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After Iowa

Everyone loses. Literally everyone.
February 4, 2020
After Iowa

Marc Andreesen famously said that software is eating the world, but I never really thought it would eat Iowa.

And yet, here we are.

The short version is that everyone lost last night. If you want the long version, it goes something like this.

The entire 2020 Iowa caucus results page will now have an asterisk next to it and the results—whenever they show up—will be seen as at best irrelevant and at worst invalid. The voting public is not going to accept them. All that can be done is to move on: There’s a Democratic debate three days from now and the New Hampshire primary is four days after that.

The entire point of the Iowa caucuses is to winnow the field and create momentum for viable candidates. Instead, Iowa has hobbled the field.

It’s hard to rank who got screwed hardest.

I tend to agree with Tim Miller that Pete Buttigieg got the worst of it. Buttigieg seems at least to have over-performed and maybe even have won the thing. In a normal year, that would be enough to send him to New Hampshire with a fighting chance. Instead we get jokes:

Very funny jokes! But still.

And as if to confirm Amanda Carpenter’s piece that the Democrats Did the Russians’ Work for Them, #MayorCheat is trending thanks to yet another conspiracy theory that Buttigieg is somehow involved in the failure of the reporting app based on his past payments to the firm Shadow.

Amy Klobuchar might have been given the business even harder, though. At least Mayor Pete has the ability to fight another day. Klobuchar’s campaign was over unless she pulled a Santorum. And it looks like she might have overperformed her numbers by quite a bit. But now that’s academic. She can’t compete in New Hampshire and her campaign is now functionally over.

Then there’s Bernie Sanders. Bernie had a chance to pull off an Iowa-New Hampshire parlay and establish himself as the guy to beat. Instead, one of his good early states gets taken off the board and his runway shortens.

And Joe Biden. Oof. There is zero anecdata suggesting that Biden did well and the in-house counts from the Sanders and Buttigieg camps show him doing really, really badly. Like, underperforming his polling by almost half. Half.

Finishing fourth was never a problem for Biden, so long as the top four spots were a muddle and he was in the pack. But now, whatever the real results, the perception is that Biden probably finished at the back of the back and there’s no way to disprove that. This looks like a collapse and makes overperforming in New Hampshire desperately important.

Elizabeth Warren needed a victory, or at least a clear surge. Instead, she gets no clarity of any sort—and isn’t really even talked about.

Every single one of these candidates is weaker now than they were on Monday morning.


Then there’s Iowa itself.

It is difficult to see how the parties keep the caucus viable. Because even if the national party agrees to give Iowa pride of place for a first-in-the-nation caucus, campaigns would have to agree to it. And from here on out, any campaign that isn’t a good fit for Iowa has a reason to skip it. And it only takes a couple serious campaigns passing on the race in the next cycle to kill the Iowa caucuses entirely.

This, in turn, will have downstream effects for the state along lots of levels. Their legislators in Congress are going to become much less important. A not-insignificant-economic boost every two years will dry up. And ethanol? Lol.

You know who else lost? America.

The story of the last 20 years in America is the story of institutional failure. From the dot-com bubble popping, to 9/11, to the Iraq war, to the housing bubble and the subprime-driven Great Recession, the overarching theme has been the failure of institutions that were designed to protect the public.

We have seen this failure in economics, in the military, in the intelligence community, and in politics—both at the level of individual actors (George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump are all to blame, to varying degrees, for destroying long-held norms and increasing polarization) and at the level of the parties, which have lost control of their processes and become ripe for hostile takeovers.

And there are more: The Catholic church, the legal system, the news media, the scientific community. Name me one institution that is more trustworthy today than it was in 2000.

I’ll wait.

My point is that the Iowa implosion matters because it feeds into that larger national narrative of incompetence, failure, poor oversight, deceit, and decay—and, in the process, helps to further delegitimize what institutional control the parties have left. Which, in turn, is going to result in more and more extreme and unhealthy political outcomes for the nation as a whole.

Enjoy Trump vs. Sanders. Because it’s the shape of the future.

Okay, maybe there were a couple winners. The obvious one is Donald Trump. Everything about the caucus helped him:

  • Democrats diminished their own field
  • His most difficult opponent tanked
  • The argument that Democrats can’t be trusted to run large operations was made in the most public way imaginable
  • And look, in the week your impeachment trial is wrapping up and the Senate is talking about censuring you, any big news story that gets people to look away is welcome

The less obvious one is Michael Bloomberg, who needed a muddle in the Democratic field to keep the mix from congealing before the race got to states where he is organizing.

He got a bigger muddle than he could have dared to dream.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.