Des Moines—O Iowa! Your picture-perfect winter patriotism: red barns, blue silos, white snow. Your gorgeous sunsets, surreally tropical above all that blinding snow. Your endless roads, bumpy and poorly maintained. Especially in snow. Oh, and your many anti-abortion billboards alongside blaring ads for “adult stores.” In summer and winter. I still don’t get that.
Sadly, this may be my last stand—and yours. I love you Iowa, but your role no longer makes sense: one of the country’s whitest states, taking the lead in the primary calendar with an anachronistic artifact of a different political time, precinct-level caucuses, where neighbors meet in high school gyms and publicly argue for their chosen candidate, for hours. On Monday night, that anachronistic artifact met purported modern technology, and its sad mutant spawn—a botched counting process that prevented anyone from honestly claiming victory as late as Tuesday afternoon, and possibly as late as Wednesday—meant there was likely to be one big loser: Iowa’s treasured first-round presidential nominating status.
“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event,” declared The Des Moines Register’s dean of caucus coverage, David Yepsen. “The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should.”
That might be the one scrap of actual news on this cold Tuesday: a top Iowa political macher admitting that Iowa is over.
Nevertheless, Elizabeth Warren persisted Monday night. She took selfies past midnight at a high-energy “victory” party, where staffers, volunteers and national surrogates said they felt very good about what the campaign had achieved. (Here’s her speech.) Not that Warren declared victory: A thirsty Mayor Pete Buttigieg audaciously did that, while Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign released internal results showing him ahead of both Buttigieg and Warren—with only 40 percent of precincts reporting. After midnight, Warren senior strategist Joe Rospars calmly tweeted, “It’s a very close race among the top three candidates (Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg) and Biden came a distant fourth.” Calm energy is the trademark of Warren’s campaign.
And that’s all we know. It seems pretty clear that Biden, along with Iowa, was another big loser Monday night. Also, turnout was reportedly down, which given the large field is terrible.
Even if Warren finishes third, her vaunted ground game proved itself. And it’s not just a bloodless game of turf-cutting (campaign-speak for identifying potential supporters and getting them out) and door-knocking. Warren has been quietly building a movement, and in the closing days it became apparent that it’s a women’s movement. Whatever happened, she clarified her campaign’s rationale in this state’s grueling Thunderdome.
On Monday afternoon, at one of dozens of small rallies to get people out to caucus, an excited young volunteer named Jackie Sayers, who used to work for Senator Kamala Harris, proudly introduced top Warren surrogate Representative Katie Porter as “part of the blue wave of women who organized and ran and won in 2018.” Porter took that baton, shouting out her class of 2018 “sister surrogates,” Representatives Ayanna Pressley and Deb Haaland, also traveling Iowa for Warren, noting that the Massachusetts senator’s campaign is the only one whose cochairs are all women. Pressley sounded the same notes at a Warren rally on Saturday. Women have made up the majority of Warren’s donors. And women made up the majority of her volunteers I met along the way—women who’ve fallen hard for Warren.
Warren didn’t set out to be the Resistance Mom candidate. That was New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who had to drop out last summer. But she became one, maybe because of the sexism she faced as the primary unfolded, or maybe because she was trying to be all along. At an earlier “get out the caucus” (GOTC) rally Monday, I met six women from Indivisible Oregon. “We put our lives on hold and came out last Thursday,” Maria Aron of Portland told me. By Monday morning, they’d collectively knocked on 1,500 doors, and were off to do more. “We’re the women who never get written about.”
Mary Kahl was undecided when I met her at a Warren event in Oskaloosa in late May. Now she was hosting this Warren GOTC event in Des Moines. She came over to Warren because she’s a medical professional and she believes in Medicare for All. “I see people die. I see people unable to afford their medicine,” she tells me emotionally. I ask: What about the charges Warren’s plan isn’t truly Medicare for All, because of its longer phase-in time than Sanders’s? She cuts me off, exasperated. “Please. She’s got a great plan. It’s been vetted by economists. It’s because she’s a woman. Men don’t have to answer a damn thing about details!”
On Monday night, I headed to the Des Moines Precinct 60 caucus. (Full disclosure: My daughter was the Iowa political director for Senator Kamala Harris. She caucused with Warren in Des Moines Precinct 60. She is about to go to work for Representative Katie Porter.) At that caucus, where almost 500 people participated—they appeared to be middle and upper-middle class, overwhelmingly white—Warren had volunteer precinct captains named LouLou and Judi, absolute bad-asses, dressed in Warren’s signature “liberty green” T-shirts and wearing Lady Liberty tiaras. I did not get their last names because they were working too hard to herd their people and keep them in line through the grueling, only-in-Iowa process of vote-counting and realigning. The vast majority in the Warren corner were women. During the counting process, I sat next to Wendy Larson, a first-time caucus-goer, who said she came out for Warren because her earlier possible choice, Buttigieg, didn’t have the support of “African-Americans in his community, and that really matters to me.” Larson watched the two-hour spectacle bewildered but firmly decided for Warren.
