Failure in Iowa caucuses may doom process

Iowa for years has taken great pride in its role of holding the first actual presidential voting in the country, via more than a thousand caucuses across the state on a single night. After Monday evening, that event may have become history because of an embarrassing app failure that prevented the Iowa Democratic Party officials reporting results and declaring the winner.

It raised new concerns that Iowa’s colorful process, wherein citizens brave frigid weather to gather in private homes, public schools and churches, had run its course.

For decades, the Iowa caucuses were a welcome exercise for many of the hundreds of journalists who could watch and describe the politics in action. It included live debates between supporters of rival candidates, as opposed to the humdrum long lines of voters awaiting their chance to cast ballots.

As an out-of-state reporter, I covered multiple Iowa caucuses and was able to pepper my accounts with real arguments at a caucus in Des Moines before sitting down to convey the results when eventually reported later that night.

But the Iowa caucus system always had its drawbacks, including that the mostly rural and farming state’s voters were predominantly white and elderly, and much less representative of the general population, particularly within the Democratic Party.

Monday’s fiasco not surprisingly already had fueled demands that Iowa be denied its traditional role as the kickoff state for the quadrennial presidential election. Some critics urged that Iowa be replaced at the head of the line by a much larger, more diverse and influential state such as Michigan or Pennsylvania. In the 2016 election, they were among the four swing states that sealed Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College.

Whether the Democratic National Committee has the means or the will to change the calendar in 2024 to deny Iowa its place at the front of the line is uncertain. The state has been the gateway to the White House for numerous party nominees from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama, both little-known longshots when they first hit the presidential campaign trail.

Carter got his start in Iowa in February 1975 by wrangling a dinner speech as a just-retired governor of Georgia in tiny Le Mars, for which he was proclaimed its Citizen of the Day and given a fee car wash, a local movie pass and a coupon for a free pizza. His breakthrough came in October in a straw poll at a statewide party dinner in Ames, winning it with only 23 percent of 1,094 responders, after packing the house with his small band of followers and diligently working the local Iowa press corps.

Carter’s surprising success not only made his success but also that of the Iowa caucuses. A young aide, Tim Kraft, slapped bumper stickers on every car he found in Ames. The candidate’s wife, Rosalynn, went to the balcony of the hall and handed out large Carter buttons to everyone in the first rows, as local television recorded her effort. Kraft said later: “We knew the thing was going to be covered. Politics is theater. We planned for that.”

The Iowa precinct caucuses thereafter became a regular stop on the road to the White House, and usually for the next president, regardless of party. In 2012, however, Republican Mitt Romney, now a U.S. senator from Utah, was declared the winner in the GOP Iowa caucuses by an eyelash, but a later official count gave it to then Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, handing him only meaningless bragging rights.

In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton declared victory in Iowa over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, but also by a narrow margin as the final count showed. It was understandable that the state election overseers would turn to new technical means to determine the outcome this year, though to their present dismay.

So this year’s experience may well assign the Iowa caucuses, as the saying goes, to the dustbin of political history.

By Kerry Minor

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