With “Power to the People” blaring over the loudspeakers, Senator Bernie Sanders took the stage amidst cheers of his name late Monday night in a Des Moines hotel ballroom to declare victory in perhaps the most confusing caucus Iowa has ever had. After a few minutes of his stump speech, he thanked everyone who had supported his Iowa campaign and bellowed, “Now, it is on to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, California, and onward to victory!”
Sanders’ claim to victory was as good as anyone’s that night. Mayor Pete Buttigieg declared his campaign “victorious”; Senator Amy Klobuchar assured supporters she had “beaten the odds”; former vice president Joe Biden said he was “feeling good” but warned it was “gonna be close.” Senator Elizabeth Warren was most cautious, beginning, “Listen, it is too close to call, so I’m just going to tell you what I do know.”
Standing in the crowd of Sanders’ ballroom myself, I saw the night, the campaigns, and the entire caucus process unravel before me. On its most anticipated day of the year, Des Moines turned upside down.
The Clive Caucus
At Clive Elementary School west of Des Moines—where I would observe this unique political event—the start of the night appeared energetic and organized. As soon as I stepped foot inside the school, state party staffers manning tables that lined the walls rushed to check me in. Each caucus-goer, visitor, and member of the press was checked in, received a sticker, and was ushered to one of the two rooms, the gym or the cafeteria, which were being used that night for the first votes of the 2020 presidential race. I chose the gym, cramming myself against the wall into the “spectators” gallery. I had to be careful not to let my foot accidentally cross the duct-taped line cordoning off out-of-staters from Iowans; if I stepped over it, I might inadvertently be counted for Sanders, and of all the things on my Iowa bucket list, accidental voter fraud was not one of them.
The room was bustling. Campaign lawn signs hung on the walls around the gym designating each candidate’s caucus area. Iowans stayed to the left near the rock-climbing wall for Warren; turned right for Sanders; or crossed the gym diagonally for Klobuchar. The colorful variety of campaign signs—orange-and-blue for Buttigeig, spearmint for Warren, red-white-and-blue for Biden—was occasionally punctured by a simple 8.5x11 piece of printer paper with a surname in bold black font for the lower-tier candidates: Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Michael Bennet, entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Despite the fact that all four walls were theoretically in use, the room quickly began to resemble two eighteenth century armies lining up to face each other on the field. To the left of the entrance were the camps for Warren and Biden. To the right, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar supporters amassed. The teams for each candidate were split among obvious demographic lines: Biden’s supporters were almost universally elderly white Iowans, whereas Sanders’ crowd leaned younger and more diverse. Women seemed disproportionately likely to support Warren and Klobuchar, although both female senators had their fair share of male support as well.
Iowans collect to caucus near Des Moines. The black line on the floor and the different campaign signs separate the Buttigieg and Sanders camps.
Once the doors closed, a woman in a light blue button-down and a man with a startling resemblance to Colonel Sanders picked up microphones and began to rattle off the caucus rules. Caucus-goers would stand in their first choice’s designated area, with “uncommitted” being an option. After the first count, the candidates’ supporters who had more than 15 percent of the room would give speeches explaining why their candidate should win. Then there would be a single realignment for the voters whose first choices didn’t make it, where Iowans would physically cross the room to support a new candidate. The final count would occur, and all candidates who surpassed that 15 percent threshold would receive delegates.
From the start, it was clear that the caucuses would upend expectations. A few days prior, CNN planned to release the final poll of the Iowa election season, but, just ten minutes before it was scheduled to air, CNN pulled the poll after discovering problems in its execution. Apparently, one of the pollsters had enlarged the font of the script she was using to ask questions, accidentally cutting Buttigieg’s name off the list of candidates in the process. Rather than release a possibly corrupted poll, CNN simply cancelled it.
Less than an hour before the caucuses, however, FiveThirtyEight confirmed a leaked version that startlingly showed Biden firmly in fourth place, a full nine percentage points behind Sanders’ lead and below the 15 percent viability threshold. From my viewpoint in Clive, that prediction was accurate: Sanders’ zone led the gym by several dozen Iowans, and it seemed all-too possible that Biden would be unable to secure any delegates and his supporters would be forced to find a second choice.
