Live From the Iowa Caucuses: In Search of Lost Time and Votes

This is the third article of periodic reports from the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps beyond, should the republic last until South Carolina and Nevada. This was written as the results were being released in Iowa.

Joe and Jill Biden and the press gaggle, Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

Des Moines, Iowa

With 1700 precinct votes in Iowa on the night of the caucuses, you would have thought that I could find one of the gatherings without breaking a sweat in the sub-freezing Des Moines night air.

I had thought about driving into the heartland and finding a caucus in some four-corners small town, to watch democracy-in-action as it is imagined in an eighth-grade civics class.

One of quirks of the caucuses is that the locations of the votes can and do change, even at the last minute. Talk to a group of Iowans about their “voting experience”, and the first thing they will describe is how at the last minute the location of their caucus changed—American democracy as a variation on Three-card Monte.

Not having found a caucus site online, I set off in my rental car, in search of an elementary school or town hall surrounded with parked cars, if not a few Bernie signs driven into the frozen snow.

Given the hype surrounding the caucuses—the first primary, America speaking, cradle of the democracy, etc.—around the time voting started I had expected to find few cars on the road and stores to be empty (equivalent to the reverence of the Super Bowl).

At least in the malls that I passed in my caucus searching, it was business as usual, Mammon still holding more sway than the statutes of liberty.

In something of a panic, not having found any grass roots in the snow of suburban West Des Moines, I set my sails for Drake University, figuring that a caucus of college kids would highlight the divide between front runners Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden.

Drake did not disappoint. Along University Avenue I found a parking lot chock full of TV sound trucks and then got directions to the Knapp Center, where a few nights earlier I had attended a Donald Trump rally—the executive branch of government set to the strains of mixed martial arts.

The Knapp Center is Drake’s basketball arena. When Trump was playing the house, it was covered in patriotic bunting and the rafters were beating to the line dances of the Village People, notably “Macho Man”. (Trump and Pence had the look of a wrestling tag team.)

On this evening the Knapp Center was yet again a basketball court, but this time, in addition to gathering caucusers, it was filled with TV crews in search of common man quotes from those riding the pine for their favorite candidates.

The Iowa Caucus’s Chamber of Secrets

The Iowa caucuses are America’s chamber of secrets—in how the votes are cast and counted—and on this particular night the Knapp Center was one of the deathly hallows.

Citizens don’t vote for the candidate of their choice. They gather across the state in public spaces and then stand or sit in groups for the candidate of their choice. You get delegates to the county and state conventions if you exceed a 15% threshold. But that’s just the start.

In the Knapp Center, after signing in and providing voter bona fides, the groups took their places in the lower stands—a bit like marching bands or booster clubs. Then there was a lull, while the caucus chairman (a local Democratic volunteer) counted the total number present in the hall.

The roll call total in the Knapp Center was 849, which became the figure used to calculate what locally is called “viability,” or 15% of the total number present.

Any candidate in the first round who did not get 15% of the total would be deemed “non-viable”, and then, in the next round of voting, his or her supporters would be free to change their vote to one of the remaining candidates.

The local term for this subsequent jockeying is “realignment”, during which time spokespersons for “viable” candidates make deals with voters in search of a candidate.

Before the final vote is taken, each person present at the caucus has to fill out a “presidential preference card” listing their “First Preference”, which is the paper trail that was much discussed when it became clear that Iowa’s caucus votes had vanished down either a rabbit or an app hole.

A Des Moines Caucus: Voter Early, Vote Often

All this at the Knapp Center took more than an hour to organize. Meanwhile, the local Democratic party passed the hat to raise some money, and TV journalists—NBC’s Katy Tur among them—worked the aisles of the box seats, in search of truths that were probably self-evident.

Finally the vote totals were counted and announced over the PA system (so much for the local Democratic committee not knowing the results), and in the Knapp Center the first take looked like this:

Warren 212

Buttigieg 172

Klobuchar 140

Biden 131

Sanders 129

Yang 28

Steyer 26

Gabbard 2

Uncommitted 7

The non-viable candidates were Yang, Steyer, Gabbard, and the uncommitted, and their voters were given 15 minutes to decide on another candidate. Sometimes the voters for non-viable candidates move elsewhere as a bloc; other times they just scatter individually.

