Regarding the fate of the Iowa caucuses, the real point has been missed

“Bill from White Plains” is very familiar with the Iowa caucuses, including the 2020 caucus chair training and process in precincts on February 3. -promoted by Laura Belin

I write to provide a friendly counterpoint to Ira Lacher’s February 4 post–and frankly, every article and opinion piece I have read–regarding the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucus. For all of the belly-aching, I think the real point has been missed.

Mr. Lacher remarked, “This year the party introduced ‘preference cards,’ with complex rules on when to fill them out, how to fill them out and to whom to submit them and when.” Like myself, Mr. Lacher hails from the Empire State, New York. Because of this, I must respond, “Did I tell you to fill out the card? I didn’t? Then don’t fill the card out yet. What’s-a-matter-with-you?”

The point was not the preference cards. The point was not the failed reporting software. The point was not all the reasons Bleeding Heartland listed as caucus deficiencies. The point was that the emporer has no clothes.

Iowa committed the cardinal sin of disrupting the international media, which lost sight of its place, and which is now arrogantly revolting.

The training for caucus chairs began after Thanksgiving and was provided about three times a week after the New Year.  Caucus chairs could attend several training sessions. Doing so worked to their advantage, as several sessions included former caucus chairs with insights on how to simplify the check-in process, and how to solve several probable challenges. 

It is true that the now-much-maligned electronic reporting system was not provided to caucus chairs until mid-January, and that many caucus chairs had difficulty downloading it, and that many then experienced difficulty “test driving” it. It is also true that there was no training on the reporting software, and that the software was promoted as being idiot-proof.

From all accounts, and for what it’s worth, the software was idiot-proof and did not require training. I have heard no reports of anybody not being able to figure out how to report, using their cell phones. The difficulty, instead, involved actually reporting the results.

I digress for a moment to specifically address the preference cards. There was nothing complicated about the preference cards. Anyone who has ever been to an Iowa caucus knows the drill: you align, and the caucus stops. Numbers are taken. If you are not in a viable group, you can go home, combine with another group that isn’t viable, and create a viable group, or you can join an already viable group.  The cards merely recorded the results of both alignments. 

The challenge for caucus chairs was trying to prevent caucus goers from trying to get ahead of themselves by filling out the cards before they were told to do so. Stated somewhat differently, caucus chairs found themselves acting as the kindergarten teacher, having handed out the new coloring books, and the crayons, and trying to keep the boys and girls from coloring until the appointed time.

So, as I said earlier (paraphrasing, now), “Did I tell you to write on the card? No? Then leave it the hell alone for now.”

Complicated, no. Difficult to manage, because of the juvenile tendency to occupy one’s time with something more than the media before one, while waiting, yes.

Now, back to the point.

Once all the groups were viable, delegates were assigned. The number of delegates per precinct was pre-determined. A straightforward mathematical formula was used to determine how many delegates were assigned to each candidate, based upon the number of people in each preference group.

The international media had been calling the shots up until the caucuses began, and they covered the caucuses with a chip on their collective shoulder. For more than a month — oh, hell, for years — the poorly-named “24-hour news” stations and all of their affiliates have been trotting out, and handsomely paying, known and obscure former government officials and news station employees. They’ve given them bloated titles like “government analyst” and “media consultant” and “friend of the show” and “long-time election specialist.” They’ve thrown them silly questions like, “What is Kamala Harris thinking, RIGHT NOW?” and, “What is YOUR sense, sitting here in our New York studios, about Andrew Yang’s ground game in Iowa?” 

In response, these well-paid pundits gave nonsense answers, that are then published by Huffington Post and myriad other “news” outlets as though the question, and the answer, are meaningful in some way.

Many years ago, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described all of this by quoting Van Morrison’s hit, “Wild Nights”: “It’s ‘all the girls walking by, dressed up for each other.'”

More than I can recall in previous caucus cycles, in 2019 and 2020, the media assumed the role of information dictator in Iowa, when it came to town hall coverage and candidates they liked or disliked.

From campaign volunteers who were actually “on the ground,” knocking doors and talking to their friends and neighbors (as opposed to the media reporters who’d heard stump speeches so often that they could quote them, and who weren’t really listening at all), Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a groundswell of support that was growing. Senator Bernie Sanders was making history by creating a template-worth-replicating for reaching out to minorities from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, which was significant, and empowering to Hispanics and Latinos. 

Yet the media ignored these activities, and calling the caucuses for Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. No matter how polling actually came out, the pundits kept reporting about a “dead heat” between all four, nearly always providing a chart with candidate photos going, from left to right, Biden, Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and creating the illusion that Biden was leading, despite the accompanying narrative of a four-way tie.

