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The Iowa Caucus Was a Media Debacle, Too

The lack of immediate voting results led journalists and candidates to feed needless narratives about corruption and incompetence.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Monday night, not long after the Iowa Democratic Party announced it was conducting “quality control” on ballots from the Iowa caucus, cable news’s talking heads and Twitter’s energetic touts began to suffer a breakdown. On CNN, it didn’t take long for Chris Cuomo to declare that the party had committed an “epic failure.” On Twitter, some reporters were insinuating foul play. Not to be left out, three separate presidential campaigns set about either casting doubt on the declared results or simply releasing some of their own. 

Of course, what the Iowa Democrats were actually doing was counting votes. A third-party app the party had deployed to count and transmit votes, apparently without adequately training precinct chairs in its use, had failed, so election officials were adapting to changing circumstances, falling back on traditional hand counting and rechecking results. It’s a slower process than what the hoped-for technological innovation promised, but it followed best practices for an election in dispute. For the average voter, it meant waiting for the results to come in. But for politicians who want good headlines and cable news anchors who yearn to report results, it was the worst-case scenario: a slight delay in receiving coveted instant gratification. 

For Democrats voting in Iowa—that is, the people whose votes are being counted—the delay will mean nothing. The votes will still be counted, the campaign will go on. But for candidates and journalists, both of whom build narratives that rely on the outcome of the first caucus of the primary season, there is no result worse than a delayed result. Leading the charge was Elizabeth Bruenig, an opinion writer from The New York Times and former staffer at The New Republic. In a since-deleted tweet, she suggested that the Democratic National Committee (which does not directly administer the caucus) had delayed the result after seeing that a leftist candidate might win. Vice reporter Laura Wagner followed suit, declaring the DNC to be “corrupt or incompetent or both.” 

Meanwhile, on network television, things were reaching that level of cacophonous cross talk that’s only seen when there’s no real news to report. On CNN, anchors and panelists alike were declaring the proceedings to be an unresolvable fiasco, sure to end the Hawkeye State’s grandest tradition. It could indeed be the end of the first-in-the-nation caucus, but it was the networks themselves who were the main victim of a lack of immediate results, not Iowa voters. 

Taking days, or even over a week, to report results is hardly unheard of, even in the United States. California regularly takes over a week to count all its votes; in one close 2018 House race, a result was not apparent until almost a month after voting. The Golden State’s late returns in the 2018 midterms sparked a hue and cry among the pundit class, who were all but prepared to declare California a failed state. But California designs its elections to be that way. In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that California’s 2020 Democratic primary, scheduled for March 3, may take just as long to count. Besides, this isn’t Iowa’s first foray into waiting for results: The 2012 Republican caucus resulted in a weeks-long delay, with Mitt Romney initially declared victor before Rick Santorum was ultimately certified as winner by 34 votes. By comparison, Iowa’s 2020 counting—likely to be wrapped up in coming days—appears absolutely brisk. 

Journalists whose stories depend on getting actual data rely on states reporting results at roughly the same time one election cycle as they did the previous one. But that level of uniformity isn’t always possible. And everyone who was heading into Monday night’s caucus should have been prepared for something to go wrong, not just because Santorum’s delayed win should linger in the memory. It was widely known that this Iowa caucus came with added complications. Thanks largely to pressure from the 2016 Sanders campaign, the Iowa Democrats planned to release three separate vote counts—first preferences, final preferences, and state delegate equivalent totals—rather than just the final number. Their plan to use an untested mobile phone app developed by the private firm Shadow to get the multiple sets of results to their headquarters from the more than 1,700 precincts across the state foundered after the app failed to work as promised.  

If the state party is at fault, the blame lies more in the decision to provide these three distinct voting results, thus creating a system that was probably doomed to fail from the word go. Most vote counts will be slightly off—it’s why recounts tend to change totals, whether or not they change outcomes—so the direct comparison from the first preference tally to the final preference tally was bound to create headaches. 

When new systems are introduced, breakdowns in long-standing procedures are sure to follow. In Iowa, the caucus is conducted mostly by volunteers rather than trained professionals. While it appears the state party may have been lax in training those volunteers in the use of its new app and in new processes more generally, its fallback plan appears to be working. As Iowa’s state auditor, Democrat Rob Sand, observed last night, getting better data can take more time. But that didn’t stop Politico’s Tim Alberta from writing that “Iowa Democrats didn’t just fail in their responsibility. They failed spectacularly.” From the perspective of the press, that may be correct. But the actual responsibility of Iowa Democrats is to accurately count the votes of the people who showed up to caucus. We have no evidence they failed in that. 

Candidates, too, were far too quick to raise alarm. The campaigns of Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Bernie Sanders have all taken steps that could ultimately undermine public trust in the final reported results. A Biden spokesperson said the former vice president’s campaign has “real concerns about the integrity of the process,” which is convenient for a candidate who looks likely to place disappointingly low when the results are counted. Pete Buttigieg seemed to declare victory, with his campaign saying that its data on 77 percent of precincts indicated he would win the state delegate equivalent vote. Bernie Sanders’s campaign released data it claimed to have collected from 40 percent of precincts showing the Vermont senator leading solidly. In lieu of other results, the data from Buttigieg and Sanders were reported and shared widely. When the real figures are released, it is possible supporters of one or both of the candidates could cry foul if the numbers don’t match what they have previously heard. 

Beyond pundits bemoaning the lack of results and politicians rushing to create their own, there was a possibly more worrying trend, as conspiracy theories began to spring up. Some claimed Russian interference; others—like Bruenig—a DNC rigging. One Twitter personality saw potential social media manipulation as a key issue. A Sanders supporter argued that Buttigieg’s camp had played a key role in building the app that experienced issues in reporting the results; the tweet was liked over 35,000 times as of noon Tuesday. By 1 a.m. Eastern time, a friend texted me to ask if rumors she’d seen on Twitter that the CIA had rigged the caucus for Buttigieg were true. (Reader: They were not.) 

In case it still needs to be said: It would be essentially impossible to rig a caucus process that revolves around people standing in a gym, literally watching each other vote, then writing their votes down on secret ballot in full view of observers from multiple campaigns and the press. Not only is there an official paper trail of the Iowa results, but there are several unofficial ones that can broadly confirm the official tallies. Additionally, any would-be ne’er-do-well would need to individually tamper with hundreds of events—in houses of worship, high school gymnasia, community centers, and building lobbies across 56,000 square miles—to have a serious chance of undermining the results. As University of Iowa College of Law professor Greg Shill wrote on Twitter, “You literally write your name, address, and candidate on a card and sign it, and they keep it until the Democratic convention. It’s going to be okay.” 

There are problems with the idea of caucuses, with the morals of letting Iowa go first in a country much more diverse than that state, and, of course, with any election that lacks a secret ballot. That’s not what is at issue here. The hysteria over the Iowa result is simpler: The politically engaged, from campaigns to journalists to assorted Twitterati, wanted an immediate result. We live in an age of instant gratification, after all. But elections are more important than candidates’ fundraising drives or journalists’ narratives. The only obligatory, make-or-break task is to ensure voters an accurate count. After an initial mishap, it looks as if the Iowa Democratic Party is keeping its most important commitment and doing so in the best way it is able.