Warren was more than “viable”—meaning she had over 15 percent—in the first round, as did Buttigieg and Sanders. And that’s when caucus fun starts. People whose candidates weren’t viable—which here, as in many places, included Biden, but also Tom Steyer, Andrew Yang, and Amy Klobuchar—had to decide whether to leave, or back another candidate. A few of the Steyer folks went to Buttigieg, but the majority-female Warren group got 10 of the majority-male Yang gang to come over to Warren. Nobody saw that coming, least of all the Sanders people who courted them heavily.
But here’s another reason why the caucuses have to go: The Klobuchar group made a pitch to the Biden voters that they’d “give” Biden a delegate if the Biden folks “realigned” to make Klobuchar viable. Deanna Kirvin, a veteran caucus-goer who’d lined up for Biden, told me “it’s better than nothing,” before she left. “We got him a delegate!” another Biden supporter yelled, punching his fist in the air. When the results were announced, though, the raw vote was Warren with 129, Buttigieg with 113, Sanders with 109, and Klobuchar suddenly “viable” with 92—and the delegates were awarded this way: Warren got 3; so did Buttigieg; Sanders got 2, as did Klobuchar—Biden got nothing. It is possible Klobuchar delegates could somehow vote to give Biden a delegate at the next level, the county conventions—if Klobuchar and Biden are still in the race March 21—but given new rules that make elected local delegates stick with their candidates at the county conventions, it will be all but impossible.
I’m giving you this much detail because after almost 20 years of covering this bizarre but endearing institution, I finally understand caucus math. It will likely soon be a useless skill—much like learning to use white-out typing correction tape, which I also mastered just as it was becoming obsolete.
So with all that ground game and feminist energy, why didn’t Warren win? (If she didn’t. Who really knows?) Another top surrogate, 2018 Iowa gubernatorial candidate John Norris—a veteran of Jesse Jackson’s, John Kerry’s, and Barack Obama’s campaigns here—told me this: “The intensity of the indecision has been astonishing. She has the best ground game, no doubt. But people are paralyzed by ‘electability.’” He pointed to the roughly 40 percent of Iowa voters who said they either hadn’t chosen a candidate or were open to changing their minds, a few days before the caucuses.
“When your ground game has to focus not only on getting your people out, but persuasion, in the final days…” He trailed off. “That’s a problem.” Why did he line up with Warren? “I believe she has the best capacity to bridge the fracture in the party. And there is fracture.”
There is fracture, to be sure. In the closing days, as the mood of many Democrats I met shifted slightly from electability to party unity—meaning unity between the Sanders camp and everyone else, given polling showing a sizable number of his supporters won’t back another Democrat, though Sanders himself says he will—some progressive momentum shifted to Warren. But as Biden clearly sagged, moderate voters also shifted to Buttigieg and Klobuchar.
Everybody’s best guess is that the finalists are Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren, in that order. Klobuchar might have finished ahead of Biden, whose campaign is reaming the Iowa Democratic Party for botching its reporting system. I count Biden one of the winners of Iowa, in a perverse way—the inability to declare a winner means we are about to go on to State of the Union madness, and Biden’s apparent fail will not be the blaring headline it might have been.
At the Warren “victory” event, I stood in a corner with some veteran Iowa politicos who did not want to be named. Warren supporters, they were nonetheless sad for Biden. The best information I have is that he will play this out at least through South Carolina, where he hopes black voters will get him through. But I met one of Warren’s South Carolina surrogates at a Des Moines GOTC event Monday afternoon, her spiritual adviser, Reverend Miniard Culpepper of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Boston. He says Warren will do better than expected with black voters in the Palmetto State.
Culpepper met Warren in 2012 “because some folks working with her told me we had common interests—‘the least of these’—and we’re both fighters with strong faith. We both believe in a level playing field.” He’s prayed with Warren before every debate, and travels to South Carolina when he can to sing her praises.
“I have faith we’re gonna have a good outcome tonight,” he told me. But he grabbed a packet to go knock on doors to GOTC. Because “faith without work…?” I asked him, quoting a Bible verse. “Is dead, yes!” He chuckled, and walked out the door.