This, despite the actual polling, the results of which were more nuanced than the conclusory, “four-way tie.”

On caucus day, February 3, the media had a chip on their collective shoulders because of the withdrawal of the ultimate Iowa Poll, which left its “seasoned experts” flat-footed, and unable to vamp because, truth be told, without that as a script, their collective years of experience didn’t amount to a hill of beans. It became apparent, in real time, that they’re all smoke and no substance; every last one of them.

For yours truly, this was the best part: these so-called, “political analysts” demonstrated just how fatuous their remarks are, and how all they really do, day-in and day-out, is provide opinion, culling a small bit of information off of some snippet of a report. You take away that report, prevent the culling of any information, and you’re left with what Don Henley once referred to as, “the bubble-headed bleach blonde [who] comes on at five.”

When the caucus results were not forthcoming by the 11:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time network news deadline, and the cameras and pretty people were not packed into planes or buses, headed east in the air or on Interstate 80, it was more down time and the “pundits” were on-camera, speechless and without an original thought between them. 

Even the local blow-hards, like attorney-and-somehow-Democratic-political-know-it-all Jerry Crawford and former Des Moines Register Republican water-carrier David Yepsen, who one would think would have a clue, had nothing to contribute. On WHO-TV, Crawford was text-messaging someone from the Iowa Democratic Party, using a water-damaged cellular telephone. His insightful question was, “Should we stay on the air or shut this down?” to which his “operative” suggested the latter option.

The personalities went away; only the hollow artifice remained.

That was the cardinal sin, and that is the takeaway point: we pissed off the media.

The fourth wall was removed, and the Fourth Estate was finally exposed as the fraud that it is; a collection of windbags who, long ago, gave up thinking for emoting. Once the media was exposed and humiliated, retaliation had to follow — because God forbid there should be any soul-searching on their part (and God forbid someone like Jeff Bezos, Amazon and Washington Post owner would exercise self-awareness).

The retaliation will come in the form of Iowa losing its status as First in the Nation for anything relating to a presidential election cycle going forward. With all and enormous due respect to Mr. Lacher, and Ms. Belin, that is the point.

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  • Tail drives dog

    There was a TV in the room next to our caucus in Fonda, When I went over there about 8 pm I was surprised to see the screen devoted full time to awaiting the results. It served them right that nothing was offered until it was actually ready to be offered.

    Their script had been ripped away once already when the DMR poll went unpublished over the weekend. Now it was happening again. No doubt they are offended that they looked so superfluous–junkies who could not get their fix.

    Revenge is the name of the game now.

  • I'm with Ira Lacher

    As a politically active former Iowan, I love the Iowa Caucuses. Now I observe the contest from another state. From where I’m sitting, Bill from White Plains seems to miss the point. Yes, his observations of the media are more or less accurate. But let’s keep in mind, the IDP and pretty much every politically active Iowa Democrat (and Republican) I know revel in the first in the nation nature of the caucuses. They revel in the idea that the media from all across the world come to Iowa to witness what I describe as the best political show on earth. Iowans love spotting the media celebrities in Des Moines and elsewhere, and they obviously love their privileged position to have a vastly outsized role in electing the president of the United States. In year 2020, this kind of attention – and the huge monetary investments by the candidates – comes with certain expectations. One of those expectations is that it is completely unacceptable for the world to wait more than three days to get the full results from the caucuses. I will be shocked if Iowa does not lose its first in the nation privilege over this. If and when that happens, IDP has to completely own it and Iowa Democrats should hold IDP leadership responsible for the debacle.

  • Agree with Bill

    Bill, thank you for your post about the media. Your analysis is right on. I will spare anyone reading my usual media rant. 🙂

  • Great analysis

    The caucuses should be replaced by a vote-by-mail primary.Then the results can be reported a week or so later when all of the mailed-in ballots are received and tabulated. That would increase participation by people who cannot participate under the existing system. It would be better for democracy but not for the media.

    • I agree with you...

      …though I would be willing to accept a different system if there were a very user-friendly absentee-ballot option. At my caucus, I saw neighbors who had flown in from their winter stay in the Southwest specifically to participate (suppose they hadn’t had the money?) There was a couple who came late with three little kids, only to be told they were too late to vote (caucuses are NOT easy for parents of young children). Absent was a young Iowan I know who would have really liked to be there but was abroad, like some other young people who would have liked to participate. And who knows how many elderly people, sick people, shift workers, etc., could not be present.

      I’ve been caucusing since 1980. But the inequities in the system are just too obvious now. Unless/until there are drastic changes, I’ve caucused for the last time.