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Political Wire logo The Iowa Debacle
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Finally the Voters Get Their Say

Many people have been waiting for this day since Election Day 2016, and now it is finally here. After half a dozen debates, many polls, and much punditry, actual voters will finally start to speak, beginning this evening all over Iowa. And speak they will. Literally.

Primaries are simple. You go in, vote by secret ballot, and leave. At 8 or 9 p.m., poll workers count the votes. Caucuses aren't like that. Here's how they work, more or less, with some variations at very large and very small sites.

  • Setup: Each campaign may choose a precinct captain for each of the 1,678 caucus sites, which can be elementary schools, high school gyms, firehouses, libraries, union halls, hotel ballrooms, or even people's houses in rural areas. In 2016, about 172,000 Democrats caucused in Iowa, which gives an average of roughly 100 people per precinct. But the distribution is highly skewed. In Des Moines there could be 500 at a precinct, but in rural counties, only 10 people might show up, especially if it is snowing. Any Democrat registered to vote in Iowa may attend any caucus. Seventeen-year-olds who will be 18 by election day may also attend.

    House where caucus will take place with yard signs in front

  • Initial business: When the doors open, greeters direct the caucusgoers to sit down in a plenary session so the rules can be explained to everyone. At a predetermined cutoff time (typically 7 p.m.) the doors are closed and the chair, who may be a local party official or who may be elected on the spot, welcomes everyone. Sometimes the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. Then the chair explains the rules to everyone and may entertain questions about the procedure. Often each precinct captain will give a short pitch as to why you should support his or her candidate.

  • The first round: When the speakers are done, each precinct captain, equipped with a sign with the name and photo of his or her candidate, heads to a different corner of the room (if it is big, like a gym) or in different rooms, (if it is small, like a rural elementary school) and looks hopeful. The chair then directs the caucusgoers to head for their candidate's precinct captain. Each caucusgoer now faces the moment of truth. It's no more: "I like Bernie, but maybe Joe is a safer bet." Each person has to pick one candidate and join that presidential preference group, though they can also choose "undecided."

  • The first count: Once everyone has found a home, each captain counts how many people he or she has corralled. A party official might come by to check the count. The counts are all reported to the chair and any party officials present.

  • Viability and realignment: The chair now computes what percentage of the caucusgoers each candidate has. Any candidate who is above 15% is declared viable and will almost certainly get some delegates. Candidates under 15% are not viable. The supporters of the nonviable candidates now have to find a new home. This is where the horse trading (in some circles, known as a quid pro quo), comes in, as in "If you join my group, I'll help you paint your barn next week." There is also a procedure for resurrecting the dead. Suppose that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) gets 10% and Andrew Yang gets 8%, so neither is viable. But if the Klobucharians (Klobucharites?) can convince all members of the Yang Gang to join them, Klobuchar will now have 18% and will be viable and will get delegates. This process is called "realignment." Usually the chair gives people 15 minutes to do it.

  • The final results: Once everyone has found a new home, the final count is made for each candidate and everyone's percentage is calculated. Then the number of delegates is computed using a formula that deals with rounding, since their are no fractional delegates (the Democrats could have made rules allowing children under 12 to be fractional delegates, but they didn't).

  • Electing the delegates: Delegates are real people, not numbers on an Excel spreadsheet. Once it has been determined that Joe Biden gets, say, x delegates and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) gets y delegates, there is an election in which people can run to be one of Biden's x delegates or Sanders' y delegates. Typically each candidate for delegate gets a couple of minutes to speak, then there is a vote by show of hands. Well-organized campaigns may prepare an ordered slate of delegates in advance if they like, but the caucus decides.

  • Rinse and repeat: Do the delegates get to go to the Democratic National Convention? Not so fast. In March, they get to go to their county caucus, of which Iowa has 99. Then the whole process is repeated, except that this time the elected delegates get to go to the April caucus for their congressional district, of which Iowa has four. There the delegates to the state convention are elected. It is the state convention (in June) that picks the delegates to the DNC (Note: "DNC" can refer either to the Democratic National Committee or the Democratic National Convention. Hopefully it will be clear which one we mean going forward).

So that is how it works. Traditionally, only the delegate totals were announced, but this year the raw vote totals for the first and second rounds will also be announced. It is possible for the person who got the most raw votes in round one not to get the most delegates because the supporters of the nonviable candidates didn't like that person. Consequently, two candidates might claim victory on Tuesday morning.