It took more than fifteen minutes for realignment, after which the vote total was this:

Warren 227

Buttigieg 194

Klobuchar 149

Biden 138

Sanders 134

In the realignment Buttigieg gained the most votes (22), while Bernie gained the fewest (5). Some of the uncommitted remained uncommitted (6) and simply went home.

Realignment is a public clue about the person relations among the candidates. For example, a lot of the Yang supporters went to Warren, and not many non-viable voters went to Bernie.

Iowa and The Great State of Confusion

The confusions of the Iowa caucuses don’t end with realignment. All that this first round of voting determines is the election of delegates who will attend their party’s county conventions, which in turn will select delegates to a state convention.

In the end, the 1700 precincts that held caucuses on February 3 will produce 41 delegates who will attend the Democratic National Convention next summer.

In theory all the candidates who remain “viable” through the county and state conventions will win a proportionate number of national delegates, but sometimes the winner of the first round in the caucuses isn’t the candidate who, in the end, gets the most number of delegates.

In 2012, Mitt Romney thought he had won the Republican Iowa caucuses, and on the night of the voting, he was crowned the winner on network television. Two weeks later, it became clear that Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had actually won the most delegates in Iowa.

There is another quirk of the Iowa caucuses: the television networks usually report the results as a percentage of delegates won, not based on the total number of votes received. And in calculating the total number of votes a candidate receives, there are two numbers: one before and another after realignment.

To put in perspective how few people actually vote in Iowa (and thus how few Americans determine the front-running nominees of the two major parties), consider the following statistics:

Iowa has a population of roughly three million people of whom about two million are eligible to vote. Of that number about 700,000 are registered Democratic, although less that 200,000 people turn up, in presidential years, “to caucus.”

The so-called winner in Iowa will often receive less than 40,000 direct votes, which means that the proclaimed “winner” of the Iowa caucuses will have received the vote of 2% of Iowa’s population.

Of the 235 million eligible voters in the United States, 0.02% will have had a say in what is regarded as one of the most influential votes in the presidential primaries. So much for the pretensions of the democracy. (A Gallup poll of 500 Iowans would take less time and might be more accurate.)

Iowa: Not What It Used to Be

Why, you might ask, does the country, let alone the party, waste its time with an Iowa caucus, especially as an early barometer of relative strength among the presidential candidates?

Iowa is hardly representative of the nation as a whole. (It’s an egg white, not an omelette.) Nor is it particularly adept at turning out voters (or, as it now turns out, counting the votes). In Chicago, they can stuff ballots faster than they can count them in Iowa.

Iowa’s position as an early primary is a by-product of its caucus system (only five states still use them).

Back in the day, time was needed for Iowans to caucus at the precinct, county, and state levels, and then to send its delegates to the national convention. But those reasons to let Iowa be “the first in the nation” are no longer valid.

Another reason for Iowa’s preference among presidential primaries is nostalgia and the romantic idea that almost anyone can charter a bus, raise a little money, and throw themselves at the mercy of the caucuses, which might just favor an unknown outsider, such as Jimmy Carter (1976), George H.W. Bush (in 1980), or Barack Obama (2008).

The argument is also made, among party insiders, that Iowa “has the infrastructure” to host the early presidential vote. (It sounds a little bit like saying that Los Angeles is ideally situated to host the Rose Bowl.)

In this logic, Iowa is best suited—in terms of county chairmen, chartered buses, and Grange halls—to put on the show, about which Iowans have become sentimental. Think of an apple festival in Montana.

Iowans like the quirkiness of the caucuses, which require their presence for an evening in a public space, and they like having a chance to listen in person to the candidates. They like the sociability of the night, with neighbors dragooning other neighbors to come out in the cold to support one of the candidates. But keep in mind that the crowds at a state fair are almost more representative of a state than are those who “caucus” in Iowa.

