In Memoriam: The Iowa Caucus 1972-2020

We’ve now officially begun another election year cycle, a testament to the privileges of our nation, but one that reflects an increasingly polarized climate where many voters have already cashed out on our great American Experiment. The manner in which we nominate Presidential candidates continues to evolve and mirror the reality of our country–for better or worse–while allowing a much needed discussion about the process itself.

Many voices from this self-reflection wonder if having two small and predominately white states (Iowa and New Hampshire) remains the best first-step for this effort, particularly when much of the divide in America is rooted in the lack of tolerance toward one another. Should we continue to allow two states that don’t accurately represent the demographics of our country the privilege of determining a suitable voice for this critically important effort?

Front and center was the 2020 Iowa caucus. The “first in the nation” state proved to be a complete shit show, mired in chaos from the ineptitude of Iowa Democratic Party leadership, the lack of effective training for local party volunteers assigned with the task of running their precincts and the failure of a smart phone reporting app that was rushed-to-launch days before the caucus itself.

When the dust settled and Iowa was still not any closer to providing the rest of the country with results days after the caucus ended, the calls to initiate changes to the process began ringing with more intensity and with greater resolve.

How was Iowa blessed with their first in the nation status? The answer originated in a different time. It was a world in which the backroom deals of our two major political parties created a process of selection that would be obediently followed for decades, without much dispute.

This began to unravel in 2016 when Iowa caucus-goers seemed to split evenly between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The moment our state was unable to declare a candidate’s decisive victory was when those frustrated began to try to learn more about the process, perhaps with the intention to help us dumb yokels provide the results in a manner that was easier to explain and more efficient to report.

In their discovery, they began to learn about the informality of our caucuses. Our process lacked real transparency in terms of how delegates were appointed and it was filled with antiquated methods like raw vote counts and coin tosses. The entire event was hard to understand and even harder to explain among the journalists and reporters who flocked to our state with barely hidden resentment at having to spend the winter with a bunch of hayseeds, flipping quarters between Bernie and Hillary.

It was the Sanders camp that first approached the Democratic National Committee with their apprehension about the Iowa caucuses. The DNC then met with Iowa State Democratic leadership to introduce their concerns and request the first real meaningful changes to our process since 1972. Iowa responded positively to these suggestions, even telling our national party leadership of an aggressive initiative to transition our antiquated caucus process into a digital platform that allowed party members to vote from their smart phones.

When questions about the access and security of such a reporting method arose, state leaders backpedaled and considered a more measured solution. Iowa would implement a paper process for their candidate selection, but enable precincts to report the results of their caucus through a phone app. This app would help calculate the raw votes into appropriate delegate numbers while providing the state party with immediate, real-time results. The paper trail would provide a way to audit and verify the results if there was any uncertainty.

About twelve weeks before the 2020 caucus, I received an email from the county chair of the Democratic Party, asking if my wife and I would be able to serve as volunteers for the upcoming event. This was an easy decision for us as we’d both committed to doing more after the 2016 election, upping our involvement in working to remove Donald Trump from the presidency. I anticipated that they would need help with setting up the event, getting people checked in, registering new voters and working with the party volunteers in anticipating a heavy turnout. We both believed that this was our duty, particularly since we noticed the disorganization and confusion that belied our precinct during the 2016 caucus and privately complained about it.

What we weren’t prepared for was the role our county chair requested from us: to serve as the “temporary” chairman and the “temporary” secretary for our precinct, one of nearly six dozen within our county. The short-term identifier of our titles would change to permanent when our precinct approved our appointed roles as one of the first order of business items for the evening of the caucus.

We both felt under-prepared. Much of this was the result of our lack of confidence in becoming the recognizable face of the party for this important evening. But some of our hesitation came from our desire for a more robust training schedule and the hope for additional party mentors to help with the execution of our caucus.

In lesser hands, or for those local volunteers that made no time for the training that was provided, I can only imagine the stress and confusion that awaited them in their precincts when attempting to navigate the anarchy into a perfectly bowed gift for this high-stakes election cycle.

My wife and I survived. Our training was satisfactory enough to muddle through an aggressive caucus agenda while working within the party’s changes to document the events and report on the precinct’s choices. We made mistakes during the evening, but nothing that involved the integrity of our votes or with the math that was used to determine a candidate’s viability or their delegate appointments.