So, who is going to win? Excellent question. No one really knows (see below for more). Since the process takes 2-3 hours, people who are only marginally interested in politics may not show up, especially if the weather is poor and they don't fancy driving home in the snow at 10 p.m. Candidates whose supporters are zealots and will show up, come hell or high water, have an edge in the caucus system. Candidates whose supporters skew young also have an edge, since the whole process may be too much for frail, elderly voters. If you like numbers, consider these: In 2016, Hillary Clinton got 654,000 votes in Iowa but only 172,000 Democrats caucused. This means that only a quarter of Iowa's Democrats showed up to caucus. Consequently, it matters a lot which Democrats show up tonight.

The fact that the first votes take place in a caucus will certainly help Sanders. In 2016, Sanders won 12 of the 18 caucuses but only 11 out of 39 primaries (D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, Democrats Abroad, and three others also get delegates to the DNC, which is why the total number of contests adds up to 57). Caucuses have been widely criticized because they tend to exclude people who work night shifts or who otherwise are not available between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. on one specific night, people with disabilities who normally vote by absentee ballot, people who don't like voting in public, and others. Iowa made one concession to these people this year by setting up an additional 87 "Satellite caucuses," including 24 outside Iowa. One caucus is in—and this is not a typo—the Caucasus, in Georgia (the country, not the Peach State). They use the same rules as the regular caucuses. There will also be caucuses in Paris and Glasgow.

That notwithstanding, in 2020, only three low-population states (Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming) and four territories (American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) will hold caucuses. All of the others will hold primaries. North Dakota will hold a "firehouse caucus," but that is actually a primary run by the Democratic Party rather than by the state. Here is the calendar.

What do the Iowa polls say? Here is the average of the recent Iowa polls for the candidates above 2%:

Candidate Pct. (Iowa)
Bernie Sanders 24%
Joe Biden 20%
Pete Buttigieg 16%
Elizabeth Warren 15%
Amy Klobuchar 10%
Andrew Yang 4%
Tom Steyer 3%

It appears that Sanders is surging in Iowa, but the Iowa caucuses often produce surprises.

Nationally, Biden is still on top. CNN has released a "poll of polls" in which it averaged the six most recent nonpartisan live caller national polls. Here are the results:

Candidate Pct. (National)
Joe Biden 27%
Bernie Sanders 24%
Elizabeth Warren 14%
Michael Bloomberg 8%
Pete Buttigieg 7%
Amy Klobuchar 5%
Andrew Yang 4%
Tom Steyer 2%

Iowa sometimes picks winners, but not always. In the past seven contested Democratic primaries, the Iowa winner got the nomination five times, but only one of the winners (Barack Obama in 2008) won the presidency. What Iowa is better at is picking losers. Anyone not coming in the top three or four in Iowa is generally dead meat. Expect a number of candidates to drop out on Tuesday or Wednesday. (V)

Should Iowa and New Hampshire Go First?

Every four years the question comes up of whether Iowa and New Hampshire, two small and very white states, should play such an outsized role in selecting who is allowed to be a serious presidential candidate and who is not. One of the reasons Iowa has gone first for decades is its complex system of precinct, county, district, and state caucuses. Back in the old days, it took a month to mimeograph all the paperwork, so the events had to be scheduled a month apart and the first one had to begin in January or February to provide enough time. Writing in the New York Times, liberal columnist Michael Tomasky argues that the mimeograph machine has been retired, so maybe Iowa's role in the primary system should go along with it. New Hampshire has the first primary because New Hampshire state law says it has to. But what if three other states passed laws saying their primaries had to be first? Tomasky's solution is for the DNC to adopt rules saying that any candidate who applies to get on the ballot in either state will be barred from all debates. He also suggests that diverse states, such as Florida and Michigan, go first. He fails to note, however, that these are expensive states to campaign in, giving a huge advantage to billionaires or candidates with enough name recognition to raise huge sums quickly.

On the other hand, another piece in the Times argues that in a key way, Iowa is very typical: It is full of old people and is getting older every year. Iowa, like 26 other states, has a growing population of over 60s and a shrinking population of under 60s. Furthermore, the young people who are left live largely in cities and the old people live in rural areas. This is typical of many other states as well. So in that respect, maybe Iowa isn't so bad. (V)

Can the Caucuses Be Hacked?

Today's Iowa caucuses will not only be the first real test for the candidates, but possibly also for the Russian hackers. You might be thinking: "How can Russian hackers in St. Petersburg interfere with caucuses where people express their preferences by standing in one part of a gym vs. another part? Even if one of those caucuses is in the nearby Caucasus?" Virtual reality technology is getting better all the time, but virtual caucusgoers? Not this year, at least. And the results are tallied with pen and paper.

