Great Britain

Instead of letting one candidate lose at the Iowa caucus, the entire Democratic Party decided to lose instead

It was like watching six very different, very similar parallel universes. After a shambolic process by the Democratic Party — yes, even more shambolic than how a caucus is supposed to go — candidates started coming out onstage and reading identical victory speeches in the absence of any actual results. One of the caucus precinct captains who was supposed to report results from his area to the party was left on hold for an hour then, while talking live to CNN, was overtaken by excitement when the operator finally picked up; seconds later, he was accidentally hung up on. Donald Trump’s spokespeople, currently tasked with defending the president against allegations that he tried to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, started drumming up rumors that Democrats had rigged their own process. You couldn’t make it up, and if you did, everyone would hate you.

So Amy Klobuchar came up onstage first, taking advantage of the fact that the TV cameras of the nation had nothing to point at. It was 10.15pm in Iowa and she delivered an energetic, passionate speech about beating a president who “should have a sign on his desk saying ‘The buck stops anywhere but here’” and her own personal achievements winning elections in “the reddest of the red” and “the bluest of the blue” places. You had to admire her chutzpah. Why not take the reigns, after all, why everyone else ran around like headless chickens? She had been supposed to sink after Iowa but all of a sudden, Klobuchar came out looking like the only Democrat who was getting something done.

Download the new Independent Premium app

Sharing the full story, not just the headlines

Then came Biden, led by his wife Jill. “We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. “On to New Hampshire!”, “Everything that makes America, America is at stake!”, “God bless our troops!” It was classic, middle-of-the-road Uncle Joe.

Not to be outdone, Elizabeth Warren got onstage while Biden was finishing off, declaring that “Americans do big things, that’s who we are” and promising to bring “big solutions for big problems”. Her speech, which at times felt Biden-esque, felt like it had been written with a lot of second-choicers in mind.

Trailing behind were Bernie and Buttigieg, the favorites to win tonight. Both had presumably been waiting to do a proper victory speech before their best-laid plans were unceremoniously torn apart by the combine harvester of impossible math. Bernie stood alongside three generations of his family and said, in place of real numbers, “I have a good feeling we’re gonna be doing very, very well here in Iowa.” Like everyone else, he paid lip service to this “not being just any election”. “Iowa sent a clear message today,” he said, before tailing off, because everyone knew the message it had actually sent was “we have no idea how to run a caucus”.

Finally, as midnight crept forward, Buttigieg got up onstage to the loudest crowd of the night (“BOOT-EDGE-EDGE, BOOT-EDGE-EDGE, BOOT-EDGE-EDGE!” was how it began, and there was even a moment where the crowd cheered “CHASTEN, CHASTEN, CHASTEN!” after Mayor Pete thanked “the love of my life”, his husband, for “keeping my feet on the ground”.) Buttigieg wasn’t even pretending not to make a victory speech. “Tonight an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” he said, smoothly skimming over the fact that a complete lack of numbers can make things relatively deniable. Catching himself, he added, “We don’t have all the results yet, but… Iowa, you have shocked the nation.” It was deliciously audacious. There were no results at all. But this is America, where big solutions mean God bless our troops and let’s kick Trump out the White House on the way to New Hampshire!

What should have been an evening that would resemble a particularly disorganized college society vote gradually began to resemble the hour of night at a college party where you realize you’re not actually having fun but you’re also incredibly drunk and can’t remember how to get home. Bernie Bros on Twitter were claiming a fix, “like in 2016”. Whoever controls the alt-right bots on social media were gearing up for a busy Tuesday. News anchors started fighting among themselves about why the results weren’t in, why no one could go home to bed, and whether or not an app had crashed. “They can’t even run a caucus and they want to run the government,” tweeted Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale. 

All the intrigue along the way paled in comparison to the chaos. And there had been intrigue. At the beginning of the night, for instance, there was a moment at Grinnell College where the voters for Buttigieg, Klobuchar and a handful of other moderate voters, all of whose candidates had failed to reach the necessary 15 per cent for viability, decided that they wouldn’t sit out or choose between the big blocs of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders voters. Instead, they clubbed together into an “Uncommitted” group and began a shouting match to attempt to convince Buttigieg supporters to come and join them. Eventually, the Uncommitteds passed the viability threshold with 15.4 per cent, allowing the moderates of Grinnell a voice of sorts in a place dominated by supporters of the progressive wing of the party. What that says about the divisions within the Democrats at this time is interesting.

What’s not interesting, though, it seems, is what the overall results will tell us. Everyone has claimed victory, candidates have flown out of the state on private jets, people have gone home to bed. The caucus which was supposed to be so important for the 2020 election turned into a weird Kafka play on caffeine. Everyone was cheering and nothing was progressing and people were saying the wrong lines but they didn’t have the tools to do anything else. It was, in many ways, fascinating to watch.

The Iowa caucus was a lot of things. It was the scene of a lot of rhetoric. It was a positive contributor to the miniature flag industry. It was a sociological experiment. What it wasn’t was a worthy start to a sensible, consequential election. But after the last four years, who was expecting that?