Caucus Night, Or How I Learned to Hate American Democracy (Again)Photo courtesy of Getty Politics Features Iowa Caucuses
Part 1: Harbingers from the Goddess Chaos
The night before the Iowa caucuses, on the ninth floor of the Hyatt Place hotel in downtown Iowa City, I heard a knock at my door. I ignored it, assuming it must be from a different room. I had just settled in for the night after interviewing two very impressive student organizers at the University of Iowa, and now I was transcribing the audio and drinking a glass of wine. It was a serene moment—mindless typing, with the occasional glance up at the lights of Iowa City through the picture windows. I hadn’t ordered room service; I didn’t know anybody in this town, and nobody knew me.
But the knocks continued. I dragged myself out of bed, looked through the peephole, and saw a woman’s face staring back. I was already confused, so imagine my state when I opened the door and the full picture emerged: A stranger, blond and small, naked from the waist up. Her eyes were somewhere on the spectrum between drunk and drugged, she reeked of liquor, and I had no time to react before she flashed a lazy smile and stepped forward.
It takes a lot to shock me, but this did the trick. I mumbled something inadequate and closed the door in her face. She remained outside while I paced, but soon I heard her knocking on a different door, blowing up my theory that this was a Soviet-style honey trap devised by Tom Perez to sully the good name of a progressive journalist. I called the front desk, begged them not to involve the cops, and eventually the clerk arrived to take her…well, to wherever naked women in hotel hallways go.
The situation left me thoroughly confused, and it wasn’t until 24 hours later that it came to me with a startling clarity: I had been visited a day early by the chaotic spirit of the Iowa caucuses. Just like that institutional abomination, the appearance of my blond apparition was nonsensical, bizarre, and unsettling. Absurd and funny, too, but only much later. It was something that might be appealing in a different context, but absolutely not like this. The demons of this state were ravenous, out to spoil the very concepts of democracy, of sex, of anything they could get their hands on.
The difference was, the naked woman at my door was harmless.
Part 2: Dreamers Before the Awakening
I had high high hopes for a minute. Monday night came, and I let myself imagine a Sanders victory that would transform the race, send Biden into a devastating tailspin, and usher in a new era of American politics. Was it right that the revolution would begin in Iowa? Maybe not, but stranger places have spawned greater things, and the air felt heavy with promise. Dusk fell, and at the Sanders encampment in the Memorial Union building on campus, students in orange vests organized hundreds of caucus-goers in the hours before the action began. Empty pizza boxes piled up on tables as the supporters waited to be taken to the proper precincts, and outside vans waited with lighted signs on top reading, “In poll after poll, Bernie beats Trump!”
They all looked so young, so incredibly young in a way that gets more pronounced as I get older and farther away from college days, when being young seemed normal. When I left them at 6 p.m. to walk along Madison Street up to the bridge that would take me across the Iowa River, muddy brown in the glow of the street lights, the thought of their belief enlivened me, quickened my stride in the cold night air, and opened my mind to outcomes I wouldn’t have allowed myself to dream even a week earlier.
I should have known better.
Part 3: Dispiriting Color Before the Dispiriting Disaster
Two very different precincts held their caucus at the Iowa Field House, in two large gyms separated by a concrete walkway above a swimming pool. The Iowa City third precinct consisted mostly of students from the west side dorms on campus, while the fourth precinct was older and more affluent, consisting of professionals, retirees, and only a handful of students. When I scouted out the precinct locations in Iowa City (where I came for no better reason than I like college towns, and this is where I covered the race in 2016), I thought it would be a good place to see two very different versions of the same phenomenon. MSNBC thought so too—they sent Cal Perry and a crew to do live hits from the gyms.
As the caucus-goers filed in, it became quickly clear that the third precinct would have two and only two viable groups—Sanders and Warren. Hundreds of students packed their corners, but my eyes wandered: Based on some abysmal late polls, I wanted to know what would happen with Joe Biden. I approached the far wall, where a lonely group of exactly two people made up the early Biden section. “What brought you to Biden?” I asked.
“I don’t really want to talk to the press,” said a young woman, which was one of the smartest things I heard all night. The man standing next to her was more eager, and used the word “centralist” three or four times as he warned about the nation going too far to the extreme left. He didn’t have anything to say about Biden himself, so I asked how he thought the campaign was going.
