I wrote a piece for The New York Times on Sunday describing how Iowa and New Hampshire could be dislodged from their ridiculous and anachronistic perches. Mine is a terrific plan, I must say, although the Democratic National Committee will never have the stones to do it. Or so I thought when I wrote it. Now, maybe it has a chance.
Caucuses suck. They aren’t “democracy in action.” Democracy in action is a person standing in a voting booth wrestling with his or her conscience and pulling a lever. It’s secret. The secret ballot is the essence of democracy. And, with today’s threats, that ballot needs to be on paper, and counted by hand, to preserve that essence.
It’s unconscionable that an electorate that was 4 percent black and 4 percent Hispanic—in other words, 90 percent or more white—got to play such an outsize role in choosing the nominee of a party that’s barely half white. The party needs to choose two bigger, more diverse states, elevate them, let Iowa and New Hampshire do whatever they want, and ignore them. And by the way, my position isn’t new, based on last night’s mayhem or this year’s candidates. Here I am in The Guardian in 2010 arguing that Iowa and New Hampshire should be dislodged.
This couldn’t have been worse in terms of fueling story lines that will dispirit and divide primary voters. It shows America that the Democrats are a mess, and it shows Bernie Sanders’ conspiracy-ready army that everything is indeed rigged against him, because it denied him that victory speech. Both of those are exactly the story lines that Trump wants.
I know this just looks like a huge screw-up and there’s no sign of any outside hacking. But isn’t this exactly what Russia wants, too? You bet it is. The whole idea is to shake confidence, and that’s exactly what a contest that can’t count straight does. And there are what, 56 caucuses or primaries to go? What if a mess like this (or some other kind of mess on this scale) happens a second time? A third time?
As to the supposed results, which will be announced today, it looks as if Sanders finished on top or at worst in some kind of convoluted draw (pending what we learn about this farkakteh delegate process, which adds yet another needless and stupid layer to this needless and stupid “tradition”). He deserves the respect that winners are due. I have strong doubts about whether he can win a general election, but this is a primary election, and everybody should be very clear: He can win that, as I wrote last February when I broke from the skeptical conventional wisdom that he’d fall flat the second time around with more choices on the ballot. He obviously has a base of young voters who are far more enthusiastic than any other candidate’s base.
A few months ago, remember, he was showing signs of fading. Weirdly enough, it seems like it was his heart attack that turned things around. He looked healthier after it. The debate after it was probably his best. That’s American politics today. A 78-year-old man benefits from having a heart attack.
But here’s the downside for Sanders. He energized a youth turnout, but he didn’t mobilize an army. You saw the turnout numbers on the screen last night the same as I did. It was around 170,000, about the same as 2016, when it was just a two-candidate race, and way, way below 2008, the year of Barack Obama, when it was 240,000. It’s risky to read too much into primary turnout numbers, because a general election is its own thing. But this is a sign that there are limits to the breadth and power of Sanders’ youthquake, and that it might not be near the size of the one Obama created.
The mediocre turnout may also simply reflect the fact that the field is, well, kinda mediocre. Pete Buttigieg will come out of Iowa with momentum. And if turns out he actually won the delegate count, big momentum. And his performance is a historic moment for the LGBT community. But it’s still not easy to picture him winning the black and Latino support that a Democrat needs, though he tried Tuesday night with a victory-speech-like boast that Iowans had “shocked the nation.” Again, the results aren’t in but from what the campaigns are putting out from their own tabulations, it doesn’t appear that Elizabeth Warren got a sufficient post-Register endorsement bounce, and for reasons that I don’t quite get, she’s polling surprisingly poorly in New Hampshire, for someone from a neighboring state.
And Joe Biden, well, he’s in some trouble. He had tons of local endorsers in Iowa, including two popular and well-known former governors, the sitting attorney general, members of Congress, state reps, more. All that matters a lot less these days than it did 20 years ago. He’s just not the same person he was eight years ago.
But the story here is Iowa. It’s over. Over over over. Or should be.
For God’s sake, Iowa goes first because of mimeograph machines (really!). And now, because of an app, they may finally stop going first.
I can guarantee you that as 2024 approaches, the Democrats will weaken on changing this, as mortifying as it is to the party right now. They cannot. If we didn’t see the last Iowa caucus yesterday, the Democratic National Committee is everything critics say about it times a thousand.