They couldn’t organise a caucus in a brewery. Or a church, or a library, or a school gymnasium. Democrats’ heroic charge to end Donald Trump in the final battle for decency and democracy has spiralled into vote-counting carnage and chaos.
Imagine if the shoe has been on the other foot. Imagine if Trump’s White House had spent four years preparing for an election only to mess it up. It would have been seen, quite rightly, as yet another example of his incompetence, ineptitude and inability to focus on detail or retain experienced staff.
Instead, as we let a thousand conspiracy theories bloom, it is the Democratic party that has some explaining to do. The Iowa campaign began two and half years ago only to end with the biggest televised blunder since the best picture Oscar was presented to La La Land instead of the real winner, Moonlight.
With no results, political number crunchers on cable news stared in horror at blank maps and columns of 0%. Candidates who had been expecting to make victory speeches, or consoling speeches, were left in limbo.
Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota shrewdly seized the moment and made a speech anyway, guaranteeing live TV coverage. Other candidates took her cue, with former vice-president Joe Biden going head-to-head with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. Then they were boarding planes to New Hampshire for the first primary.
But behind the scenes, the campaigns were seething. Biden’s team wrote to Iowa officials: “The app that was intended to relay Caucus results to the Party failed; the Party’s back-up telephonic reporting system likewise has failed. Now, we understand that Caucus Chairs are attempting to – and, in many cases, failing to –report results telephonically to the Party. These acute failures are occurring statewide.”
The delay will dull the impact of the results when they finally come. In the thick of campaigning in New Hampshire, the next state in the primary race to vote on 11 February, candidates will be able say: “I’m looking forward.”
The media, which sets so much of the narrative around whether expectations were satisfied, will be distracted. That may be good news for Biden and Klobuchar who, if polls and mood music are anything to go by, were potentially in for a rough night in Des Moines.
David Plouffe, campaign manager for Barack Obama and a former White House senior adviser, tweeted: “Iowa is about the momentum you gain – or lose – much more than the delegates. Likely the winner and the surprisingly strong showings get muted and those that did poorly do not pay the full price. It is what it is but it could materially affect the race.”
Now, did the Trump campaign stretch out a comradely hand in solidarity with commiserations, moral support, maybe some pizzas to help Democrats through the night?
Brad Parscale, Trump 2020 campaign manager, revelled in schadenfreude. “Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history,” he said. “It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process. And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?”
The president himself was in on the act by 7am ET, tweeting that Iowa had been an unmitigated disaster for the Democrats. “The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump’,” he wrote.
The episode has been a public relations disaster for Democrats and dented their reputation for competence.
But none of this likely to matter much by November. A million news events will happen between now and then. The biggest loser is Iowa, a midwestern state of 3 million people that relishes its moment in the sun every four years as the first state to vote in primary season, and takes its responsibility very seriously.
Despite the wintry conditions, that status has already seemed charmingly quaint and quirky, with voters gathering in different corners of a room and trying to win each other over. But it had already been questioned because of Iowa’s lack of racial diversity (its population of 3 million is 90% white). Now there are grounds to ask whether it is up to the job.
Speaking on the MSNBC network, Plouffe remarked: “We may be witnessing the last Iowa caucus.” One state, however, can be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief. Florida, scene of so many vote counting snafus, must be thinking gratefully: for once, it wasn’t us.