People filling in paper forms

But don't underestimate the Russkies. They are clever, and hacking is indeed possible. First, only registered Democrats can participate. That means each precinct needs a computer, iPad, smartphone, or some other electronic device to access the Iowa database of registered voters so as to check on party affiliation and prevent the r-word from happening. If hackers can get into the database, they can potentially compromise it, although that is less promising than hacking it before the general election. In the latter case, it is easy to find precincts that are heavily Democratic, and to help Donald Trump by causing voters to disappear from the rolls. For the caucuses, there is no way to tell which Democrat is going to vote for which candidate, so they can't artificially hurt Joe Biden or boost Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI).

Although the results of the 1,678 regular precincts and 87 satellite precincts are tallied by hand, the sheet with the results is not brought back to Des Moines by some fellow on a motorcycle. It is sent electronically using a smartphone app. And that is where the hacking could happen. The Russians could conceivably hack the smartphones and then the apps, or even intercept the precinct level results, modify them, and have these fake results be reported back to party headquarters. And so, either by hacking the reporting apps or intercepting the transmissions, the Russians could change the results. Also possible is for a Russian "tourist" (actually a GRU employee) to hang around a precinct location and at the end, send in fake results and then block the cell tower to prevent the real ones from being sent in.

One hopes the Iowa Democratic Party is on the ball here, but they aren't talking about what they did, so we don't know. Every security expert knows that keeping mum about your security is the worst way to do it. There is a rule that every security expert knows well, called Kerckhoffs' Principle, published by Dutch military cryptographer Auguste Kerckhoffs in 1883. It says that all the algorithms and mechanisms for doing encryption should be public. Only the keys should be secret, because the enemy is going to discover how your system works anyway, so you are fooling only yourself by keeping the algorithms (i.e., the software) secret. The best way to test your security system is to publish all the code as open source and offer a reward to the first person who breaks it. This gives you tons of "free" consulting, often from experts who want the glory more than the reward.

Another problem is hackers getting into the website where the results are posted and changing the results. Just imagine what would happen if Biden wins, but the Russians change the website to show Bernie Sanders winning. Sooner or later, the Party would fix the results, but if the media have already reported Sanders as the winner and then the corrected official results showed Biden as the winner, the Sanders people would go bananas claiming the establishment simply rewrote results they didn't like to help their guy. There would be no way to repair the damage, and many of the Sanders voters would sit out the general election while Russian President Vladimir Putin calmly ate his borscht and watched the results on CNN.

Iowa Democrats were originally planning to allow home-bound people to call into the caucuses, but that plan was eventually scrapped because of security and hacking concerns. That was a wise move, but whether they have the rest of their ducks in a row is not known. (V)

Ann Selzer's Poll Will Not Be Released

J. Ann Selzer's polls of the Iowa caucuses are the gold standard, largely because she is better at figuring out who will actually attend the caucuses than anyone else. Her final poll was supposed to be released on Saturday evening, on a 1-hour CNN special devoted to it. Then, at the last minute, the release and the show were abruptly canceled. That happened because one Iowa voter who was polled reported that when the call center worker read the list of candidates, Mayor Pete Buttigieg's (D-South Bend) name was omitted. The New York Times is reporting that the call center worker apparently had vision issues and used an enlarged font on the computer screen listing the names (in randomized order for each call), and Pete Buttigieg's name wasn't visible for at least one call so it wasn't read to the respondent. Selzer couldn't be sure if this was the only call in which some name was omitted, so she, the Des Moines Register (which sponsors the poll), and CNN agreed the right thing to do was not publish the poll, rather than publish one that might have had one or more errors in the data.

Doing what you know is right even though it is harmful to yourself, is a novel concept in American politics. It is virtually unknown in government, even in as august a body as the United States Senate. Selzer called the cancellation "Heart-wrenching," and added "The decision was made with the highest integrity in mind."

The result of not having the poll is that we are flying blind. Iowans tend to make up their minds at the last minute, and this year, with so many candidates bunched at the top, any one of them could win. In a sense, this development could be a plus for some of the candidates. A certain fraction of voters likes to vote for the winner so he or she can brag: "I helped that person win." Since we don't have a good idea who the winner will be, people may be inclined to vote for the candidate they like best, without regard to that candidate's chances. That could help the underdogs a bit.