In fact, neither one of us were aware of the uproar happening outside of our elementary school cafeteria or the vitriol that would greet us on media outlets when we finally arrived home later that night. We believed that we had done a satisfactory job of the duties assigned to us and any feedback that we received from caucus-goers at the end of the evening had been positive.

The first sign of trouble came when I attempted to call in the results from our precinct. It’s important to note that we did not use the reporting app that has been identified as one of the main problems of the caucus. The app was introduced to us just a few weeks prior and precinct leaders were encouraged by the party to download it to “test it out.” Our training also encouraged using this tool, but the encouragement contained the caveat that we should become familiar with the “caucus math” and understand it before relying on the new technology.

I had concerns. There was very little information provided about who developed the app and even less information about how to work with it. One precinct chair mentioned in an early training event that he had downloaded and began to familiarize himself with the app, only to conclude that it didn’t seem like it was finished. He compared it to a similar app the Clinton campaign had rolled out in 2016 to assist the candidate’s precinct captains in tracking votes and delegate alignments. The app was later discovered to contain coding errors that failed to process the “caucus math” correctly, causing discrepancies between the candidate’s numbers against the official party ones.

Sound familiar?

The concerns were enough for me to not download the app that our party was pushing. It felt like the better option would be to manually calculate the results with a calculator and phone the results in. When I attempted to do this as we began cleaning up the cafeteria with the school janitor, I was immediately placed on hold.

After we had authenticated the results, boxed up our materials and made the cafeteria ready for the schoolkids who would be arriving the following morning, I continued to wait for a party representative to take the results of my precinct. It seemed clear from my hold time that there were problems with the app.

We made our way to the party headquarters and as soon as we reached the parking lot, my call went through. I could tell my representative was a bit frazzled, but I was still unaware of the severity of our reporting issues. I provided the results of my precinct and was asked if I could send a picture of our reporting sheet as a means of verification. The total time of this call, start to finish, was just a little over one hour.

Inside party headquarters was a beehive of activity. Precinct chairs filled the tables in the community center with their boxes to compile results, secure the voter’s preference cards (New Hampshire rules prevented us from calling them “ballots”) and count any donations received during the pass the hat efforts.

Since we had already done this in the school cafeteria, there was little for us to do after dropping off our items. As I was leaving, I heard rumblings of an emergency conference call taking place between state party leaders and the Biden campaign regarding the escalating problems that had been occurring. Since Biden was not a viable candidate in my precinct, I assumed his campaign was struggling for an explanation as to why their candidate was performing so poorly.

Once we arrived home we were discovered the main source of concern. The media incredulously reported about the lack of results and the state party’s stonewalling of a suitable explanation for the delay. This led the talking heads to immediately revert to an accusatory tone, using their positions to question the legitimacy of the caucus process, barely containing their animosity for having to send resources out to Bumfuck, Iowa during the coldest months of the year, only to have these shitkickers fail to do the one job they had to do: Provide clear winners from our dumbass caucuses to the rest of the country, as required for our first-in-the-nation efforts.

My wife and I were crestfallen. Any sense of accomplishment or fulfillment was voided by the self-righteous indignation of the national press who seemed to have grown tired with Iowa’s “aw shucks” geniality, fast-starting an immediate attack on the state, its people and the privilege to start the already-too-long process of nominating a presidential candidate.

We took it personally because we were tired. We were tired of having to manage through the media’s complicit business model of half-assed journalism, tired of every goddamn keyboard commando promoting their unsolicited and anonymous opinions each step of the way and tired at being snookered into volunteering our efforts for the benefit of ungrateful and inpatient babies, most of whom could not be bothered with doing the heavy lifting of the change that they demand.

Before, when the Iowa caucuses were just a weird and backwoods process that had no real spotlight in the national stage, they held a special place for me. Caucuses required members of the party to socially mobilize every four years and face each other in direct conversations, and I enjoyed that fellowship. Despite any differences, we would end the evening with the greater good in mind and with the understanding that our umbrella was spelled with a capital “D.”

The tone changed in 2016, but the seeds of discontent were noticeable as early as the 2000 elections, when a reminder how each vote mattered came with every hanging chad in Florida. If there was ever a time for my state to get its shit together and address the big rock items of the limitations of our caucus process, that was the time.

As enjoyable and nostalgic my memories of the Iowa caucuses are for me, they are undoubtedly an antiquated institution that is no longer suitable for our modern election process. The immediacy of our society and the lack of empathy towards each other has made it a burden to the democracy, one that distracts from the intention of the process and our ability to demonstrate fairness. Any sense of brotherhood/sisterhood has been replaced by those who immediately question the legitimacy of the process whenever the results don’t seem to benefit their own candidate.

