Great Britain

The botched Iowa caucuses have become the ultimate political metaphor

Iowa is like soccer. It is the most important of all the least important things in politics.

It may be the first state in the nation to vote in an election that will ultimately decide whether a sociopathic cretin keeps his finger on the nuclear button.

But it is also a state with just six electoral college votes and a total population of barely 3 million souls, around 90% of whom are the same color as a frozen cornfield.

And somehow it’s now a state that apparently finds it hard to count. From the final Des Moines Register poll (canceled) to the votes of a couple of hundred thousand caucus-goers (curiously late), Iowa’s relationship with numbers is about as clean as one of its many hog farms.

If the gods of political metaphors wanted to send us a message about the 2020 election, they could have been a little less obvious, if only to maintain a little mystique. First the Iowa Democratic party’s new vote-tallying systems suffered from unexplained “inconsistencies”. Then their phones failed.

In the absence of facts, the candidates took to the microphones to declare victory. All of them were winners, at least according to their own speechwriters and egos. It may be true that every Democrat is running to cleanse the stain of Donald Trump. But it’s also true that ignoring the facts to declare victory is the most Trumpian move of them all.

Elizabeth Warren made the unfortunate choice of giving her pseudo-victory speech while Joe Biden was talking about how democracy was literally at stake in this election.

“Indications are that it’s going to be close,” said the former vice-president. “We’re going to walk out of here with our share of delegates, so it’s on to New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina and beyond.” Buzz Lightyear would have been proud.

By the time the cameras cut to her, Warren was talking about the abolition of slavery and the civil war. The nation’s non-Iowan voters were thus spared her account of the first century of American history. “I believe that big dreams are still possible in America,” she declared. “All it takes is some hard work and some better connections.”

Dream big, Iowa. And switch cellphone service when you can.

“When those results are announced I have a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well in Iowa,” said Bernie Sanders. “The message that Iowa has sent to the nation is a message shared by the American people, that we want a government that represents all of us, not just wealthy campaign contributors and the one percent.”

If Iowa wanted to send a message to the nation, they could have mailed it first class.

Whatever the reason for the counting delays, the Iowa results were always going to be less about the numbers and more about something far more notional. As a guide to the near future, Iowa’s importance rests on the magical concept of expectations and the stampede concept of media coverage.

Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win in 1976 in only the second cycle when Iowa was the first state to vote. Nobody expected the former Georgia governor to break through until he won in Iowa, much like nobody expected an African American senator to win in the ghostly white state 32 years later.

But in terms of expectations, Iowa taketh away as much as Iowa giveth. Howard Dean, the last Bernie-like insurgent to challenge the establishment, was trounced into third place in 2004. For the next week, his campaign suffered a protracted funeral in New Hampshire as the cable news channels played his fateful Iowa night scream on an endless loop. Four years ago, the razor-thin margin of Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie left Clinton looking wounded and Sanders sounding sore for months on end.

In one week, New Hampshire will have its say in ways that will be treated as profoundly meaningful, as if Barack Obama had never lost the state in 2008 after his big breakthrough in Iowa.

At some point, one of the candidates will rack up enough of a winner’s aura that the bandwagon voters jump onboard. In the bigger states, where voters aren’t as engaged or as bored as they are in Iowa, the winner’s aura is actually worth something.

In the meantime, we need to be honest about expectations in Iowa. Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders need to win: Biden because he’s the national frontrunner, Sanders because he was leading in the most recent Iowa polls. For the other two candidates in the top tier – Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg – any finish near the top would be enough make a plausible case for their candidacy.

What does a split decision mean? As much as Bernie’s true believers want to argue their case, the Democratic party is more divided by character than creed. And the character trait that matters most is beating the cartoon character in the Oval Office. According to CNN’s entrance poll, about two-thirds of Iowa voters said they preferred a nominee who could beat Donald Trump, rather than a nominee who agreed with them on the issues.

We’re supposed to be heart-warmed by the sight of regular Iowans caucusing with their neighbors to decide on their party’s nominee to be the next commander-in-chief. But the sight of a gym full of peer pressure and vote counters made this democratic exercise look like a Kafka-esque nightmare about Miss Congeniality.

Quite why the Democrats insist on a 15% viability threshold is not entirely clear. The impact of second-choice voting in a tightly bunched contest is clear: bleachers full of cheering and jeering rather than reasoned debate.

In any case, the process was so complicated that the vote-counters sounded confused. Thank goodness the process for firing an impeached president looks so reassuringly reliable.

Thank goodness for Iowa.

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