Nevertheless, a poll was released yesterday, just not Ann Selzer's. It was from CBS, and it had Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders tied at 25% each, with Buttigieg at 21%, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) at 16%, and Amy Klobuchar at 5%. We will soon know if CBS got it right, but as we have pointed out repeatedly, the Iowa caucuses are hard to poll, even if your staff can read their computer screens properly. (V)

Poll: All the Leading Democrats Could Beat Trump

A new NBS/WSJ poll shows that any of the leading Democrats could beat Donald Trump in the general election, as follows:

Candidate Democrat Trump Dem lead
Joe Biden 50% 44% 6%
Bernie Sanders 49% 45% 4%
Elizabeth Warren 48% 45% 3%
Pete Buttigieg 46% 45% 1%

Joe Biden does the best of the bunch, but Sanders and Warren would also defeat Trump if the election were held today. Of course, it is going to be held in 9 months, and a lot can happen between now and then. Also, as we know, the White House is decided by the Electoral College, not the popular vote.

The poll also showed that 52% of registered voters believe that Trump abused the power of his office by asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. In contrast, 41% do not think Trump abused his office. Also, by a margin of 53% to 37%, voters think Trump obstructed Congress. Again, 9 months is a long time, but Trump is clearly going to have to dig himself out of a hole to be reelected. (V)

Biden Wins Endorsement from Union That Backed Sanders in 2016

In 2016, the Amalgamated Transit Union backed Bernie Sanders in the primaries. This time, the union has endorsed Joe Biden. ATU president John Costa said: "Joe Biden has been a true champion of working Americans throughout his career." This endorsement is mostly noteworthy due to the union dropping someone it had previously supported. However, the union pointedly said that it will not say anything bad about the Vermont Senator because Trump is the enemy of working people, not Sanders.

Unions are split this time, with some backing Biden and some backing Sanders, among others. The iron workers and fire fighters are behind Biden this time, but unions representing teachers, nurses, machine workers, and some healthcare workers are in Sanders' corner. (V)

DNC Changes the Admission Requirements for February Debate

The DNC has announced new rules for qualifying to be on stage during the debate in Las Vegas on Feb. 19, just before the Nevada caucuses. To make the cut, a candidate must have either won at least one delegate in Iowa or New Hampshire, or be at 10% in four national polls, or at 12% in two Nevada or South Carolina polls. The requirement for getting hundreds of thousands of donations is gone, thus making it possible for Mike Bloomberg to be on stage for the first time. Bloomberg is not accepting donations.

As expected, one of Bernie Sanders' advisers, Jeff Weaver, immediately complained about the party changing the rules to allow Bloomberg on stage. So did Andrew Yang's spokesman. DNC Chairman Tom Perez explained that at the start of the campaign, people had to prove that they had grass roots support, something that funding requirements showed. Now that it has gotten under way, that is no longer needed. Many Democrats are upset that a field that started as very diverse ended up much less diverse and feel that the Democrats definitely do not need more billionaires, even though Bloomberg has said that he wants to increase taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

On the other hand, Bloomberg is the only Democrat who is willing to really tear into Trump in ways that get to him, and having him on stage could allow the other candidates to talk about policy and let Bloomberg gore Trump. Yesterday, Bloomberg spokeswoman Julie Wood said: "The president is lying. He is a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity, and his spray-on tan." Bloomberg's view may be that the only way to counter a third-grade schoolyard bully is to hit back like one. Trump fights back, of course, calling the 5' 8" former mayor "Mini Mike." One can only speculate about how much Bloomberg would have to pay Stormy Daniels to get her to make a statement about Trump that would hit below the belt, so to speak. (V)

Vote on Trump's Conviction is Expected Wednesday

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has postponed the final vote on Donald Trump's innocence or guilt until Wednesday. The trial will resume today at 11. This will have the effect of keeping those senators who are running for president from getting back to Iowa to campaign just before the caucuses start. Although that means that Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg have the state to themselves today, something McConnell really doesn't want.

Today the upper chamber will hear closing arguments from both sides. Each will get 2 hours to make their case. Then the senators can give short speeches explaining how they are going to vote and why. Then, on Wednesday, the Senate will vote on whether to acquit or convict Trump. The smart money is betting that every Republican will vote to acquit. As to the Democrats, it is possible that Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) might vote to acquit in order to save his own hide. All the other Democrats are almost certainly votes for conviction. (V)

Ernst Says President Biden Would Be Impeached Immediately

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) told Bloomberg News that if Joe Biden is elected president, he can expect to be impeached for working on corruption in Ukraine as vice president, yet not going after Burisma, where his son was on the board. The statement is an out-and-out lie, but Ernst couldn't care less about the truth. She cares only about making sure her base is with her in what is likely to be a difficult election this year for her. Biden's communications director, Kate Bedingfield, responded by saying that what Donald Trump and Joni Ernst most fear is Iowans showing up Monday evening and saying: "I'm here to caucus for Joe Biden."