There’s also the very real concern with Iowa’s lack of a diverse population. Like anything else in society, changes come slowly to the Midwestern states, and our pace is clearly a source of contention with other areas that feel more deserving of having their voices heard earlier on in the process.

I don’t spend much time lamenting our state’s whiteness, primarily because I live and work in a more diverse area and understand how critical it is to better understanding different cultures. My small-town brothers and sisters struggle with this concept, but I realize that their reasons are based in fear and unfamiliarity. I’m not going to move back to my hometown to provide a counterpoint, and I’m uncertain if my efforts would do any good. So rather than make excuses, I’m fine with relinquishing Iowa’s initiating role with a fair or rotating schedule that better reflects our country’s increasing diversity.

I do believe that there is value in having a state like Iowa act as a filter for our presidential candidates, allowing our geography and quirky system to weed out the contenders through a grinding process of attrition.

It’s a relatively cheap option. Can you imagine the amount of money required for media purchases in larger market areas? Will you see candidates venture outside of major population areas if they know their message will work their way to voters without personal visits? Is there a better method of getting candidates to speak off-script and away from their stump-speeches outside of scheduling multiple events in a given day, even if the event itself barely reaches double digit participants? In my mind, you will find candidates who are perfectly comfortable with sticking with the scripts of their speech-writers and less likely to provide connections through meaningful anecdotes and personal histories that give voters a personal bond that they can relate to.

Sadly, our state’s status has become riddled with nagging questions regarding our privilege and ability. The leaders of our party have become adept at deflecting blame and failing to address the biggest obstacles to our process for fear of dividing the party further.

And maybe the role has indeed become too big for us to manage. Perhaps it is better for a state with a larger and more diverse population to take over and turn the process into a cold, anonymous spreadsheet in which candidates are vetted by the limits of their pocketbooks instead of the limits of their ideas.

I’ll be very surprised if the Iowa caucuses survive this. And if I lived in New Hampshire, I’d be worried too. Egos and entitlement have now become permanently entrenched in the process, leaving behind any romantic notion that a candidate can rise from the conviction of their principles to secure a major party’s nomination through boots-on-the-ground campaigning. The nomination process will now favor the candidate who can raise the most money the quickest. If their cult of personality takes too long to develop to efficiently monetize it, the campaign will end.

Allow me one last defense of the Iowa caucus before the DNC places its nails in the coffin: we did what we were asked to do. We reflected the divide within our party between the moderates and progressives. We whittled down the field of candidates to a manageable number that enabled both sides of our divide to have adequate representation. We provided an endless amount of footage and transcripts for the candidates to determine which one of them aligned best with your own values.

And for these efforts, we pissed a bunch of people off. Mainly because we failed to provide results during a schedule designed by the news media for maximum viewership. When this information was delayed, the news media began the only discussion they could: the low-hanging fruit of incompetence designed by a bunch of Iowa idiots that don’t appreciate the privilege bestowed upon them.

There is a part of me that questions the indignation presented by our political experts and with my own party’s leadership regarding this entire folly. There is plenty of blame to go around, but the spotlight needs to be directed at the leadership that was in place to oversee this process.

But there’s a bigger part of me that is ready to give the entire thing away and let Iowa become another casualty of our cancel culture. It’s become another distraction for our party and its ability to move toward removing a president that we really should have no difficulty defeating, regardless of who our candidate is.

One thought on “In Memoriam: The Iowa Caucus 1972-2020”

  1. Two things:
    1. The reason Iowa is so important to candidates is not because of the actual number of delegates, etc. Rather, the importance lies solely in the fact that it’s first and it allows the winner a burst of momentum and attention that can carry the winner to greater heights in future primaries/caucuses. Further, it also adds legitimacy to the candidates campaign for crucial fundraising necessary for future successes. The delay robbed the winner of that bounce and of the ability to go to donors to say I’m the winner of the first state, please support mt efforts.
    2. The caucus system generally does not allow for people, especially the working poor, to participate. Nobody who works shifts or multiple jobs has time for a 2-4 hour process. If the goal is to encourage high levels of participation, this caucus process does not align. Think of how many more people who could vote if it was a quick in and out at the polls and early voting/mail-in voting were allowed.

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