Why Iowa caucus is a public relations disaster for Democrats

Results debacle a painful reminder of 2016 and raises question of legal challenges

The Kremlin could not have contrived a better start to the Democratic presidential race if they had tried. Nor could Donald Trump. As it happens, the debacle is almost certainly the fault of the Iowa Democratic party. The fallout, however, will probably affect Democrats more generally. The taint of incompetence will be hard to shake off.

Four years of preparation in a state of 3.2m people – with a caucus turnout of just 172,000 – was apparently insufficient to produce a secure process. At the best of times, Iowa’s way of counting votes looks idiosyncratic. Now it looks like a large unforced error.

It also threatens to revive the curdled narratives of 2016. That election was badly marred by two controversies. The better remembered one was the allegation of Russian interference summarised in Robert Mueller’s report. Almost as bitter was the Bernie Sanders’s claim that the Democratic party had rigged the process in Hillary Clinton’s favour.

The party has since changed its rules to remove the votes of the unelected superdelegates in the first ballot at the presidential convention. They almost all went for Clinton. Iowa also changed its rules to make its already pretzel-shaped caucus process even more convoluted. That added complication was partly to blame for Monday night’s app failure.

The larger question is how quickly Democrats can put the Iowa public relations disaster behind them. That will not be easy. Lawyers for Joe Biden, whose campaign is thought to have performed poorly, have warned the party not to declare results before checking with them.

Other campaigns will be firing similar missives in private. Whenever it is declared, the final result will only be as secure as its weakest link. If the returns from any one of the 1,765 Iowan precincts is in doubt, the process will be litigated. Bitterness could sink in.

Trump’s allies are already calling the election “rigged”. If Sanders is not the eventual winner – as polls suggested he would be – his supporters would readily echo that charge. All of which would augur badly for Democratic party unity as well as America’s democratic reputation.

Malaise of mistrust

In another era, the Iowa mega-glitch could probably be brushed off. But US politics in general, and the Democratic party in particular, is suffering from a deep malaise of mistrust. What might factually be dismissed as local incompetence can quickly be spun into grand conspiracy.

In the short-term, at least, such doubts will probably help Sanders. He is already leading the polls in New Hampshire, which holds its primary next Tuesday. The fallout from Iowa might also benefit Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, who chose not to contest Iowa or New Hampshire. His reputation for technical competence will probably look more salient.

But the larger beneficiary of any contamination in the Democratic nomination process will probably be Trump.

Among the thickets of yard signs across the Midwestern state, the one that said “Any functioning adult: 2020” caught many people’s attention. It broadcast the widely held Democratic priority to remove Trump with whichever candidate seemed most electable.

After Monday night’s drama Iowa may well have hosted its last “first-in-the-nation caucus”. The overwhelmingly white and rural state’s outsized role has long been in question. Either way, the next time Iowa holds a caucus, or something less complex, it might start with the motto: “Any functioning voting system”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020