Any future history of the decline and fall of the American Republic ought to include a page or two on the Iowa caucuses of 3 February 2020. It’s a meltdown story for the ages. The Democratic party, desperate to undo the victory of Donald Trump in 2016, somehow managed utterly to cock up its first meaningful vote in 2020. The calamity is so great that it may turn the whole Democratic primary — and therefore this presidential election year — into a farce. That suits President Trump. ‘Big WIN for us in Iowa tonight,’ he tweeted, on Tuesday night, as news of the Democratic imbroglio spread. ‘Thank you!’ He then retweeted Piers Morgan, who had responded to his tweet with a ROFL (Rolling on the Floor Laughing) emoji. Fun times.
We’ll hear lots of conspiracy theories about what really happened, but the Iowa disaster was probably just a result of good old-fashioned human error combined with newfangled crap software. To understand what went wrong, it helps to go back to 1 February 2016, when Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders in Iowa by a whisker. Several key precincts were so close they had to be decided by the toss of a coin. That prompted much grumbling, so ahead of 2020 the Democratic party introduced reforms to make caucuses more transparent, fair and reliable. Naturally enough, these ended up making the process much more obscure, unfair and unreliable.
In an attempt to drag the archaic caucusing system into the 21st century, the Democrats employed Shadow Inc, a suspiciously well-connected tech company, which created a snazzy and totally unnecessary app to tabulate the caucus results. The app failed. So did the back-up phone system. Nobody knew what was going on; panicked whispers began to spread that Russia had hacked the election — again. Others said that security measures designed to stop Russians interfering had caused the problem. Officials eventually blamed ‘a coding issue’.
As the night progressed, no winner emerged, so each candidate claimed victory: Pete Buttigieg, the squeaky-faced mayor of South Bend, Indiana, went furthest fastest. He gave a well-rehearsed victory speech before a single precinct had been counted. It soon emerged that his campaign had also paid Shadow Inc $42,500 for ‘software services’. This raised concerns, especially when — some 20 hours later — the first results showed Buttigieg in the lead against the odds.
Buttigieg is a married gay man, and his gayness is the only thing that makes him acceptable to identity-obsessed Democrats. His other characteristics — elite education, centrist politics, military veteran — offend radical sensibilities. LGBTQ activists say he isn’t gay enough to be America’s first openly gay president.
But the low-key nature of Buttigieg’s homosexuality also means that so far he has been able to win over traditional voters. On Monday night, a widely shared video showed an elderly woman who had voted for Buttigieg changing her mind. ‘Are you saying he has a same-sex partner?’ she asked. ‘Pete? Are you kidding? Then I don’t want anybody like that in the White House… can I have my card back?’ Millions of Americans will feel the same way, even if it horrifies modern liberals; and Buttigieg’s polling among black voters is abysmal.
Buttigieg may just about claim victory over Bernie Sanders in Iowa — as of Wednesday morning, with 71 per cent of precincts declared, the result was still too close to call. But Mayor Pete’s success will forever be tarnished by the great bungling of these caucuses. Sanders supporters now call him ‘Mayor Cheat’.
Sanders, the old radical, is now indisputably the most powerful force in the race. He has outperformed Elizabeth Warren, supposedly his rival on the left, and won the popular vote in Iowa. He is the strong favourite to win the first Democratic primary next week in New Hampshire.
Bernie, 78, had a heart attack in September, but still seems more energetic than his rivals. He leads the polls nationally and now, at last, threatens to destroy the Democratic establishment in the way that Trump destroyed the Republican elite four years ago.
The big loser of the night was Joe Biden, the national poll leader for most of last year. He finished fourth. The shambles of the Iowa results may give him a temporary reprieve. But Iowa has shown his campaign to be badly organised and lacking enthusiasm. He can’t draw big crowds. He sounds disengaged, too, though that may be dementia.
The Democratic success story of the week is arguably not Sanders but the third very old white man in the race: Mike Bloomberg, who won by not competing in Iowa. He has adopted the unusual strategy of skipping the first four states in the nomination process. But as the ninth richest man in the world, he is willing to spend up to $2 billion to win the presidency. His gargantuan advertising splurge ahead of Super Tuesday — 3 March, when 16 states vote — is starting to pay off. He is now polling at around 8 per cent nationally, which puts him in fourth place.
As the Iowa debacle unfolded, Bloom-berg let it be known that he has told advisers to double his television and digital spend. He also held a big rally in Pennsylvania, which drew a 2,000-strong crowd. ‘Mike will get it done,’ is the campaign slogan, presumably a nod to Boris Johnson’s successful Brexit election mantra.
But Bloomberg is the ultimate anti–populist. The only thing he hates more than Brexit is Donald Trump. He seems to get his understanding of the world from those plutocratic la-la land conferences at which he spends much of his life speaking. Last month, the New York Times asked him which foreign leader he most admired. ‘President Macron,’ he replied. ‘He’s the strongest leader at the moment in Europe. France has the most stable government.’ Whatever you say, Mike.
If he continues to emerge as the most formidable centrist candidate for the Democratic nomination — and Buttigieg, Biden and Warren fade — Bloomberg will find himself in a battle with Bernie Sanders. The Democratic race will then become a clash between two septuagenarians who weren’t Democrats five years ago. It will be the billionaire vs the socialist, a choice that at least offers some clarity.
For now, though, it’s all a big muddle, and President Trump can’t quite believe his luck. He’s arguably enjoying his best week since taking office. As the Democrats embarrassed themselves in Iowa, the media largely ignored the fact that Trump won his own caucus in the same state by an enormous margin. He’s destroyed the last remaining NeverTrumpers in his party.
Trump’s impeachment has fizzled out — the dampest of squibs — with his inevitable acquittal. The whole saga has made him look invincible and the Democrats foolish. The American economy keeps defying gravity, and Trump’s approval rating just hit 49 per cent, his highest score so far. Barack Obama was on 46 per cent towards the end of his first term. On Tuesday night, Trump delivered a very upbeat State of the Union address. ‘The American age, the American epic, the American adventure has only just begun,’ he said. ‘Our spirit is still young. The sun is still rising. God’s grace is still shining.’
It’s easy to see why Trump might think that the Almighty is on side. Standing behind the President, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House, tore up her copy of Trump’s speech — an act that summed up her party’s impotent rage at his success. The video will be used in Republican attack ads for the rest of the year. The party of Pelosi feels cursed. The President just got impeached, yet it’s the Democrats who find themselves in hell.
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Freddy Gray and Karin Robinson, former vice-chair of Democrats Abroad UK, on the Iowa omnishambles.
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