Once everyone decided their first alignment, the election officials began handing out voting preference cards to each Iowan and keeping track of the proceedings on a whiteboard by the door. Attendees filled out the cards with their preferred candidates and handed them down to the precinct captains, who then counted the cards.
After an initial miscount of the number of attendees, it was determined that 289 eligible voters had arrived to caucus, setting the threshold for receiving delegates at forty-four. Sanders had clearly passed the threshold; Klobuchar and Buttigieg appeared to have passed it; Warren and Biden both seemed on the fence. Finally, after meticulous counting and recounting, the results were scrawled on the board:
Biden had surpassed the threshold by just two votes, meaning all five leading candidates (Sanders, Buttigieg, Warren, Klobuchar, and Biden) would receive votes from Clive. Perhaps most interestingly, only sixteen Iowans had aligned themselves with a nonviable candidate, meaning no matter how those voters made their second choice, Sanders would lead the vote total by double digits.
After a few bland speeches from each leading candidate’s supporters, arguing the candidates’ cases for electability, the Iowans began to shuffle themselves around. The sixteen undecideds divvied themselves up fairly evenly among the top contenders, with the notable exception of Warren. Buttigieg received six, Biden four, Klobuchar four, Sanders two, and Warren not a single new supporter:
Final vote count in Clive gym. First number is the total number of caucus votes after realignment (out of 289), second is the percentage of the room’s votes.
From conversations with my peers, who were observing the caucuses in other locations, I learned that, around Des Moines, there was not too much consistency in terms of who was leading: Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg each led in some precincts. The only commonality seemed to be Biden’s underperformance, but we would have to wait for the official results to roll in to find out if this was true across the state. And, as it turned out, we would have to wait a while.
The Consequent Chaos
It quickly became clear that something had gone wrong. The New York Times, which had begun to publish preliminary results showing Sanders with a lead, quickly reverted every candidate’s support numbers back to zero. Following Sanders’ sweep of my precinct, I rode to his HQ rally just outside of the Des Moines airport. Sanders, along with Warren and Klobuchar, were expected to fly to Iowa from the impeachment trial and immediately take the stage.
The organizers ushered me into a mostly-empty ballroom, eager to fill the room with warm bodies. My caucus had finished quickly; Iowans across the state were still assembled in schools and community centers. When I arrived at the hotel, the three-dozen journalists at the back of the room outnumbered the actual Sanders supporters, but over the next hour, Iowans dressed in Sanders blue flooded the room, packing us tightly in as we anticipated the Senator’s speech.
While awaiting Sanders arrival, the venue displayed a muted CNN stream on two drop-down screens on either side of the stage. Soon, the chyron began to flash a warning: “Results from Iowa Caucuses Delayed; Reasons Unclear.” The ballroom’s reporters left their cameras streaming on tripods and began furiously making phone calls and typing at their laptops. The Sanders crowd, having begun the night excited and buzzing, grew restless. Had something gone awry?
As it turns out, something hadn’t gone awry; everything had. The Iowa Democratic Party had decided that precincts should report their results through an app, which had apparently malfunctioned. Predictably, the backup hotline, to be used in case of the app’s malfunctioning, was suddenly flooded with calls, clogging the phone lines and leaving precinct captains on hours-long hold. The next morning, the state party leadership would announce that “while the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data” and that “this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system … [that] was identified and fixed.” That afternoon, the state party began slowly releasing incremental results.
In the moment, though, the details were hazy and sparse. Politically engaged Iowans are fiercely proud of their first-in-the-nation status, and an unseasonably long campaign season had been hogging Iowan TV ad spots and diners for over a year. Iowan Democrats were eager to see who could break through the four-way tie that had coalesced in recent polling. But now, due to technical errors, nobody knew what to do. Candidates were waiting for the results before emerging, hoping to give victory speeches but afraid to receive bad news mid-speech. The candidates’ biggest fans began to grow restless, having been promised a performance but receiving only confusion.