“I don’t know,” he said, seeming genuinely perplexed. “How do you think it’s going?”
Like shit, I wanted to say, but instead I made my way past the swimming pool to the fourth precinct, where a group of about 60 had formed for the Biden camp. With more than 700 people filling that gym, it was clear immediately that they wouldn’t be viable. Beyond the math, though, it was also clear that it was an old group—at first, I couldn’t spot anyone who was obviously under 55, and that was conservative. Eventually, two younger men came, and laughed when I pointed out that they didn’t exactly fit the demographic. They spoke more intelligently about their support, but it boiled down to the old talking points: Biden was more “electable” against Trump (I resisted the follow-up: If he’s so electable, why has he never been president?), and if Sanders or Warren won the general election would turn into a referendum on socialism rather than a referendum on Trump. One of them told me that some of his Republican friends were so scared of Sanders that they had switched parties and were out caucusing that night for Biden.
Later on, as the process dragged out, I tried to find them again, but as far as I could tell, they had left the Biden camp before the first count was over. And if there’s one valid political insight I took from the night, before everything went to hell, it was that Biden was in for a nightmare. I never expected him to attract any support from the students, but the fourth precinct in 2016 had yielded almost 300 voters for Clinton, and in 2020, with turnout significantly higher, he couldn’t crack 70. There was no energy behind him, either—just the oldest voters in the room, gathered in a corner, looking bored and disappointed. It was clear to me even then that his support throughout the state would be anemic at best, and that the old analysis of Biden was still true: The closer you get to an election, the less people like him.
It was also another tragedy of the statewide debacle that followed—it detracted attention from the disaster that befell the so-called frontrunner.
Heading back to precinct three, I saw that the Klobuchar group had swelled to three students.
“Too bad you’re not in the other room,” I joked. “They’ve got a decent showing in precinct four.”
“Wait,” said one. “Where’s precinct four? That’s my precinct.”
So I unwittingly reduced their numbers by 33%. Of the two left, a young woman told me she liked Klobuchar’s personality, and was with her on the issues too. Which issues? Gun control, for one.
“I know a lot of the other candidates have good gun control ideas too, but even so, I like Klobuchar’s personality.”
The other supporter told me he had until recently been a registered Republican, and that Klobuchar would do well in the moderate Midwest. I refrained from pointing out that we were in the Midwest, only two people in a room of 500 saw fit to take her side.
A few more would trickle to their side, but they wouldn’t approach viability. In precinct four, however, they just sneaked past the 15% threshold, and made a killing when the Biden blue-hairs had to re-align.
The other group that fascinated me were the undecideds, who formed in the middle of the gym in precinct three and fielded overtures from the other campaigns. As with undecideds in many elections, I got the sense that they were mostly in it for the attention. The conversations I had with them aren’t worth the time it would take to write them out. Just imagine a collection of dopey people trying to appear thoughtful and saying things like, “I want to hear more about the deficit” while around them entropy reigned. This is harsh…I’d like to sound less like an asshole here, and to have sympathy for people that may not have time to immerse themselves in the hell that is American politics and are genuinely seeking information, but when you meet them in person it’s harder to credit them with anything but a self-satisfied, proud kind of ignorance. A caucus is no place to figure out your political leanings at the last minute. It’s no place for anything, really, but especially not that. Most of them ended up going to Andrew Yang.
Part Four: “Community Engagement” in the Age of Apocalypse
Beyond these anecdotes, there is little to say about the people and the results: Bernie won in precinct three, Warren won in precinct four but only came out with a delegate draw, and nobody was very happy.
Which means that now, with regret, we must come to The Process.
On background, you probably already know that the Iowa caucuses are a woefully inadequate, humiliating piece of American democracy, and routinely devolves into spectacle. They depress turnout, because if you have to work, or can’t find/afford childcare, or don’t enjoy hanging out in crowds for three hours, or prefer not to practice peer pressure democracy, or the weather is bad on the night, you will not caucus. By eschewing the secret ballot, the caucuses introduce the godforsaken human element, and no matter how many Iowans tell you that this is a sacred rite of community engagement, don’t believe them: Caucuses keep the community at home, and stand squarely in the path of representative democracy.