Iowans, at least those who turn up for the caucuses, have a soft spot for their idiosyncratic system. They believe that the demographics of Iowa—the mix between the larger university towns and the vast stretches of farmland—test a candidate’s ability to organize a campaign and to appeal to a cross-section of Americans.

Personally, I have no quibble if Iowa wants to select its delegates with a system that James Garfield might have found antiquated (he ran for president in 1880 and won at the nomination at the national convention). But picking candidates in Iowa is only marginally more democratic than picking names out a hat.

The Party’s Over: Joe Biden’s Victory Celebration in Des Moines

Because it was close by and the night air was freezing, I decided to drop in on the Biden victory party, which was being held in another building on the Drake campus (where, most importantly) I already had a parking place.

I had thought that by the time I got there, the results of the caucus would be known and that, in the lobby around the bar, I might come across a few spin doctors, who would explain to me that Joe Biden never expected to come in better than fourth or fifth place.

The Biden party had everything except a win. It had a ballroom with bunting and TV cameras, a large press room with televisions streaming CNN, two well- stocked bars, and enough political middle men to overstaff a presidential campaign.

With no results to analyze, I took a seat in the press room. All around me were bored TV and radio crews, interviewing each other on why an app was a poor way to run an election. For two hours, I watched Wolf Blitzer tread studio water, answering his own questions.

Finally, before it got too late, Joe and Jill Biden took what was scripted as a victory lap in front of the adoring crowd.

Joe waved and pointed to his friends, and made a brave new world speech about how he was running a national campaign“in all fifty states…”, with his eyes on places such as South Carolina and Super Tuesday. I didn’t get the feeling that anyone was buying the line. He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself.

Without any of the results in Iowa announced, here was Biden at his victory party, giving what sounded like a concession speech. Just after he stopped speaking, the party had the feel of a wake.

* * *

Around the bar at the Biden after party, the great tragedy of the Iowa vote-count debacle wasn’t that the leader (in this case they were still hoping it would be Biden) was deprived of his or her fifteen minutes of fame, but that the computer glitch had delayed the departure of numerous private jets that were to fly the candidates that night from Iowa to New Hampshire.

On the stump, all you ever hear from candidates such as Warren, Sanders, or Buttigieg is that climate change is threatening the planet. But to make their appointed rounds in the primaries, nearly all the candidates (I don’t have an exact list) have private planes standing by, as if in a great presidential cab rank. (The words limousine liberal feel almost quaint.)

During the time I was in Iowa, all three senators—Warren, Sanders, and Klobuchar—made several fleeting roundtrips between Washington and Iowa, so that they could continue to campaign while attending the impeachment trial.

And all the campaigns on the ground are little more than vast fleets of cars and SUVs, frantically crisscrossing Iowa as if delivering packages for FedEx. It’s something to keep in mind when, for example, you review Elizabeth Warren’s I-have-a-plan for reducing climate change.

The Coming Democratic Wave

What does the Iowa caucus tell us about the general election? I didn’t get many answers to that question at the Biden after-party, so the next morning, when the votes still had not been counted, I went to an early breakfast that pulled together columnists, activists, and pollsters who were making themselves available to answer insider questions.

It turned out that we were fewer than ten at the breakfast, and nearly everyone there had voted the night before at their neighborhood caucus. (It felt like stories from jury duty.)

Those at the breakfast told stories about caucuses that had changed their locations, and replayed the irony that all the results had been tabulated for more than twelve hours, as before adjourning for the night each precinct caucus had public announced the results. (A simple email to headquarters would have sufficed.)

What interested me at the breakfast was the presence of a Virginia-based political scientist, Rachel Bitecofer, who said that, prior to the 2018 election, her computer model accurately predicted that the Democrats would pick up 40 seats in the House of Representatives.

I asked her a number of questions about the 2020 general election, and her answers surprised me, as the common wisdom on the ground is that Donald Trump will beat a left-wing Democratic candidate, such as Sanders or Warren.

