DES MOINES, Iowa - Every four years for more than four decades, Iowa's status as the first state in the presidential nominating sweepstakes has held firm, weathering criticism for its largely white and rural demographics being at odds with the makeup of the nation as a whole.
But after Monday's debacle when the state's Democratic Party couldn't even turn in partial results for nearly 24 hours, the Iowa caucuses and the state's outsize influence in choosing the nation's top candidates for president may be over.
"This is a conversation that happens every four years," the state's Democratic Party chairman, Troy Price, said of the possibility of Iowa losing its status after facing withering attacks for the bungling of the caucuses. "There's no doubt that conversation will take place again."
Despite Price's downplaying it, the fate of the first-in-the-nation caucuses is in unprecedented jeopardy.
Monday's national embarrassment only amplified the growing criticism from party progressives that Iowa's lack of diversity should disqualify it from having such influence over how such a racially, socially and economically dynamic party chooses its top contenders. The fiasco also only layered more condemnation on the caucus process itself, a lengthy evening commitment that critics argue makes participation difficult for those with young families or who work night shifts.
"It's been a great ride, but we're talking about the presidency here, we're talking about the way this country looks on the world stage," said David Yepsen, who retired after 34 years at The Des Moines Register, including serving as the paper's national political columnist. "Let's not be parochial here anymore. If we can't do this right, then we ought not to do it."
By Friday, an official winner still had not been announced, and new counting rules created a scenario in which two candidates were declaring victory based on two types of results.
With 100% of the state's precincts reporting, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a minuscule lead with 26.2% delegate support to 26.1% for Sanders. Buttigieg declared victory Monday night, based on this traditional measure of the percentage of state delegates won in different regions of Iowa and statewide.
But on Thursday, Sanders claimed he had won, citing a higher raw number of supporters than Buttigieg, even though the delegate math is what is applied to the presidential nomination. Sanders also said irregularities in the results show he could have won both the delegate vote and the raw count.
The Associated Press, which the nation's news outlets rely on to proclaim a winner, concluded it could not declare a victor, citing concerns about the accuracy of the results as reported by the state party. A New York Times analysis found results released by the state party to be "riddled with inconsistencies and other flaws," including results that were missing data or simply were not possible under the caucuses' complicated rules.
Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, reinforced the concern over the process and the legitimacy of the caucus results - key factors in determining Iowa's future in the political world - when he called Thursday for the results to be double-checked by hand.
"Enough is enough," Perez tweeted. "In light of the problems that have emerged in the implementation of the delegate selection plan and in order to assure public confidence in the results, I am calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass."
Such a move would require Iowa Democrats to go through thousands of first-time presidential preference cards signed by caucusgoers in each of the nearly 1,700 precinct caucus sites to verify the results. Price, the state party chair, responded by not directly addressing the request from Perez, but said that the party was using the cards in culling the results and would undergo a re-canvass if any of the presidential campaigns made such a request.
Summing up dysfunction, Sanders deadpanned, "Maybe we might want the decisions of the Iowa caucus before the November election."
For 2020, Iowa Democrats already had made changes to the caucuses after facing flak four year ago from the Sanders campaign, following the Vermont senator narrowly losing the state to Hillary Clinton.
As a result, the state party unveiled a new set of results, counting the number of people who supported the candidates at the beginning and end of each caucus. Those raw popular vote numbers came in addition to the traditional measurement of delegates won by each campaign.
With the new results in place, the party also deployed a smartphone app for party officials to report the results from the state's precincts. When the app didn't work properly, a backup phone system became jammed with calls from all corners of the state, leading scores of caucus workers to go home before reporting results.
The ongoing confusion involving the outcome of the Iowa caucuses comes only days before New Hampshire voters take part in that state's first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. The Democratic presidential contenders, who spent the better part of last year stumping in Iowa, had to move on to New Hampshire before any of the Hawkeye State results had even been released.
Monday did not mark Iowa's first caucus kerfuffle. In 2012, Mitt Romney was named the winner of the Republican caucus by eight votes, only to have the party determine 16 days later that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had finished in first by 34 votes.
Yepsen, who hosts a politics show on Iowa Public Television, said the time has come for Iowa Democrats to end their side of the caucuses. He said any changes the state makes, such as adopting a voting primary rather than a crowdsourcing caucus system, would keep it from holding onto its front-of-the-line status.
"The state should just say we'll have a primary. And if that means New Hampshire goes first, that's fine. We can get in line," Yepsen said, "There's a question for what's good for the country here and the other question is what's good for the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party looks foolish today. They've hurt themselves in Iowa politically. They look silly nationally."
But Ron Healey, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party's State Central Committee, said a faulty app shouldn't cost the state its political prestige.
"Iowa will hang onto the caucuses, and we'll still be first," Healey predicted. "You can't judge an entire state by an app that didn't work. That's what stings me as an Iowan: Iowa didn't lose this, technology lost this."
Plus, Healey said, there is value in holding a caucus over a primary. In a caucus, representatives for candidates make speeches and fellow Iowans work to persuade each other before dividing into groups backing each campaign.