Maybe she had just arrived in Iowa from the impeachment trial and was chomping at the bit to speak. Maybe she noticed that CNN, desperate to show something, was broadcasting empty podiums. Whatever the rationale, after agonizing silence from the campaigns and the Democratic Party, Klobuchar appeared on her own stage to declare her campaign “had beaten the odds every step of the way.” Shortly after, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Warren emerged to give their own speeches, all trying to spin the chaos into a narrative putting themselves on the forefront.
What Actually Happened
Now, with hindsight, we know whose predictions of victory were right and whose were hot air. It appears that two candidates emerged in a near-tie, with Buttigieg slipping just ahead of Sanders, both winning roughly a quarter of the state’s final caucus votes and its state delegate equivalents. Warren secured a firm third place at 20 percent, followed by Biden and Klobuchar both receiving fewer than 14 percent.
Examining Iowa on a micro level, Buttigieg and Biden clearly carved out lanes for themselves. Of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties, Buttigieg won around sixty, leaving most of the rest to Sanders and a few Minnesota-adjacent counties to Klobuchar. Sanders’ strong showing came from victories in Iowa’s urban areas, whereas Buttigieg performed well in rural regions and the suburbs. Both emerge from Iowa with a strong narrative: Sanders, that he won the first state's popular vote, and Buttigieg, that he can win rural Midwestern voters in conservative states.
Despite all the coverage of the Iowa Democratic Party’s ludicrousness, Biden’s dismal performance ought to be the story of the news cycle. For months, the former vice president was all but assured frontrunner status, anticipated by most pollsters and analysts to easily maintain top-three status throughout the primaries. Now, FiveThirtyEight’s elections model places his odds of winning a majority of national delegates at only 20 percent—even less likely than a contested convention. Sanders leads the field, jumping from less than a one in four chance before the caucuses to 45 percent odds of winning a majority of delegates now, followed not by a candidate but by “no one” winning a majority (25 percent probable). If Nate Silver is right, Biden’s future looks dark: Seventeen states will have voted by the end Super Tuesday, and FiveThirtyEight’s model gives only two of those states to Biden.
Is Biden’s campaign over? Not even close. In 1992, Bill Clinton lost the first four states in a tight five-person race before winning the primary and, eventually, the presidency. Biden still maintains a massive campaign warchest, and a 20 percent chance of victory is certainly not synonymous with defeat. But Biden’s status as a frontrunner is definitively over.
What This Means
In the 2020 world of nonstop news coverage and instantaneous punditry, it is often hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. What seems important during the day—what trends on Twitter and is the focus of the punditsphere—is often sensationalism propped up by media organizations chasing a story. What makes history is something else entirely.
Still, the caucuses are significant. A blow of this magnitude has severely damaged Biden’s campaign, ending his frontrunner status once and for all. If anyone has emerged as the new leader of the field, it is Sanders. But on a structural level, 2020 represents yet another challenge to Iowa’s exalted place in the presidential campaign cycle—and the role that caucuses have in the twenty-first century. Iowa’s role as the first state to vote had already been under fire for years—including this election cycle by former candidate Julián Castro—as unrepresentative of the nation as a whole. The caucus system itself is undemocratic, more difficult for lower-income citizens who cannot afford to take much time off work, and a nightmare for those with disabilities. In fact, the main argument in favor of the Iowa caucuses holding such an important role has historically been that Iowans take their job of selecting a president seriously and do it well. Yet because of technical malfunctions, coin flips, and the discrepancy between the popular vote and delegate count, even that has been called into question. Indeed, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses I saw that Des Moines night may not have just been one of the most exciting, but perhaps the last that the state will ever have.
All photos were either taken by the author or licensed under the Creative Commons. The links to those original photos can be found here, here (photo originally taken by Gage Skidmore - link to license is here), here, here, and here.
Jake Biderman is a third-year political science major interested in law who spent the summer covering the Democratic caucuses in Des Moines. When he’s not worrying about Americans’ critical thinking skills, he’s exercising, learning foreign languages, or watching baseball. Go Nats!