Who won the Iowa caucuses? A simple question with no definitive answer, as of this writing. In a plot twist straight from an underperforming MFA student’s knockoff Thomas Pynchon Novel, an app developed by a company called Shadow, owned by a nebulous Silicon Valley organization that styles itself ACRONYM, swallowed some data on its way to the Iowa Democratic Party, producing two days (and counting) of confusion and anger and conspiracy theories on social media.
Based on incomplete counts, Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders appear to have “won,” by an arcane metric called “state delegate equivalents” and raw vote totals respectively. Right now they’re slated to get eleven delegates each, and Elizabeth Warren five. The complete and final numbers will come out, eventually, but the damage is already done. The Iowa caucuses are supposed to winnow down the field: in the past, candidates have often dropped out of the race that night. If anything, the field is more confused now than it was last week.
The conversation has been sufficiently muddled that commentators and partisans have declared “winners” as various as Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and even Joe Biden, in that they exceeded expectations or, in Biden’s case, had a truly dismal showing obscured by Shadow’s smoke bomb. One common line on caucus night was that it was Mike Bloomberg who had won, despite not competing there, because he benefited from chaos in the rest of the field. Hell, I don’t know, maybe they’re right.
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The New York Times brought back its prediction needles for caucus night. The Times ranked Sanders’s and Biden’s chances of winning the caucus as “Perhaps,” Buttigieg’s as “Could happen,” and Warren’s as “Some chance.” The needles stayed still all night as nothing happened. Really, the 2020 election season couldn’t have started any other way than this.
This year is going to feature a lot of confident pronouncements from people on other simple questions that have no answers without putting them to the test. Is Bernie Sanders electable? Is Pete Buttigieg viable outside Iowa? Is Joe Biden the Democratic party’s best shot against Trump? Can a woman win this year? Can the president call wayward Republicans back home? I am ostensibly paid real American dollars to say things about these things. But I don’t know, and you don’t know, and the people who say they know don’t know. Especially them.
Before 2016, there was at least an idea that all this had a basic rule set. You run for president by going to Iowa and talking to these guys, and then you go to New Hampshire and you talk to those guys. You tack X degrees to your party’s base to win the primary and Y degrees to the middle in the general election. You avoid gaffes and you eat the bad cheese when you go to Philadelphia. Remember 2012? A center-left Democrat squared away against a center-right Republican, and the Democrat won because of a few identifiable factors, among them the success of the auto industry bailout and Mitt Romney’s 47 percent tape. It was like a formula. Input, output. Not unlike the Iowa caucus delegate math.
The lesson of 2016, if anything, was to be careful about what you think you know. By the old standards, Sanders and Buttigieg, who may be the leading contenders after Iowa, are both laughable candidates. Buttigieg is the two-term mayor of a town of about 100,000 people, around the size of San Angelo. The most number of votes he’s carried in an election he won was about 12,000, or two large Texas high schools. He looks like the Mad magazine kid.
Sanders is, you may have heard, a septuagenarian democratic socialist whose politics started to form about the time the Brooklyn Dodgers left for L.A. Before 2016, it would have been a hard barrier to overcome that he was from Vermont, let alone that he was Jewish, let alone the other stuff. If these two were running in 2000, you’d give them long odds. But the thing is—and it’s a pretty big thing—Donald Trump is president. As in, the president of the United States. Maybe the fact that Buttigieg has no record at all is an asset. Maybe people find the fact that Joe Biden keeps talking about record players charming.
What about Sanders, the candidate who seems to be in the strongest position at the moment—which is to say, today? Many of the same people who confidently pronounced Trump too far right and too crude to win are pronouncing Sanders too far left to win. But the man isn’t as radical as either his biggest fans or his most fearful enemies suggest. His biggest achievement in Congress is a bill he sponsored with John McCain, and he’s a veteran of the Senate so committed to the chamber’s rules he says he would oppose killing the sixty-vote filibuster.
Take gun control. Bloomberg, who is normally characterized as a “moderate” candidate, is the nation’s number one funder of anti-gun causes. Sanders, as a senator from rural Vermont, never cared very much about guns at all. So who’s the leftist, and who is the centrist? Who is more likely to be penalized by moderates? Meanwhile, there are issues on which Sanders is avowedly on the left of American political discourse. But some of them, like raising taxes on the rich, poll very well with independents. So is that a left position or a moderate one?
Don’t listen to anyone who speaks in broad terms about what’s going to happen this year: like a season of prestige TV, we’re going to have to watch it play out together. The only thing we can do is plant signposts, point out things to consider. So since this is a publication that concerns itself with the godforsaken state of Texas, here’s this:
The Texas Democratic Party has done better in the last few years for a couple different reasons. One of them is that a lot of people in middle- to upper-class suburbs around the state have voted for Democrats, in part, because they think the president is grotesque. But many of them also really hate taxes. Does a Sanders nomination threaten the party’s gains in the burbs?
But young and new working-class voters, mobilized by groups like the Texas Organizing Project, are also central to the Democratic project here. Does Bloomberg, another New York billionaire, demobilize those groups? What about Buttigieg, who inspires a rare kind of loathing among many young voters? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we can say one thing for certain: It’s going to be a long year.