February 4, 2020 – Last week, Lyz Lenz, a journalist and writer who lives in Iowa, predicted that the state’s caucuses “are going to be a f*cking nightmare.” In a piece for Gen, Lenz (who also contributes regularly to CJR) wrote that the caucuses are inaccessible at the best of times, and that state Democrats’ efforts to fix problems seen in 2016—which affected vote counts, among other things—would only make “a confusing process even more confusing.” In the past, only one metric—the estimated number of delegates each candidate will send to the Iowa state convention—was used to decide the winner of the caucuses; this year, for the first time, caucus sites were told to also report three other metrics, measuring voters’ first preferences, voters’ final preferences (following the elimination of any candidates below a new, 15-percent “viability threshold”), and pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Math worksheets and an app would help caucus managers with the results. “There has been absolutely no information about the security of the smartphone app,” Lenz wrote. “So that seems safe.”
Confused? So was Iowa, apparently. As last night drew on, the results were delayed and delayed some more, and it became ever clearer that Lenz’s nightmare had come true. “If you want to know what the panic and hold up is,” Lenz tweeted in the early hours, re-upping her Gen piece, “pick from the list.”
As confusion deepened and state Democratic officials remained tight-lipped, reports emerged that there had been problems with the app, and that there were long delays in reporting tallies by phone. Late in the evening, the Iowa Democratic Party confirmed in a statement that there had been “inconsistencies” linked to the new metrics; around 1am, Troy Price, the party chair, insisted, on a press call, that the results had only been delayed, not compromised, and would likely be announced later on Tuesday. (Reporters on the call said it lasted little over a minute, and ended abruptly, with no chance for questions.) In the meantime, the narrative was up for grabs, and every major candidate, starting with Amy Klobuchar, moved to grab it. Pete Buttigieg seemed to declare victory outright, despite the lack of results. Then they all left for New Hampshire. This morning, we still don’t know who won.
Ahead of the caucuses, Nate Cohn, of the New York Times’s “Upshot” team, wrote that the new caucus metrics risked “creating confusion for readers,” and would be an “additional challenge” for the media. But we didn’t even get a chance to screw them up. (Not yet, at least). Instead, journalists on the ground were left scrambling for something to report. (Some of them resorted to humor on Twitter; Rosie Gray, of BuzzFeed, said Olivia Nuzzi, of New York, asked her for feedback on her caucus piece so far, then showed her a blank phone screen.) At the Times, the Upshot’s predictive election-night “needle”—which has a fraught reputation among mediawatchers, and caught skeptical glances all day yesterday because of that—fell still. This morning, its landing page, otherwise empty, suggested to me that “while you’re waiting for results to come in,” I should “Go beyond Iowa’s state borders: Take a trip around the world in 5 kids’ games.” There were links out to other Times content, too
Blank space has to be filled with something. Cable news, in particular, abhors a vacuum. As the night wore out, the lack of results forced it to feed off scraps. At one point, CNN interviewed Shawn Sebastian, a precinct official who had been waiting for more than an hour to report results by phone. While he was talking live to Wolf Blitzer, Sebastian finally got through; he told Blitzer he needed to go, but by the time he’d said that, his call had been dropped. “They hung up on me,” Sebastian said, and laughed. “So frustrating indeed,” Blitzer said. Indeed.
Occasionally, the unhelpful and repetitive gave way to the nonsensical, with anchors and pundits popping out inane observations. “What you have now is all the donors around the country thinking, ‘Well, what do we do tomorrow?’” CNN’s John King said. “Whoever’s on the bottom got a real break tonight, because they got an extra day of not being called the loser in Iowa,” Chris Cuomo added. Van Jones said, twice, that Joe Biden had avoided an “anvil” in Iowa; one was “about to drop on his head, and he got to scoot away like Wile E. Coyote.” Jones wasn’t the only one thinking about things falling on Biden. “Biden just won the lottery,” Alex Castellanos, a Republican operative and contributor on ABC News, said. “The guillotine didn’t drop on Biden tonight. He gets to say, ‘What caucus?!’” On NBC, Chuck Todd made a similar point: “The Biden campaign couldn’t have asked for a better outcome: no results.”
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The weirdest segment (that I saw, at least) was a CNN panel discussion on Buttigieg. David Axelrod, the Obama adviser turned commentator, said the lack of results had “victimized” Buttigieg, in particular, because of his Iowa-reliant strategy. Before Buttigieg spoke to his supporters, Rick Santorum, the former Republican senator (who knows all about mess-ups in Iowa), urged him to go out and declare victory; when Buttigieg did just that, Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic governor of Virginia, said he’d done the right thing. “If Mayor Buttigieg won the Iowa caucuses, then he got really screwed,” Anderson Cooper said. Gloria Borger urged caution due to the lack of facts, but she was shouted over, and discussion soon swung back to which candidate had best exploited the uncertainty. “Buttigieg, I think, left his voters feeling good, feeling excited,” Nia-Malika Henderson, a CNN politics reporter, said. “I think he did a good job.” Jones then said that Buttigieg, the first openly gay presidential candidate, had been denied a historic moment. “He deserved for the numbers to be running below him while he was giving that speech. He got robbed of that. And I think that’s terrible.”
Some of the people named above are political hacks, but news channels choose who they put on air, and have a chance to mediate what they say. Just because we didn’t get results last night doesn’t mean that speculation is useful, nor that Iowa is over. Sure, no one got to make a primetime victory speech (not one backed by evidence, at any rate) and this morning’s front pages will be barren, but whoever won still will have won and whoever did poorly still will have done poorly. Not that the results, whenever they finally come, will necessarily bring total clarity. In her Gen piece, Lenz predicted that if results are close, Twitter conspirators and a media “thirsty for controversy” will cast them into doubt. We don’t know, yet, if she’s right about that. But last night’s mess hardly bodes well.
Below, more on Iowa:
- How it played: Front pages in Iowa, which normally would have splashed the caucus winner, instead project uncertainty this morning. The Cedar Rapids Gazette declares “A MUDDLED PICTURE”; the Quad-City Times splashes “DEMS HIT RESULTS SNAG.” (As ever, the Newseum has all today’s front pages here.)
- Both sides: The Democrats weren’t the only ones caucusing in Iowa last night; Republicans were, too. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump won. (David French, a journalist with The Dispatch, a new conservative site, received a write-in vote; “At this moment,” he quipped, “I have more official support in Iowa than any Democratic candidate. This is only the beginning.”) Last night, the Trump campaign kicked Jennifer Jacobs, of Bloomberg News, out of an event in Iowa. Trump has complained that Bloomberg’s rules for covering the election—in which the site’s owner, Michael Bloomberg, is a candidate—are unfair.
- Father and son: The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison profiles Peter Doocy, the Fox News reporter assigned to cover the Democratic field. Doocy is the son of Steve Doocy, a cohost of Fox & Friends. “In the canon of Political Media Personalities,” Ellison writes, “Doocy and his father can feel like they are Fox’s version of Tim and Luke Russert for the Trump era.”
- Blank slate: Jim Newell elucidates a forgotten corner of Buttigieg’s resume: the time he worked as a blogger for Slate. Buttigieg pitched into the site’s coverage of the Indiana primary in 2016, even though he was mayor of South Bend at the time. Tommy Craggs, who was then Slate’s politics editor, recalls that Buttigieg was “an exceptional blogger.”