the person with the most votes wins. Imagine that!

Not all presidential primaries are winner-take-all but split the delegates proportionately to the candidates according to statewide vote. And if it’s a tie, it’s a tie. You might remember that in 2016 Sanders and Clinton tied in Iowa at 49 percent but Clinton was declared the winner. Some coin tosses were involved. It should have just been declared a tie and the delegates evenly distributed.

See also Waldman’s column from yesterday, The Presidential Caucus Needs to Die.

Now, on to the rumors. You may have heard that Robby Mook, the techno bro who worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016, was somehow connected to the malfunctioning app. This is not true, according to Mook.

However, see This Is The Buzzy Democratic Firm That Botched The Iowa Caucuses at Huffpost. The tech company that developed the app, Acronym, is connected to a lot of people from the Clinton-Obama wing of the party. Another tech company with party insider connections called Shadow is getting a lot of attention from conspiracy theorists today, but Shadow says it didn’t have anything to do with the bleeping app.

I personally think these people just bleeped up. This screwup is bad for the entire Democratic Party, not just one candidate. Don’t create conspiracy theories for things that can be attributed to incompetence, I say.

There also were stories in right-wing media that Pete Buttigieg was somehow connected to the app developer. It turns out that the Buttigieg campaign uses Shadow for text messaging, as does the Biden campaign, and the terminated Kirsten Gillibrand campaign used Shadow for several things. Again, this seems unremarkable to me.

The bigger question is, how much damage might this do to the nominating process? In a logical world, it wouldn’t. But Nate Silver thinks it could be huge.

In trying to build a forecast model of the Democratic primaries, we literally had to think about the entire process from start (Iowa) to finish (the Virgin Islands on June 6). Actually, we had to do more than that. Since the nomination process is sequential — states vote one at a time rather than all at once — we had to determine, empirically, how much the results of one state can affect the rest.

The answer in the case of Iowa is that it matters a lot. Despite its demographic non-representativeness, and the quirks of the caucuses process, the amount of media coverage the state gets makes it far more valuable a prize than you’d assume from the fact that it only accounts for 41 of the Democrats’ 3,979 pledged delegates.

More specifically, we estimate — based on testing how much the results in various states have historically changed the candidates’ position in national polls — that Iowa was the second most-important date on the calendar this year, trailing only Super Tuesday. It was worth the equivalent of almost 800 delegates, about 20 times its actual number.

Many, like Paul Waldman, have been arguing for years that Iowa shouldn’t be allowed to have that kind of influence. It is not representative of the U.S. as a whole and especially not representative of Democratic voters.

And while we’re often told that Iowans take their “first in the nation” responsibilities seriously and are well informed, videos have emerged today in which caucus participants freak out when they find out Buttigieg is gay. Wait until they find out Bloomberg and Sanders are Jewish. (/snark)

In short, I sincerely hope this was the last Iowa Caucus. In fact, there shouldn’t be any one state that goes first, whether primary or caucus. I suggest scrapping the hodge-podge calendar we have now for regional primaries, five to ten continguous states at a time allowing for a more diverse demographic mix. And I sincerely hope the rest of the primary elections go smoothly.


Nathan Robinson, Joe Biden flopped in Iowa. And so did the Democratic party’s reputation

Greg Sargent, Lindsey Graham’s Iowa deception shows Trump’s corruption of GOP

Andrew Ferguson, Iowa Forgot the Whole Point of the Caucus

Andy Kroll, Dempocalypse Now

9 thoughts on “Thanks Loads, Iowa

  1. When I was watching this morning, MSNBC had brief interviews with some of the people who were assigned  the app to turn in results. 

    The ones they talked to were mostly older folks.  And they said they either weren't trained on how to use the app, or just didn't want the pain in the tuchus of using it to report-in!

    How the hell do you NOT train people on how to use something as critical as that app?!?  Especially older folks. 

    Everyone responsible for this debacle should be  fired!  

    Also too:  End this caucus nonsense!  That may have been fine back in the days when neighbors would hitch their horse and wagon to a post, and then go in and argue who they wanted as (Fill-in the blank______________________).

    But this is the 21st Century!!!!!

  2. Like making sausage, a process that should not be watched by the squeamish.  

    The results show three main points.  First is that Biden does not have frontrunner status. Second that the more progressive wing has about equal support to the more moderate wing.  Last that the two progressives, both had strong finishes with Sanders a bit stronger.  Of the three moderates Buttigieg finished significantly better than Biden and Klobutchar who had near equal support in fourth and fifth. 

    I would say the mud has cleared a bit and the water is becoming more transparent.  It just takes a bit of patience.  



  3. "Iowa held a presidential primary in 1916, but returned to the caucus system in 1917 due to high costs and low participation.

    After the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity, Democratic Party leaders decided to make changes to their presidential nomination process by spreading out the schedule in each state. Because Iowa had a complex process of precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions, and a state convention, they chose to start early. In 1972, Iowa was the first state to hold its Democratic caucus, and it had the first Republican caucus four years later."

