Image Credit: Gage Skidmore
Even by today’s standards, last week's Democratic Iowa caucuses were up against a highly competitive news cycle. Aside from the Democrats’ first caucus vote, America’s news media had to focus famously short attention spans on several other large stories: the build-up and close finish in the Superbowl, the success of Mitch McConnell to resist witness-calling in the Senate, and the eventual result of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial all jostled for space on the agenda. Even so, in spite of the counting disaster, the Iowa caucus result managed to attract very little media attention. By the time Nancy Pelosi was ripping apart Donald Trump’s speech in the State of the Union, America seemed to have forgotten chaotic primary vote.
It’s no wonder, then, that analysts are still questioning whether Iowa has lost some of its bounce in the context of the American primary, but Iowa’s dominance has not always been as controversial as today. Going into this race, ABC’s statisticians at FiveThirtyEight had weighted the Iowa result 20 times heavier than its actual vote share in the primaries. For candidates in the past, success in the Hawkeye state has been almost essential for gathering momentum in the campaign. It was the beginning of an upsurge in support for a Senator Barack Obama in 2008, and victory in Iowa was likely the main reason for Jimmy Carter’s eventual victory in the 1976 Democratic primary.
In fact, the victor of Iowa has gone on to win seven of the previous nine contested primary races. Today, however, perhaps due to the hectic news calendar, Iowa is not receiving the coverage it used too. Furthermore, turnout statistics from the Democrats also indicate that engagement was also extremely low. The leading story over the week that followed would not be the result, but the complete shambles of the vote-counting. The Iowa bubble has likely burst.
This is supported by initial polling data on the campaigns that did poorly: those run by Joseph Biden and Elizabeth Warren. Both have maintained high approval ratings and models are not yet showing the dip in support that might be expected by a poor performance in Iowa in previous years.
Understandably, perhaps, neither campaign is happy about the flunked results. Biden Campaign Manager Greg Schultz warned on Tuesday that campaigns insisting they “won or putting out incomplete numbers is just contributing to the chaos”. It is likely, however, that Warren and Biden will have their loss overshadowed by criticism of the app, or the caucus system.
Although it’s too early to see if the campaigns have sustained a lasting impact, it’s clear that the initial lead in the of released polls, plus his early win announcement, have been extremely kind to Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Polling in clear fifth nationally, his campaign’s upward momentum has likely been bolstered by a strong performance in Iowa. During his premature victory speech on Monday night, Buttigieg crowed about something “stirring in America”. Considering a year ago he was unheard of and now at 38 years old he placed ahead of a two term Vice President and several senators, he may well be correct. His platform of moderation, combined with fresh ideas, he argued, was the perfect solution to Donald Trump.
Going forward, the verdict on Iowa will be delivered by the results that follow it. With most models thrown off course by the strange media landscape of the past week, the dynamic of competition is still not clear. New Hampshire may bring some clarity, but it is Super Tuesday, the day in early March, that will provide clarity. The election will see several states cast their primary vote simultaneously, including Texas and California, both highly populous and therefore, powerful opportunities for the candidates to pick up votes.
For now, candidates planning a run for the next race in 2024 have an important question to answer: was the mess surrounding Iowa anomalous, or does the state’s decreasing importance mean that it deserves less campaign time. If so, the days of Iowans being the guardians of America’s primary process may soon be over.