Charlotte Street Partners


Starting gun misfires in Iowa

Written by Mike Moffo, Founder of Moffo Co., a creative strategy consultancy
7 February 2020

“Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality… feelings are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival.”

– Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century 

At 1900 (local time) on Monday, Democrats in the US state of Iowa gathered in fire stations, churches, community centres and schools to begin the process of picking their party’s nominee for President of the United States. High drama was widely anticipated, but not entirely in the manner in which it eventually unfolded.

The reason you are reading this View from the Street today rather than on Tuesday is the catastrophic breakdown of the vote counting process, which clouded and delayed the result before, inevitably, prompting three days of recriminations in the media.

Thankfully, Iowa’s idiosyncratic electoral tradition actually ensures transparent and accurate recording of results quite effectively (eventually). On Monday night, votes were cast in full view of the neighbourhood – and their cell phone cameras. Results were recorded on paper in real time and campaign representatives were on hand to observe the whole rigmarole with their own eyes. 

Having said that, the dysfunctional process and ensuing delay has robbed Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren of many advantages that are traditionally bestowed upon the “winners” in Iowa, the first major contest of the presidential primary season.

Conversely, Monday night’s debacle temporarily shielded Joe Biden from the full consequences of his weak fourth place finish, a result that will inflict major damage on the longtime frontrunner for the nomination. But before I assume you are following this nomination process as closely as this American Democrat in the UK, maybe I should recap how we got here, before I venture an opinion on what it means.

The Iowa bounce

Iowa was the first contest in a string of nationwide state-by-state votes, known as primaries and caucuses, that will culminate in the crowning of a Democratic nominee at the party convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in July. Although they are not representative of the overall US demographic, caucuses are nevertheless still considered a strong indicator of how well, or otherwise, a presidential candidate will fare in future contests. Eleven declared candidates remain in a field that was more than double that size a few months ago. Significant others may yet join the race, more of which later.

Bernie Sanders, the 78-year-old Democratic-Socialist from Vermont and Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, are the candidates with most cause for celebration this week, having shared nearly 53% of the vote almost equally. 

Sanders, who was born in Brooklyn, is a former mayor who is currently serving his third term representing the state of Vermont in the US Senate following his re-election in 2018 with 67% of the vote. “Mayor Pete” is a military veteran and former Harvard and Oxford University Rhodes scholar. If successful, he would become the first openly gay US president.

Elizabeth Warren’s third place finish has her justifiably claiming membership of the top tier, whereas Joe Biden’s disappointing fourth place represents a serious blow to the frontrunner status he has enjoyed for months.

Even after a hard-fought year of campaigning, the Iowa results are little more than smoke from the starter’s pistol, so does any of this really matter?

Well, that debate will rage on among the political punditocracy at least until Tuesday, when the polls open for the New Hampshire Primary. But let me lay out some reasons why Iowa is significant, based on my experience working on two presidential campaigns that leveraged Iowa victories to go on and win the Democratic nomination.

An Iowa win increases a candidate’s media coverage. Pundits’ views will remain mixed, but being called a winner in news reports is unequivocally good for the brand in any election campaign.

It is also good for the wallet. Winning in Iowa causes fundraising to spike, which allows a campaign team to plan with more confidence and look further ahead, deploying staff and resources to more states and to better effect. Bernie Sanders announced yesterday that his campaign raised $25 million in the month of January, significantly outpacing his rivals. Poor performances have the opposite effect, as opportunistic donors shift their support to stronger candidates and better bets.

Elected officials and other political figures will reconsider their endorsements of a candidate based on their early results. This may be particularly impactful in 2020, as congressional endorsements have been slower than normal to materialise.

Winning breeds winning. National poll numbers tend to improve as a result of the media coverage and the momentum generated by earning real votes from real voters. Despite wall-to-wall media coverage, most people underestimate how much national polling is a function of name recognition. We only really begin to see the effect of this phenomenon as the primary elections occur.

2020 vision

If that sums up the accepted wisdom around why Iowa matters, what about the specifics of this year’s race and this season’s candidates? The organisational incompetence in Iowa should not overshadow the expressed will of Iowa voters, as much as that might please the sitting president. So what have we learned this week?

My first observation is that turnout was relatively low in Iowa. The comparatively arduous nature of voting in a caucus as opposed to an election, when you have 12 hours to vote at your convenience, is a test of voter enthusiasm. In 2016, the limited choice between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was not able to entice as many Iowa Democrats as Barack Obama’s 2008 movement for Hope and Change in an eight-candidate contest which, incidentally, saw Joe Biden gain just four per cent of the vote and swiftly exit the presidential campaign.