In a state of three million people, the turnout for both caucuses in 2016 was 357,000; in New Hampshire, a state with a third of the population, 538,000 voted in the primary. If you assume that Iowans would vote at about the same rate in a secret ballot election, it’s reasonable to guess that the caucuses disenfranchise about 850,000 people in a year like 2016, and half that in a one-party year like 2020. It’s a system that persists because if Iowa switched to a primary, they’d probably lose their first-in-the-nation status. So if you ever wonder why a format that doesn’t work in a place that doesn’t look like the rest of the country holds outsized importance in determining our presidential nominees, just know that your democracy is being compromised for what is essentially a state-wide ego trip that even most of its own citizens view with contempt.
And—this must be emphasized—it doesn’t fucking work.
Which brings us back to the Field House. The first critical part of the caucus process is to separate everyone into support groups and get an initial count. That seems simple enough, but with hundreds of people crammed into a small space, and many of them wandering in and out of groups or using the bathroom or chasing their kids, it quickly devolves into cat herding. This year, the captains of each group were required to take their own head count and distribute cards for supporters to fill out. There is very little oversight to this process—the only way to check for honesty and accuracy is to pray that the total number of cards received adds up to the number of people checked into the caucus itself.
In precinct four, this did not happen. The chair—whose name I’m not going to include in this story because he was a very competent, able leader who fell victim to a batshit system and doesn’t deserve to have his name digitally associated with an article about the failure of something beyond his control—found out to his dismay that when the final totals were counted, he had 721 cards for a group that was supposed to include 715 people. One of the caucus secretaries, joking but also desperate, asked if they could get on the mic and ask anybody who voted twice to please come tell them.
At that point, what do you do? Start the whole process, which had taken more than an hour to that point, all over? In fact, there was no good solution: In my notebook I wrote down “impeccable organization by [caucus chair], still a massive shitstorm.” He had to keep the caucus moving, and together with his assistants, he arrived at the only possible answer: He had to subtract six total votes from the first-round numbers to make it jive with the total number of attendees. How? By pure guesswork: Their only plausible theory was that a few people had accidentally submitted two cards, and the fairest way to account for it was to take the votes away from two nonviable groups who hadn’t met the 15% threshold—Yang and Biden, in this case, both very far from viability—so that it wouldn’t affect the overall math. And yet, nonviable groups can become viable in the realignment phase, so losing any votes arbitrarily because of a precinct captain’s decision could potentially be detrimental to a candidate.
I feel almost bad writing about this, because it implicates people that were helpless in the face of a systemic clusterfuck, but facts are facts, and I confirmed it with the secretary when she gave me the first round totals: They had been artificially diminished to align with what they “should” be, 715 instead of 721, in a way that was calculated to have the least effect. The chair overheard our conversation, and came over for some damage control.
“Let me be clear about this,” he said, “some of the Yang and Biden voters submitted two cards, and none of this changed the delegate math one bit.”
As for the delegate math, he was technically right, but on the rest he was guessing; nobody knew why there were more cards than people. It could have been Buttigieg or Klobuchar, both of whom barely made viability on the first go-round. It could have been anyone, or anything. The point is, there’s absolutely no accountability.
I escaped to precinct three, where the leaders weren’t as efficient, and things were moving slower. The first count was nowhere near completion when the chair stepped up to the microphone and told everyone that he was on the autism spectrum, that he felt overwhelmed, and that he had to leave because he couldn’t handle the stimulation. In sympathy, the room clapped for him, but he shook his head angrily: “More noise is just going to make it worse.”
And with that, the one person who theoretically knew the rules was gone, leaving an overwhelmed secretary in his place and an older man who would later hold up the entire proceedings until 11 p.m. because he misunderstood simple delegate math.
Before any of that happened, though, I noticed people in the hallway streaming toward the exit from precinct four. The last I had checked, they were only just completing the first round, and there was still realignment to go through. I hustled back and found the chair getting off the phone.
“Is there no second realignment phase this year?”
“There is,” he said, looking dismayed.
“But people are leaving.”
A pained pause. “I know.”
Part of the “community engagement” propaganda associated with the caucus hinges on the realignment period, when nonviable groups can move to viable ones, or join up with each other, or do god knows what. But what happens when you keep people sitting around for two hours while confusion builds? They feel alienated, and bored, and they leave the first chance they get. The same thing happened in precinct three a half hour later, and I’m sure the same thing was happening all over the state. So the next time someone tries the “community engagement” line on you, know that it’s bogus—people leave feeling more divorced from democracy than ever, and even a good chair can’t keep them around for the part that’s supposed to make the whole thing unique.