    Iowa caucuses still have low participation. So Iowans are not only unrepresentative demographically, they're historically bad at voting. The only reason they're first is their system is a mess. Perhaps I'm being overly critical, but this all strikes me as just a wee bit moronic.


  4. The Republican caucus was also screwy. They registered zero support for a better nominee? I can see Trump getting the delegates, as he had two opponents who could split the vote, but having a chance at a serious candidate and NOBODY doing it? Sounds rigged. Crom help us all in November. I’m more afraid of voting “systems” than Trump magically winning over 270 electoral votes based on his ”personal charm.”

  5. We probably should have known:

    "ANKENY, Iowa — The company behind the app that led to the delay in reporting caucus results in Iowa was established by alums of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

    News outlets reported that the faulty app was developed by Shadow Inc., a technology group co-founded by Gerard Niemira and Krista Davis — both of whom worked for Ms. Clinton’s 2016 campaign."

    Tom Perez really needs firing.

  6. And Iowa is where candidates go to pledge fealty to Methanol requirements in gas, a huge subsidy for Big Ag – monoculture corn – which gets blamed on environmentalists.

    Yeah, OK, time to kill off the Caucus thing, it's even sillier than our normal plurality-rules First-Past-The-Post election process.  Ranked Choice Voting for everyone, for Primaries and elections.

    And IA and NH shouldn't always go first.  But it makes sense to have some small states in different regions go first, sequentially, to keep the "retail politics" aspect, where real people get to see & hear the candidates in person.  Starting with big states – or even worse, a bunch of them – will exclude any candidate that can't raise a Billion dollars for TV ads before they receive a single vote.  The "money primary" is already too important.

    Separate gripe: caught 5 minutes of NPR on way to work this AM.  First they said that Mayor Pete (sorry, still can't spell his last name) has a "slight lead" over Sanders in the 71% of IA caucuses that have been counted.  A minute later their reporter in Iowa said PB has a "slight lead in the delegate count", which implies that he doesn't lead the Vote count – but they didn't say who does (presumably Sanders).  Not the first time I've heard NPR take sides against Bernie.  How can smart people be so blinded by conventional "wisdom"?

  7. Now that perez is having the dnc take over the count won't we all be surprised when his results show delusional joe, ex senator from mastercard, was a runaway winner with klobacher and buttigieg trailing.

    Bernie and Warren didn't get any votes at all.

    after all perez and the DNC wouldn't lie to us.

  8. I am told the math is accurate; I have no way to know. Arithmetic to me is akin to witchcraft and the work of the devil. But this is self-evidently screwy. The rounding is distorted because of the small number of delegates (someone suggested cutting the delegates into smaller pieces to make the total more representative of the vote). Multiply that distortion by the number of caucus venues, and you get a very distorted statewide result. They should allocate delegates by statewide totals, IMO. But nobody listens to me.


    The math is accurate, and not really all that screwy. Sanders won a ratio that would give him  2.4 delegates, but if you gave him 3, it would steal one from the other two, and one got > 1.5 delegates, and the other got >1.7 delegates.

    (> is "greater than" – no, I don't think any readers didn't know that, but not everyone realizes that, e.g., ">7" reads as "more than 7".)

    If we stole the .5 delegates going to Buttigieg, that still wouldn't *really* give Sanders 3 – it would only be 2.9. And Pete *did* win > 1.5.

    You could argue that a 3, 2, 1 split  would be "better", and it might be, but it would make Sanders get 3x as many delegates as Buttigieg (who is probably going to become "Pete" forever more, for a fellow with CFS who has a hard time keeping unusual spellings in his head), when Sanders didn't have even 2x as many supporters.

    That delegate split isn't perfect, but it is, honest-to-goodness, not the primary problem. As we now know, part of it was the telephone lines getting bolloxed up (notice how the GOP hasn't scolded people  for mucking around?), and part of it… sigh.

    People talk about the difficulty of rolling out an app, and as an IT worker, I won't deny that, but part of me thinks that's an excuse. I honestly don't know how much information needs to be transmitted, nor how certification is performed, but if all you're trying to do is report results, that you have to be 100% certain come from the right people, that's *really* not hard.

    One place where I will roast these unprepared folks with flames (a la usenet, where a contemptuous response was called "flaming") is in expecting the app, or a single phone number, to work, without a backup  plan. Back in the day (yes, I'm this old, but just barely) we in IT would say "don't blame the mainframe for going down; you can *count* on a mainframe going down just before a deadline!" (It's not really true you can count on the mainframe going down, but you're a damn fool if you don't plan for the contingency.).

    You must  *EXPECT* disasters. You must *plan* for them. You must believe, as someone once famously declared, that Murphy Was An Optimist (for merely believing that everything that *can* go wrong, will. – trust me, in IT, "…but that can't happen!" happens a lot.)

    So, yeah, the Iowa Democrats did, in fact, screw the pooch, in the sense of "failure to prepare is preparation for failure". But some parts of the story – like a strange delegate award – are actually pretty innocuous.

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