After a night of chaos, in which it did not release the results of the first-in-the-nation caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party finally produced some numbers Tuesday afternoon. Keyword: some. At this point, that’s adding insult to injury.
The party has been under intense pressure to clean up the mess it made of the vote tabulation on caucus night when no results were released because the party relied on a dysfunctional app and a failed backup system involving a phone hotline that left callers on hold for hours. So on Tuesday afternoon, the party released some of the results—62 percent, to be precise.
If one candidate had a big lead, an incomplete count might tell us something. But, with less than two-thirds of the vote tabulated, the top two candidates were virtually tied. Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg had 26.9 percent, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders 25.1 percent. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was at 18.3 percent and former vice president Joe Biden trailed with 15.6 percent.
Those percentages reflect the so-called “state delegate equivalents,” not the actual popular vote. The popular vote, which reflects the final alignment of people who attended the more than 1,600 caucuses statewide, put Sanders ahead with 28,220 votes to 27,030 for Buttigieg, while Warren had 22,254 and Biden had 14,176. If Iowa were a primary state, Sanders would be winning. Because it is a caucus state, Buttigieg got at least a momentary bump. But that could change tonight or tomorrow—or sometime soon.
So all we really know is that we don’t yet know enough to say who won. Mayor Pete was collecting those cherished “Buttigieg has narrow lead” headlines and speculation by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that he is “the new star” as the Sanders campaign was thanking the people of Iowa because, in their words, from “the partial data released so far it’s clear that in the first and second round more people voted for Bernie than any other candidate in the field.”
Remarkably, the Iowa Democratic Party on Tuesday evening found a way to maintain the chaos and confusion of caucus night, to create more confusion and frustration, and to very possibly foster several false impressions. Sanders strategists believe their candidate has a good chance of winning in the final count. Biden’s position could actually worsen—perhaps even to a point where Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar closes a roughly 800-vote gap and pushes the former vice president into a fifth-place finish.
If it were caucus night and results were being released as they arrived at the party headquarters, few people would jump to conclusions before the count was final, because built into expectations about election nights is the possibility that a reported result will be corrected. But caucus night has passed.
So why, after screwing everything up when it mattered most, would the Iowa Democratic Party release part of the count? Why not get the count completed and release it when everything is in order?
The answer is that they are trying to ease their embarrassment by playing a dangerous game that they hope will satisfy the media.
It won’t. The Iowa party’s failure is writ so large across the 2020 campaign that before caucus night had ended, a serious debate had opened up about the need to yank Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. Now, the party needs to stop playing games and announcing partial results and get it done right.
This is about more than bruised egos. This is about the possibility that the headlines and not the actual delegate count will carry weight into the next primaries and caucuses and warp the race for the presidency—as the Iowa Republican Party did in 2012 when the January 3 caucus night count gave a narrow win to eventual nominee Mitt Romney over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Seventeen days later, the Iowa GOP declared that Santorum was actually the winner—but that was after he has lost the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
What might have happened if Santorum had gotten the “Iowa winner” headline? Would he have done better in the primary race? Almost certainly. Indeed, a Washington Post headline from Tuesday, February 4 read: “For Iowa, a second caucus debacle in eight years.”
As Krystal Ball, the host of Hill TV’s Rising, says, “I can’t believe they put out partial results. This is completely outrageous.”
It is outrageous. And it is one more argument for ending Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status.