The Importance of Caucuses and Primaries
The Iowa Presidential debate took place on January 14th — approximately three weeks before the Iowa Caucuses. This was the last chance that the Democratic presidential candidates had to establish their positions before the first concrete indicator of the election season. The Iowa caucuses kick off months of rapid-fire updates and heavy campaigning because the primaries and caucuses of the American states — especially early ones like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — give the American public an opportunity to select a candidate and to see what the rest of the nation’s Democrats think about the future of the presidency.
The race for the 2020 Presidential Election is already a historical event. But to understand why, we need to know the impact of primaries and caucuses. Why are they important? Who benefits from them? And where do the candidates stand after their Iowa debate?
Primaries and caucuses are intended to be a preliminary election to select the future nominee for any chosen party. Republicans run their own primaries and caucuses to determine their nominee (this year, it will be Donald Trump because the incumbent President normally receives the future nomination). Democrats for this election are the main event because each candidate wants the official nomination from the Democratic Party, and there is no Democratic incumbent to beat: essentially, this year, the Democratic nomination is an open seat.
Primaries are the most like the General Election: each state has its own style of conducting primaries. There are multiple types of primaries. One kind is an open primary, where anyone registered to vote can vote regardless of their party affiliation. A closed primary only allows those registered with the party to participate, and a blanket primary allows people to vote for any candidate regardless of their party support — blanket primaries are usually open. The results from primaries are counted and announced by each state in an official announcement.
Caucuses are more complex. In local groups — cities and towns — voters will gather by their party affiliation in large spaces like school gyms. Each voter represents the candidate they endorse and they will stand in a group with like-minded voters. Candidate groups — in Iowa's case — with less than 15% support of the group must re-caucus and distribute to one of the top candidate groups. After each group is divided by a candidate, the officiants will record the groups with the largest amounts of voters and send the data to the next level. The next group is larger — where the proportional representatives of the local caucuses gather and repeat the same grouping system — and the top candidate again moves to the next stage. Eventually, the state level holds a final caucus, and the winner is determined. Caucuses generally take much longer and could be considered less democratic. Candidates do not receive a proportional result at the end of caucuses because only the top candidates get to move on.
Say we put on a mock local Iowa caucus. Klobuchar receives three votes, Steyer also gets three, Buttigieg receives five, and Bernie, Warren, and Biden all get six. The top votes are received by Bernie, Warren, and Biden, so all three are sure to move on. Klobuchar, Steyer, and Buttigieg get nothing, and their progress for this particular caucus is cut off from the start. Their voters must redistribute to Bernie, Warren, or Biden since three votes are less than 15%. Only the top candidates move on. At the end of the caucuses, the top candidates end up as Bernie, Warren, and Biden. Assuming they get the same ratio of votes at the beginning (only for the sake of this example), the top caucuses will consist entirely of representatives for those three. Klobuchar, Steyer, and Buttigieg receive no representation. Caucuses allow the frontrunners to simply reestablish their lead position.
Additionally, with time comes new technologies. Apps have been put to use in recent years to try and speed up the caucuses — but the results are questionable, as proven in the most recent caucuses, which is described below.
Since caucuses simulate the electoral college in some respects, however, it’s a good indicator of who will win the top position out of the front of the race with winner-take-all style voting. But it’s good to remember each state is different, and the national electoral college cannot be simulated by the results of one population in one out of fifty states. Primaries, on the other hand, are good for predicting the popular vote.
Recent concerns have surfaced about the legitimacy of Iowa as a good representative of the US electorate — and indeed, all subsequent early primaries and caucuses. California is among them, which is the most concentrated progressive liberal state in the nation. Iowa is a mostly rural community that relies on farms and automation as an epitome of the rural midwest. Some like to argue neither Iowa nor California are accurate representations of America, and for them to be among the first states to hold primaries and caucuses is a misrepresentation of the population.
After the winners from every state are declared, each party’s committee gathers at their National Convention. The National Convention is an event where the party elites develop a party platform: a declaration of values for the party and their policy goals. This year’s 2020 Democratic Convention is in Milwaukee, Wisconsin from July 13th to 16th.
Chaos and Confusion in the Iowa Caucus
This year’s kickoff caucus ended in disorder.
Usually, the results are reported the night of the caucuses, or soon the following day. No such haste was found on January 4th, where the results were muddled due to a litany of errors. The problems were so severe that official results might never be reported, according to the Associated Press.
There were technological problems with the mobile application that Iowa used that threatened to handicap the entire process. Precinct leaders — tasked with managing and helping along the caucus process — were given apps to download on mobile devices that would allow them to report the results of their area. Many leaders, after downloading the app, could not log in to use it. ID and PIN required fields caused confusion, and many times the two would not work. Confused users tried to call the Iowa caucus hotline, which was staffed with volunteers who’d never touched the app, only supplied with a series of FAQs.
The app was developed by Shadow Inc., a company founded in 2017 and linked to political organizations and political action committees. One of its biggest 2019 Donors was called For Our Future: a Democratic support organization. Shadow has been hired by campaign staff on the teams of Buttigieg, Biden, and Gillibrand (and Biden dropped the company before the caucuses).
Some reports claim that the app was facing disaster from the start, and others claim that the app was updated for security a short time before it was actually needed, leading to the conclusion that the app was untested and hastily made.
The difficulties caused the Iowa Democratic Party to turn to paper trails; the party resorted to recounting paper ballots. The DNC chairman, Tom Perez, even requested the Iowa Democratic Party to recanvass.
The state party reports that 100 percent of results are in, but because of the issues, some data may be unaccounted for, according to AP, who calculated that one precinct’s numbers are still missing. The New York Times put out a report on the errors of the caucuses.
The results that are salvageable, however, still show the nation who the frontrunners are, despite candidate Mayor Buttigieg prematurely declaring victory before the most recent results were released. Buttigieg indeed won the caucus by 13 delegate votes, but Senator Bernie Sanders came very close behind with 12. Senator Warren received 8, Vice President Biden got 6, and Senator Klobuchar received 1. But with the AP reports in mind, there is still room for a real tie because one precinct has been left unaccounted, for unclear reasons; one more vote for Bernie could make the Iowa results a real tie between Buttigieg and Bernie.
Before the last precinct is reported, there is no way to know the actual results. But with what the media has been supplied with, it is a safe conclusion that Buttigieg and Bernie are racing to the top, at least among Iowans. A victorious nominee of the Democratic Party needs 1,990 delegate votes (“pledged delegates”).
With disastrous initial results and an unclear winner, the Iowa situation has provided the nation with less clarity than to be desired. But the future holds promise (though the upcoming Nevada caucuses also plan to use an app to record results). The New Hampshire debates and primaries will hopefully provide the American electorate with more information on the future of the Democratic Party, and thus the 2020 election.