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Abolish the Iowa Caucus

A great nation deserves better than Monday night's comprehensive omnishambles.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Some things are worth preserving out of tradition. Every year, for example, my British mother makes a traditional Christmas pudding—a mélange of many different dried fruits and spices, treacle, and literal animal fat—which is then sealed in a Tupperware bowl, boiled for eight hours, and left to reside in a cupboard until Christmas Day, at which point it is reheated with further hours of boiling. Against all odds, it is quite delicious, but we all recognize that it’s mostly out of tradition that Mum makes it every year. The family enjoys the ritual of it; it is therefore worth doing, and we can always have some cake afterward anyway. 

Other traditions, however, do not meet that standard, and the Iowa caucus system is undoubtedly one of these. After Monday night’s debacle, it is time to recognize that—quirky and charming though we may find it—there is too much at stake to continue treating the crucial first step of the Democratic nominating contest as an opportunity to play Model UN with our democracy.

The caucus was a disaster on multiple levels. The fact that we are still waiting to find out who won is largely due to the failure of a Democratic Party–endorsed app, which was provided for caucus secretaries to report the results. The app did not perform its intended tasks reliably. One report alleged that the app would lose any previously inputted results if the user didn’t keep the screen open. The New York Times reported last night that the app was “quickly put together in just the past two months”—a bizarre decision given that everyone involved has known this day was coming for four years. 

Every aspect of this misadventure warrants further investigation. The app was created by a group called Shadow Inc., which was launched and funded by Acronym, one of innumerable Democratic-aligned nonprofits in D.C. with high-minded goals listed on a flashy website. The group distanced itself from Shadow on Tuesday morning, despite the fact that its website links to Shadow’s website under the heading “Building Tech Infrastructure” on its Playbook page. Acronym has worked with many groups in the Democratic establishment, from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to Emily’s List; Shadow’s co-founder worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Acronym’s CEO, Tara McGowan, is married to Michael Halle, a strategist for Pete Buttigieg. The Pete Buttigieg campaign paid Shadow $21,250 in July last year, for “software rights and subscriptions.” One wonders how it got the phone number for that transaction. 

While the complexities of these arrangements have proven to be the fuel for untethered imaginations to run wild, this is not so much evidence of some sort of Mayor Pete conspiracy to fix the caucus results and claim victory—though he did do the latter. Rather, it is evidence that incredibly important functions in the Democratic Party are handed out to people with the right connections instead of the right expertise, and that those sorts of decisions can lead to massive screw-ups. Shadow received payments nearing $60,000 from both the state Democratic parties of Iowa and Nevada, the latter of which is reportedly not going to deploy the faulty app, out of fear that history might repeat itself in a few weeks’ time.

As many reporters and other reflexive Institution Defenders have been quick to point out, the Great Apptastrophe of 2020 doesn’t mean that the caucus results are in jeopardy of somehow being thrown out or lost; a paper backup of all caucus tallies exists, even if it will take longer to report those results. We will eventually know who won the Iowa caucuses. It is still worth noting, however, that the actual caucus process does not produce results that can be considered the most accurate reflection of voter preferences, most crucially in that the caucuses pose deep accessibility barriers—for disabled Americans, those with felony convictions, and simply those with kids, who can’t waste an evening hanging around in a high school gym. The process involves a lot of last-minute dealing and tactical caucusing to ensure or deny a particular candidate’s delegates when it’s functioning as it should. On Monday night, there were reports of some confusion over how caucusgoers should be counted, leading to possible miscalculations of caucus totals. The question of whether the “real” results are still available on paper becomes a little less relevant when you realize that the methodology being used to arrive at these results is this absurd and error-prone.

The fact that the party promises we will eventually know who won is not wholly comforting to whomever the winning candidate turns out to be, since the true import of the Iowa caucus isn’t the precise number of delegates gained—far smaller than the numbers to be gained in other states—but the media narrative-setting that carries over into New Hampshire and beyond.  

This raises the more important question of whether we should continue to kick off our presidential nominating contests in this fashion: A ridiculous and antiquated process, in which delegates can be won or lost depending on how loudly a person can shout across a high school gymnasium, which awards few delegates but feeds the already-gluttonous media beast. It is not a good idea to begin this slog with an election in which something as nebulous as a Good Media Narrative is the real prize that is up for grabs—particularly when the media prize-givers are not especially trusted or accountable for their mistakes. 

Sometimes a crisis becomes an opportunity, and the Iowa omnishambles could present a wonderful opportunity to Marie Kondo the party’s nomination system. Think to yourself: Does this caucus spark joy? Why should Iowa go first, instead of California or Texas? Why should the nominee be chosen via delegates pledged at a convention at all? We have four years to take a step back and think again. If nothing changes, we have pledged ourselves to repeating our mistakes—which is to say, we have committed ourselves to madness.