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Capitol Ideas: Close races may be too much for Iowa caucuses to handle

Taylor Nelson (left), precinct captain for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Clara Gilbert, precinct captain for Sen. Bernie Sa
Taylor Nelson (left), precinct captain for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Clara Gilbert, precinct captain for Sen. Bernie Sanders, work with satellite precinct chairman John Schneider to tabulate results during the Democratic satellite caucus last Monday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses once again are under attack.

The state Democratic Party’s inability to produce timely results after last Monday night’s caucuses has many across the country — and here at home — asking again, “Why Iowa?”

Occasionally you will hear critics suggest the caucuses have grown too big for their britches. A system designed for small neighborhood gatherings cannot contain the immense attention and participation the caucuses now bring.

But by all accounts, the caucuses themselves ran well Monday night. That would suggest they are quite capable of handling big crowds and high interest.

What is becoming increasingly clear is the caucuses may not be well-equipped to handle reporting results when the race is close.

Last week is not the first example. In fact, three of the past four competitive Iowa caucuses have featured significant issues in reporting results in close races.

Previous caucuses also had issues with reporting results

In 2012, Iowa Republicans announced the wrong winner on the night of the caucuses. Their initial count showed Mitt Romney with a narrow victory, but after a recount, they revealed that Rick Santorum had, in fact, won the caucuses.

The Democrats did not have a competitive caucus that year with President Barack Obama.

In 2016, Iowa Democrats were unable to produce official results until well into the next day as Hillary Clinton earned a historically narrow victory over Bernie Sanders, by a fraction of a percentage point.

The Republican caucuses went off without a hitch, although runner-up Donald Trump tried to convince the state party to disavow the results. The state party declined to delegitimize Ted Cruz’s victory.

Caucus app failed

That brings us to 2020 and that already infamous app, which was designed to help precinct officials report the Democratic caucus results and failed spectacularly.

The state party was not able to produce complete, official results until Thursday evening, 72 hours after the caucuses. And media outlets could not project a winner because as the results slowly trickled out, those results showed a remarkably close race between Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.

(When all the results were finally produced, Buttigieg held an edge over Sanders that was even closer than the 2016 Clinton-Sanders race. But questions about the validity of some precincts’ results prevented media outlets from declaring a clear winner.)

That’s three straight cycles of Iowa’s state parties struggling to produce timely and accurate results in races with razor-thin margins. That’s no longer an anomaly; it’s a pattern.

There appeared to be minimal problems with the caucuses themselves. Democrats from across the state have reported that, for the most part, their precincts were run well and efficiently. Unlike four years ago, there were no complaints of long lines, inadequate facilities or poorly run caucuses. By and large, Democrats reported pleasing caucus experiences.

It’s when it came time to report the results that the ground disappeared from under Democrats’ feet.

When the app failed, Democrats were unable to produce timely results. Backup systems took longer than expected, too, state party leaders said, leaving the world without official results for three days.

Is it fair to expect rapid results?

But perhaps it was unfair to expect rapid results in the first place. On the Democratic side, with the complex caucus system and even more complex caucus math that is used to measure the campaigns’ performances, it may be unrealistic to expect a clear result the night of the caucuses.

It’s fair to wonder, especially given the events of these past few cycles, whether the system can handle that expectation.

The question then becomes whether the expectation is fair.

As the leadoff state in the nation, fair or not, the expectation is for fast results. People want to know who won, who outperformed their expectations, who has the momentum moving on to the other early voting states. And the New Hampshire primary is only about a week after Iowa; there’s no time to wait days for results.

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But if you want accurate results from closely contested caucuses, you may have to wait — whether you like it or not.

With Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status once again being debated, we’re going to find out how many people like it and how many do not.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net.

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