Secondly, Pete Buttigieg deserves a great deal of credit for his Iowa performance. As the only top-tier candidate who bet all of his chips on Iowa and New Hampshire, Mayor Pete did not get the Obama-like triumph that he would have hoped for, but it will strengthen his case with moderate donors that he is a stronger horse than Biden, despite his struggles thus far in national polls. In the midst of caucus night uncertainty, Team Pete betrayed their desperation for success by unilaterally declaring Buttigieg the victor before any precincts had even reported.

Third, the combined vote of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (currently 43.2%) reveals a strong constituency for profound structural change to America’s political and economic systems. Defeating Trump is the top Democratic priority, but half of Iowa voters rejected the idea that “electability” is defined by cautious moderation. This is more evidence that voters throughout the West are rejecting the conventional wisdom and political certitudes of recent decades. Understanding this rejection, and the powerful emotions that drive it, is essential for addressing any of the historic political challenges that we face.

Fourth, Monday was a bad night for Joe Biden. For months, the rationale for his candidacy has been gradually whittled down to one thing: his persistent lead in national polls. The strategic value of Iowa – and other early primary states – is its ability to erode front-running poll numbers that were propped up by universal name recognition. This truism was not lost on Team Biden, which acknowledged and acted upon that concern immediately by swiftly attacking the validity of the Iowa results.

Finally, we should acknowledge the billionaire lurking in the shadows. Mike Bloomberg, New York City’s oligarchic former mayor, is probably feeling pretty bullish about his decision not to compete in the early state contests. Not that he’s been idly twiddling his thumbs in the meantime, having spent millions of advertising dollars while waiting in the wings for Biden to stumble.

Assuming the election results in New Hampshire (Feb 11), Nevada (Feb 22), and South Carolina (Feb 29) are reported to the public in a timely fashion, we will soon discover if Bernie & Co have built up an insurmountable head of steam before Bloomberg even appears on a ballot on Super Tuesday. The confusion around Iowa results may be enough for Amy Klobuchar to justify continuing, but her unique Iowa advantages will not extend to New Hampshire and other states, so her days are surely numbered.

Spare a thought for democracy

As someone who spent a decade as a full-time political organiser, I feel awful for the many dedicated and passionate Iowa campaigners, volunteers, and voters who have devoted large chunks of their lives to the democratic process, often with little or no reward. The confusion and doubt that overshadowed the Iowa Caucus results is a devastating outcome for those who put in so much time, work and effort and without whom campaigns would never function, let alone succeed.

There is an old adage used in US political circles: “There are three tickets out of Iowa.” The implication is that fourth place or worse here signals the end of the road for a candidate. Despite the caucus chaos, this convention may validate itself once again. Senator Sanders, Mayor Pete, and Senator Warren have punched their tickets and have been campaigning in New Hampshire all week, with Vice President Biden struggling to get back on board. Mayor Bloomberg has already spent over $200 million of his own fortune on a ticket, but prefers to wait in the station for now.

If I am required to identify one big winner in order to make this a credible piece of electoral analysis, it is Bernie Sanders.

If Biden withers, Buttigieg will hope his very well-spun partial Iowa “win” is enough to stretch his wine cave dollars as far as possible, as he contends with Bloomberg’s bottomless coffers. I suspect this will require a clear New Hampshire victory.

However, I continue to believe that the electoral energy is on the Left. If both Sanders and Warren are able to string together a series of strong showings in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina while Biden’s candidacy flags, the Democratic electorate will have firmly established their appetite for major reform. Despite establishment intentions, progressive victories will strengthen the argument that a progressive platform is the best chance to overturn Trump’s advantage in the American Rust Belt.

If – and these are big ifs – Mayor Pete gets his New Hampshire victory andSanders and Warren can increase their grassroots fundraising, we may see a four-way race that persists deep into the primary calendar in June. In which case, an increasingly fatigued and nervous electorate will start to crave unity and focus.

Bernie Sanders is now the frontrunner to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, despite the fact that he is not a member of the party. If the campaign continues to be a crowded affair as we approach the summer, something will have to give. Buttigieg and Warren appear best positioned to present themselves as unifiers, albeit from different positions, with the former running on an Obama-esque restoration of the neo-liberal consensus and the latter calling for big structural change.

The race to the White House has more than enough inherent drama without the novel plot twists provided by faulty apps and coding mishaps. And, sure enough, as the dust is finally settling on the Iowa Caucus, this contest is as wide open as it was last week.

Mike Moffo is a veteran of 22 political campaigns in 18 US states. In 2004, he led John Kerry’s Iowa Caucus campaign in Northwest Iowa. In 2008, he was Barack Obama’s Nevada Caucus Director, before serving as Deputy National Field Director for the 2008 General Election. He was also a consultant to Elizabeth Warren from December 2018 through January 2019. Based in Edinburgh since 2013, Moffo provides creative and communications strategy to leaders, companies, and causes. 

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