Iowa Mess

Iowa's Caucuses Were a Debacle, but the Biggest Loser Might Be Warren, Not Biden

David Wasserman
February 7, 2020

This article was originally published at nbcnews.com on February 4, 2020

Last spring, the dean of Iowa political journalists David Yepsen presciently warned the Cook Political Report that the Iowa Democratic Party's new caucus bells and whistles - four different results metrics, satellite caucus sites and a new reporting system - could make for a results reporting nightmare. On Monday, Yepsen was even more morose: "RIP caucuses. And after the GOP fiasco of 2012, Iowa probably shouldn’t even try."

But the real danger for Democrats is that the chaotic count and the muddled result could presage a messy, protracted primary slog that could go all the way to the Milwaukee convention in July and imperil party unity heading into the fall.

With results from 97 percent of precincts reported by the state party, state delegate equivalents are a virtual tie between Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders, and Sanders has won a clear plurality of caucus goers' first preferences. 

If the "split decision" holds, Buttigieg would almost certainly owe his competitiveness in the delegate count to a second choice surge from Biden and Klobuchar supporters whose groups' didn't reach the 15 percent viability threshold in their precincts.

At first glance, the biggest loser of that process would seem to be Biden, currently in fourth place behind Buttigieg, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on all counts. But the media spotlight on the tallying debacle and the muddled finish at the top — rather than Biden's finish itself — may be welcome news for the former vice president.

It's important to remember how unrepresentative Monday's caucus electorate was of the larger Democratic primary electorate, and how much it played into Biden's weaknesses. Entrance polls suggested about 90 percent of caucusgoers were white (compared toabout  60 percent of 2016 primary voters nationally), and a robust 21 percent of caucusgoers were under 35 years old — a confluence of Biden's weakest groups.

And, caucuses tend to reward candidates with liberal, passionate supporters, but nationally, over 95 percent of delegates to the DNC will be decided by much higher-turnout primaries.

A strong Buttigieg finish also isn't the worst development for Biden. Buttigieg's coalition is notably short on non-white voters, which could make him less of a threat to Biden in South Carolina on Feb. 29 (a contest Mike Bloomberg is bypassing) and more diverse Super Tuesday states on March 3. 

The biggest loser coming out of Iowa might actually be Warren. The caucus format, with its emphasis on organizing and liberal party loyalists, was supposed to play to Warren's strengths. But despite finishing ahead of Biden, Warren is likely to finish a middling third and is only ahead in Johnson County (Iowa City), illustrating just how concentrated her support is among liberal whites with college degrees - a big problem for her viability moving forward.

If President Donald Trump wins re-election in November, it's unlikely Democrats will focus their blame the Iowa counting debacle. But there was a lot to like for Trump to like in the results. First, the Iowa Democratic Party's indications of lower-than-expected turnout, closer to that of 2016 than 2008, suggests that having so many choices may be making it harder for Democratic voters to actually make a choice.

There was no sign of a turnaround for Democratic enthusiasm in rural parts of the state. In rural Howard County, for example - the only county in America that voted by more than 20 points for both Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 - caucus attendance was down 57 percent from 2008, versus just 29 percent statewide.

Second, the more muddled outcomes and close bunching we see, the higher the probability of a protracted battle that results in no candidate attaining a majority of the 3,979 pledged delegates by the July convention. That could make it much harder for a fractured party to come together in the fall.

Image Credit: Eileen Meslar/Telegraph Herald via AP