She is the first person that I have encountered in Iowa whose data indicates a Democratic victory in 2020, no matter who the nominee is, including Sanders and Warren.

In Iowa, she was trying to gauge if turnout in the caucuses would be greater than 2012 or 2016, and if so whether it might indicate a Democratic revival in a state that otherwise has been red in recent general elections.

For the moment, she was pessimistic about the possibility that Iowa will flip to the Democrats, but in broad electoral terms she described the Trump victory in 2016 as a political aberration, in which some disgruntled Democrats stayed away from Hillary Clinton while Trump energized a bloc (the MAGA crowd) that had not voted in other elections.

By her account, Democrats are not as weak nationally as anecdotal evidence might indicate. She is predicting that at least three swing seats in the Senate will flip to the Democrats: Maine, Colorado, and Arizona, although she thinks the Democrats will lose in Alabama.

She made the point that in 2016 Trump won in a number of swing states, but only by a plurality, and that some of those states will revert to the Democrats in 2020.

In particular, she does not think Trump can win in Pennsylvania or Michigan, and she thinks he is vulnerable—again, no matter who the Democrats run—in Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, and Wisconsin. (She thinks Iowa stays Republican.)

She described the leadership of the Democratic Party as “strategically inept,” and said that the Democrats could have won another twenty House seats in 2018 if money and time had been allocated wisely.

Again and again, she emphasized that her model for 2020 was not based on any one candidate running against Trump. (She finished it in July 2019.) She said she might have to reassess her numbers if Sanders were the nominee, but said that as long as the Democratic nominee presented “an affirmative case” to the electorate he or she should win.

She also emphasized that the Democratic ticket needs to “embrace diversity” to turn out a broad coalition in the general election. In 2016, a number of African-Americans who had voted for Obama in 2012 did not turn out for Hillary.

Where Bitecofer thinks Trump has been strongest is in targeting and energizing his MAGA base and by having his flag-waving rallies in key swing districts around the country.

In political science terms she said that he has “inflamed negative partisanship” and was very lucky with how the voting went in 2016. (“He was a seriously flawed candidate.”) But she does not think that in 2020 Trump will carry the Democratic states that he did in 2016.

When I asked her about pivotal groups to watch in the election, she said that the bloc of 5-6% independent and uncommitted voters hold the key to the 2020 election. She said that in general terms this group was “motivated by change” and “never happy.”

In 2016, these independents stayed away from Hillary and voted for Trump (“motivated by change”), and that was their margin that won states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan for Trump and the Republicans. She doubts it will happen again.

I asked which potential Democratic candidate “was the biggest gamble for the Democratic party,” and she mentioned Sanders and Biden as “risks.” She didn’t think it was “impossible for Sanders to win,” but did say that he might need to trim his socialist sails. She said Biden was a risk because of his age and his predilection to go off script.

A centrist, such as Klobuchar, would probably defeat Trump easily, given her forecast of the realignment of the American electorate, and in the not-too-distant future she sees many more states in the West, including Texas, in play for the Democrats.

She said Hillary was a weak candidate (those cranky independents sat on their hands) and then she became a victim to a perfect Trump storm, but Bitecofer doesn’t think it will happen two elections in a row.

Iowa’s Winners and Losers

The only surprise of the Iowa caucus was that Pete Buttigieg did as well he did in precincts across the state, including in rural and suburban districts. He took the most votes from Joe Biden, who would have loved the demographics that Buttigieg won, although Pete’s voters were younger than Biden could ever have expected to attract.

The Sanders vote was more regionally distinct. He did well in the university enclaves, the people’s republics around Ames and Iowa City, and in pockets of Des Moines (which is more suburban than you might think).

He did not do well in rural districts, which is no surprise, as in his litany of American ills Bernie never mentions the word “farmer” and he has a way of describing “the working class” that makes it sound like the Lumpenproletariat (a standby Karl Marx expression for those who are aggrieved but lack class consciousness).