One little detail that Ernst missed is that for Biden to be impeached, we would have to have a situation in which Biden won the White House but the Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives. That is extremely unlikely. If a blue wave is strong enough to carry Biden into the White House, it will certainly be strong enough for Democrats to keep the House, and possibly strong enough to send Ernst back to the farm to castrate some more pigs. (V)

Schiff Won't Say Whether He Will Subpoena Bolton

In an interview on CBS, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) refused to say whether he would subpoena former NSA John Bolton after the Senate trial is over. But he did say that, one way or another, he expects the truth to come out, in one form or another. That could be testimony, or it could be Bolton's book, which is scheduled for March publication, although the administration is trying to block it. Schiff did note that if he issued a subpoena, it would end up in the courts. The House subpoenaed Don McGahn 9 months ago and that case is nowhere near resolution, so a subpoena of Bolton could take 2 years to be resolved, with no guarantee of victory. Of course, Bolton could agree to abide by the subpoena, and could decide not to wait for a court to rule, but he is nervous about getting in legal trouble, and he also hopes to have some sort of future in the Republican Party. So, he's not likely to do that.

Schiff also bemoaned the fact that all it would have taken is four Republican votes to provide for a fair trial in the Senate for Donald Trump, with evidence and witnesses, and there were only two. As a result, he expects Trump to cheat in the election with impunity because he now knows nothing bad will happen to him if he does. (V)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb02 Drip, Drip, Drip...
Feb02 Sunday Mailbag
Feb01 Party First (and Second, and Third...)
Feb01 Delaney Is Out
Feb01 The UK Is Out, Too
Feb01 Saturday Q&A
Jan31 The End Appears to Be Nigh
Jan31 Sanders Campaign Prepping List of Executive Orders
Jan31 Today in Metaphors
Jan31 Time to Get Creative
Jan31 ERA, Now?
Jan31 Super Bowl Sunday Will Offer No Respite from Politics
Jan31 Abrams Has Her Senate Candidate
Jan30 Senators Finally Get to Ask Questions
Jan30 John Bolton's World Is Upside Down
Jan30 White House Wants to Block Publication of Bolton's Book
Jan30 Poll: Majority Opposes Use of Executive Privilege to Muzzle Witnesses
Jan30 Poll: Biden and Sanders Are in a Statistical Tie in Iowa
Jan30 Biden Gets 200 Endorsements in South Carolina
Jan30 Trump Appointees Will Flood Iowa on Caucus Day
Jan30 Team Trump Hands Out $25,000 to Black Voters
Jan30 Trump May Not Go Gentle into That Good Night
Jan29 Trump Defense Wraps Up
Jan29 Trump Unveils Middle East Peace Plan
Jan29 Casualty Figures for Iran Strike Revised Upward
Jan29 Deficit Officially Reaches $1 Trillion
Jan29 Democratic Senate PAC Raised $61M in 2019
Jan29 GOP Braces for Collins Run
Jan29 Republicans Nervous about House Fundraising
Jan28 Trump Defense Hit with a Lightning Bolton
Jan28 Democratic Muckety Mucks Are Scared Witless of Sanders
Jan28 Which Democratic Candidate Is Being Hurt Most by Having to Be in Washington?
Jan28 Supreme Court Gives Trump a Victory on Immigration
Jan28 Pompeo Situation Is Turning Ugly
Jan28 Collins Expected to Run for Senate
Jan27 John Bolton Is Complicating Things for Trump....
Jan27 ...And So Is Lev Parnas
Jan27 Nadler Will Miss Part of the Impeachment Trial Due to Wife's Cancer
Jan27 Pompeo Melts Down
Jan27 Sanders Is on a Roll
Jan27 Des Moines Register Endorses Warren
Jan27 Buttigieg Appears on Fox News
Jan26 Trump Team Begins to Lay Out Its Case
Jan26 Sunday Mailbag
Jan25 Democrats Conclude their Case
Jan25 Saturday Q&A
Jan24 And the Beat Goes On
Jan24 Next Week, Trump Will Try to Change the Narrative...
Jan24 ...This Week, on the Other Hand
Jan24 Who Are the Vulnerable GOP Senators?