"The caucus process gives you a firsthand opportunity to talk with the people you live with, to discuss the issues and candidates," said Healey, chair of the state party's Armed Forces and Veterans committee. "If you just go to a voting booth, you don't get the inner-caucus conversation. You don't get to hear your neighbors make their case."
Caucuses have been part of Iowa's history going back to the 1800s, but the modern-day version began in 1972 and gained attention four years later after a little-known Georgia governor and peanut farmer campaigned heavily in the state. Jimmy Carter's surprise Iowa victory in 1976 helped catapult him into the White House and advanced the importance of the caucuses for Democrats and Republicans.
Most recently, the last four winners of contested Democratic caucuses went on to become president, including then-Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama. His 2008 victory in a three-way race, in part, bolstered his viability as a black candidate after winning a starkly white state.
This year, the large Democratic field of contenders put added burdens on Iowa's caucus operation. Add to that the fact that the caucus is a party-run operation relying on volunteers - not a state-run election like a primary - and confusion can reign.
There were reports of county Democratic chairmen or aides driving to the homes of individual precinct caucus chairs early Tuesday to wake them up to get their results and paperwork after they gave up on trying to contact state party officials in Des Moines.
Healey, who chaired a caucus in the small northern Iowa town of Epworth, population 1,860, said the additional counting of candidate support didn't make things any more complicated. After his 82-person caucus finished and he couldn't get the app to work, he called the results into the state party. He had success getting through, because they finished their work quickly, he surmised.
"Our caucus was extremely organized and people were very interested in what other people had to say. They were orderly. They were polite. It was certainly Iowa values," Healey said. "It's the reporting that was the issue, not the caucuses."
Still, Dennis Goldford, a veteran professor of political science at Drake University, said the Democrats' caucus debacle is "certainly a critical wound. Is it fatal? We don't know that yet."
"Iowa's always been criticized for being too rural and too white and too small town. The Democrats every four years here in Iowa and the Republicans, to some extent too, have to fight to hold the same first-in-the-nation position. It's the only thing Iowa Republicans and Iowa Democrats between them believe in or agree upon," Goldford said. "But the results of this caucus, combined with those traditional issues, make that uphill battle even steeper for the next time."
One of the nation's top ranking Democrats, Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, said he's seen enough.
Durbin said he loves the people of Iowa and has enjoyed campaigning there, including for Obama, but cited the common criticisms of the state's lack of diversity and the difficulty for working people and those with families to participate.
"I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end. As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting," Durbin said. "We've got to have a means for people to express themselves that is reliable. Unfortunately, the caucus system is not."
The case for Iowa has been that the state provides a soft entry point for presidential contenders with generally lower costs for staff and for TV ads in its few markets while allowing candidates to engage in more one-on-one retail politics with potential caucusgoers.
But Yepsen said "some of the intimacy" between candidates and Iowans has been lost over the years. Plus, the ability to conduct retail politicking has largely gone by the wayside as candidates largely look to hold rallies in made-for-TV events rather than court a dozen voters in a living room or at a farm in rural Iowa.
"This thing is starting to look like a torchlight parade," he said. "It's just sort of old, and we don't do that anymore."
But if not Iowa, then what state should be the kickoff state? That factor, veteran caucus observers contend, has been what's kept the state at the forefront.
While Iowa's demographics do not represent the country, each of the four initial states in the Democratic contest this time - with Nevada and South Carolina following New Hampshire - potentially represent a distinctive Democratic voting group.
"If there was an easy answer to, 'If not Iowa, then where?' we would have had that answer a long time ago," Goldford said.
No one is really in favor of a single-day national primary, he said. Talk of regional primaries would raise disputes about which states in which regions should be selected and how the delegates would be divvied up, Goldford predicted.
"This is the problem," he said. "There are 48 states that dislike the position that Iowa and New Hampshire hold in the presidential nomination process. But until an overwhelming majority of those 48 states can agree on what should change, the status quo remains by default."
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has suggested that Illinois is more demographically representative of the nation, citing a 2016 National Public Radio study, and deserves a shot as the first state.
But whether Pritzker was trying to throw some shade on neighboring Iowa or truly asking for Illinois to be considered, it's highly doubtful that such a move would get national Democratic backing for a variety of reasons_ particularly the state's culture and history of corruption.
"Pritzker's right that NPR did a story four years ago. Illinois is typical, demographics and all that. But the Justice Department tells us it's one of the most corrupt," said Yepsen, who also previously served as director of the Paul Simon Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "The country is not going to cede that kind of influence over the choice of a president or a candidate for president if it's done in that kind of swamp. It just isn't going to be credible."
When Yepsen first heard Pritzker's suggestion that Illinois should get the leadoff spot, he took to Twitter and invoked the famous quote from disgraced and imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich caught on a federal wiretap as he schemed how to leverage the Illinois U.S. Senate seat vacated by Obama.
Of moving Illinois to the head of the line, Yepsen said: "That would be f - -ing golden."
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