Elizabeth Warren’s votes came from women of all ages, but she will need to do better among men if she wants to advance further. (Bailey didn’t help there.) Nor did she win many, if any counties, placing a respectable second or third across the state.

Amy Klobuchar’s spin is that she is finishing very close to the Biden, in terms of total votes (the difference is less than 1%). She has also pointed to the fact that she started with zero name recognition in Iowa, except in counties along the Minnesota border, while Biden spent eight years as vice-president under Barack Obama. She has to be a little disappointed that caucusers preferred Pete’s white bread messages over her own.

Perhaps the most interesting story I picked up in the spin rooms and around Iowa is the anger that the Sanders campaign has for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the poobahs of the party.

The Sanders crowd remains angry that the DNC had its thumb on the scale for Hillary in 2016, and there were mumblings that some of the delay in announcing the caucus results was to downplay Bernie’s victory and strength heading into New Hampshire, where he has a good chance of winning (and running away with the nomination).

In his party Sanders is almost as much an outsider as was Trump with the Republicans in 2016. Sanders has identified as either an independent or a socialist for most of his career.

He only became a Democrat officially in 2016 to run against Hillary, and even now he looks more like William Jennings Bryan—a 19th century figure of the Progressive movement—than a president-in-waiting.

Bryan ran for president three times and eventually served (very poorly) as Wilson’s secretary of state. From Byran came many ideas—the income tax, child labor laws, an end to the gold standard, conservation, etc.—that later were incorporated into the liberal Democratic, New Deal cannon.

Sanders is already claiming that his ideas about universal health care, a livable wage, and climate change have become mainstream Democratic principles. But whatever the pollsters say about the coming Democratic wave, I have a hard time imagining that a cranky socialist can win the general election. (Bryan lost three times, and Eugene V. Debs lost five times, running as a socialist.)

The Dark Arts of Front-Running

The easy story in Iowa is that Joe Biden has been run over and left for dead in a cornfield near Dubuque, and that may well be the case. The Biden people that I met at the after-party and beyond all said they never expected Joe to get much traction in Iowa and that he will come alive in racially diverse South Carolina, where Buttigieg is polling at zero among African-Americans, and Bernie will not have his liberal base of Sandernistas knocking on familiar doors.

It’s a brave face, and Biden could well be right, although three of the first four primaries (Nevada is the fourth) favor Sanders. Biden has the additional problem of Michael Bloomberg and his billions lurking around the centrist corners of the race.

In the fight for the Democratic soul of the primaries, there are those on the left wing (Sanders, Warren, Steyer, and Yang), those in the center (Biden, Klobuchar, Bloomberg), and those who wobble between several axes (Buttigieg and Gabbard), although I get the impression (without having heard her speak) that Gabbard’s constituency is from Krypton. Certainly her billboards, floating above the fields in Iowa, gave her an other-worldly appearance.

Biden’s biggest defeat in Iowa came in the money primary. I heard that his campaign is down to $9 million and on life support from super PAC bagmen, who weren’t impressed with his fourth place finish in Iowa. (Win it, and they will come.)

Needless to say, running from the vaults of Pluto, Bloomberg has no money constraints or masters with checkbooks to appease, and he could well become the centrist survivor (along with Klobuchar) to take on Bernie and Buttigieg in the quarter finals. That said, the last thing the Democrats want is to have two finalists for the nomination who, until recently, were never part of the Democratic Party.

Ironically, despite all the network primetime devoted to the caucus returns that vanished in the night, Iowa rarely decides much of anything. It’s the first game of spring training, after a four year layoff, and for that reason the network chieftains and reporters cover Iowa as if it were the seventh game of the World Series.

At this point in the counting, Sanders is ahead in the popular vote in Iowa (with about 31,000) and tied with Buttigieg with a grand total of 10 delegates pledged to him. Yet in the TV caucuses, Sanders is relegated to second place, another reason for his anger at the DNC. If Sanders does win the nomination don’t expect him to be a gracious winner. That’s not how the game is played in Brooklyn.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.