Some people wrote their second preference on the flip side of card, some just left, and others filled out cards incorrectly and then left.
The comedy of errors in precinct four culminated in another special feature of the caucus system: Unequal representation. The Warren surrogates, wearing light green, had been toiling endlessly. They picked off members of other groups, tried to build camaraderie with call-and-response cheers, and generally made the best of a bad situation. When the final tallies were announced for all the viable groups, it looked like this:
A strong win for Warren, which delighted her surrogates until the chair announced how the delegates were allotted:
So much for the hard work. So much for winning.
Back in precinct three, there was a problem counting the cards, a problem with realignment, a problem with everything. Finally, at about 9:30 p.m., the final totals were ready: Sanders 213, Warren 130, nobody else viable. At this point, things were supposed to get easy—there were seven delegates to be awarded, and using simple proportional math, you find that Sanders has 4.3 delegates, Warren has 2.7, and you round to Sanders 4, Warren 3.
Unfortunately, the older man who had taken over for the previous chair was operating under the mistaken assumption that he had to divide by the total number of people who had been counted originally—488, in this case—rather than those who had ended in viable groups. But a whopping 145 people left after the first round rather than stick around for the hell of realignment,so after plugging in his incorrect formula, he kept finding that Sanders should have 3 delegates, Warren 2. Dozens of people on both sides knew he was wrong, and tried to show him the math, but as an MSNBC camera zoomed in, and Cal Perry tried to explain the situation to an undoubtedly befuddled nation, the man couldn’t grasp the concept. The only solution was to call a hotline, and be put on hold.
I stuck around for a half hour of this hell, but at 10 p.m., thoroughly disgusted, I gave my number to one of the Bernie people, asked him to tell me when it was over, and walked home. By his report, it took another hour before they managed to agree that it was a 4-3 result.
Part 5: Guillotine the Caucuses
Back at my hotel, I wasn’t surprised to see that the statewide experience was equivalent to what I had seen in person, but I was surprised by the scope. I figured there would be stupidity like the infamous coin tosses, people being put on hold for hours, and similar fiascoes, but I hadn’t even run into problems with the now notorious app, designed by a group called (hilariously) Shadow, tied to the DNC, and meant (extremely hilariously) to prevent hacking. To quote Max Blumenthal on Twitter: “The same corporate Democratic hacks who’ve been warning us for three years that Russia aims to undermine confidence in our elections have done just that. They exploited Russiagate to rustle up money for the scammy digital “voter protection” tech that wrecked #IowaCaucuses.”
When I learned that there would be no results until Tuesday because of the state-wide errors, I had the same thought that occurred to me at the worst moments in the precincts: What the fuck am I doing here? Why am I giving any legitimacy to a process that doesn’t make sense on paper, doesn’t work in practice, and leaves everyone feeling worse about democracy? I could only laugh when Buttigieg declared victory…why not? It’s as valid as any other part of what happened Monday night.
If there was any justice, the results would be viewed as irrelevant no matter what they say, and come 2024 we’d dispense with the farce for good. Words like “mockery,” “embarrassment,” and “disgrace,” while all true, don’t quite capture the alienation I saw around me in Iowa City, or around the country on Twitter. It shouldn’t be this hard to hold an election, but the net effect of the caucuses is to sow more doubt into a political system that’s already in a terrifyingly fragile state.
Part 6: Our Rewards
How to end this piece…I could bullshit about the big picture, the implications, but all I can think about today is the really heartbreaking stuff: There are people in this state who have worked their asses off for months, knowing how much the result could mean. The ones who worked for Bernie Sanders are closest to my heart, and carried with them the seeds of revolution, but the foot soldiers for Warren, Klobuchar, Yang, Buttigieg, and even Biden didn’t want it any less. These are people who gave more of themselves than anyone had a right to ask, who exhausted their bodies and their minds, and in a fair world they would have earned the right to win or lose on the merits. Instead, a system designed and maintained by idiots undermined their labor, their passion, their idealism. It made them look bad, and it did the same for the party and the country. Today, Iowa is nothing but a big joke, a contemptible clusterfuck and the latest gut shot to our national dignity. There’s no rational reaction to what we saw Monday night but total rage, and there’s nothing more profound to say than this: The people who worked, the people who dreamed, deserved better.