By MARSHA MERCER
The Democratic caucuses in Iowa Monday night were supposed to give Iowans the first say on winners and losers for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Instead, the Democrats coughed up a political mess.
The culprit was a brand-new app that reportedly was developed in just two months and hadn’t been tested on a statewide level. What could go wrong? Just about everything. Precincts were unable to send in results to party headquarters, and the back-up emergency phone system was overwhelmed.
Caucus results were delayed for days, then disputed. Chaos ensued. Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders were nearly tied, and both had claims to winning. Naturally, President Donald Trump gloated.
“Unmitigated disaster,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “When will the Democrats start blaming RUSSIA, RUSSIA, RUSSIA, instead of their own incompetence for the voting disaster that just happened in the Great State of Iowa?” Trump has steadfastly refused to accept the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 election and that it is doing so again this year.
If Democrats can’t run a caucus, Republicans scoff, how can they run the country?
In raising competence, Trump again showed his knack of finding opponents’ soft spot. For Democrats, the Iowa debacle underlined their anxiety in 2020. Who in their large field of presidential contenders can beat Trump – and is up to the job in the White House?
As candidates turned to New Hampshire, whose primary is Tuesday, polls show New Hampshire voters, like Democrats in Iowa, are late in making up their minds. No clear frontrunner has emerged. Joe Biden, once thought the strongest candidate against Trump, came in fourth in Iowa and called the caucuses a “gut punch.”
Turnout in Iowa was also worrisome for Democrats. Predicted to be high, turnout was more on a par with 2016 than the record crowds in 2008. Nor does it help Democrats that Trump’s nationwide job approval has been rising. It stands at 49%, the highest since he took office, the latest Gallup poll reported.
Trump’s team claims -- based on conspiracy theories, not fact -- Democrats “rigged” the Iowa caucus vote. If you recall, Trump also claimed repeatedly during the 2016 campaign that the election would be rigged -- until he won.
In 2016, the Democratic establishment did put its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton. But the Democratic National Committee rewrote the rules for 2020, giving party officials known as superdelegates less power in the nominating process.
Democrats wisely have been moving away from caucuses. Only a handful of states will use the antiquated system to choose delegates to this summer’s presidential nominating conventions. Nevada Democrats, who caucus Feb. 22, quickly announced they scrapped the software that failed in Iowa.
Caucuses tend to be run by the political parties, while the New Hampshire primary, along with the primary in South Carolina Feb. 29, and primaries in Virginia and other Super Tuesday states March 3 are run by state and local governments.
“Caucuses are run by rank amateurs. Even though we have concerns about the capacity of election officials, at least this is what they do a lot of,” Charles Stewart, who runs MIT’s election data and science lab, told ProPublica. “Even in the smallest of jurisdictions you run a lot of elections – you have contingency plans. The parties, bless their hearts, they don’t do this very much and that’s the bottom line.”
Competence may not be sexy, but it’s reassuring when it comes to elections and government. It’s not too much to ask for timely, accurate election results.
That’s why New Hampshire, which has been holding the first primary since 1920, is even more important this year. Democrats need to put the chaos in Iowa behind them. New Hampshire will give a snapshot of where independents are leaning. In the Granite State’s semi-open primary, “undeclared” or independent voters -- about 42% of those registered in the state – can vote. Sanders won easily last time.
After the 2020 election, Democrats will probably go back to the drawing board, again, to find a better process of picking their nominee. Iowa likely will lose its caucus in favor of primaries. Restoring faith in the election process is crucial.
For now, it’s time to focus on the present. Hello, New Hampshire. Don’t mess it up.