7 things the Iowa caucuses taught us, may they rest in peace
As I write this, the first 62 percent of votes from the Iowa caucuses are trickling in. Things might change, but in my experience it’s unlikely the results will change very much. Here is what we can learn from Monday night’s debacle:
- The winners were Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg. Trump won because the Iowa caucus was a fiasco. He will say that the Democrats are incompetent and can’t even run an election where only 170,000 people cast their votes. One of our best arguments against Trump has been the incompetence that his administration demonstrates almost daily. Bloomberg won because the delay in Iowa’s results robbed any of the candidates of the chance to get a significant bump from them. Bloomberg also won because his calling card is the incredible competence he has shown putting together his worldwide business and leading New York City as mayor for 12 years. Voters may decide that competence is what the Democrats need most.
- Most Democrats are moderate, even in a state where college graduates make up more than 50 percent of its electorate. The three moderate candidates — former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg (25 percent), former vice president Joe Biden (16 percent) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (13 percent) — got 54 percent of the total votes cast as of Tuesday night’s reporting. The three liberals — Sen. Bernie Sanders (27 percent), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (18 percent) and Andrew Yang (1 percent) — got 46 percent. That’s a solid 8-point margin for moderates in a state that has a highly educated, white, liberal population. The media consistently have gotten it wrong when they say the Democratic Party has swung decisively to the left.
- The so-called “Democratic enthusiasm” advantage did not show its face in Iowa. For weeks prior to the election, we heard that the caucus would break all-time records. It did not. It barely reached the turnout of 2016, and fell 70,000 votes short of that in 2008. This should be a big red warning flag for all Democrats. It also belies Sanders’s main claim that he can produce gigantic turnouts from his voting base.
- Klobuchar (D-Minn.) still may be the “little engine that could.” First, she won the TV war on Monday night by seizing the spotlight with a great speech and by coming so close to Biden’s results. She certainly did “punch above her weight.”
- Paradoxically, the results show great strengths for the two supposed leading candidates: Biden and Sanders. Biden did well with older voters and poorly with younger voters. Sanders, despite his age, performed disastrously with voters his age but easily led the pack with millennials. Both of these candidates can ride their strengths, but if they are going to capture the party’s nomination, they must improve in the areas where they are surprisingly weak.
- The Iowa caucuses this year changed virtually nothing. The former vice president didn’t do well, but he will get some delegates and the tech chaos will obscure the results. Conversely, Sanders and Buttigieg will not get the expected bump, and the same will be true in New Hampshire where everyone expects Sanders to do well (it neighbors his home state of Vermont, and it’s where he clocked Hillary Clinton in 2016).
- Lastly, goodbye cauci. What happened in Iowa will not stay in Iowa. It will put an end to the caucuses, and I say, “Good riddance.” They are palpably undemocratic because they disenfranchise many voters who can’t go out at night, who are too disabled to make it to polling places, who don’t have more than two hours to spare, who work the night shift, etc. You can bet your last dollar that Iowa and the last caucus states will all be conducting primaries in 2024. Also, if my party has any courage, it will end Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status. Iowa’s population is not representative of America — and surely not representative of the electorate of our country.
When I was Democratic Party chairman in 2000, the secretary of State developed a plan for five regional primaries, 10 states each, to be held in the first five months of the year. Each region would rotate its place each presidential election. So, for example, the region that was first in 2024 would be fifth in 2028. I endorsed that plan over 24 years ago. So maybe I was wrong. It looks like Iowa will bring along changes, just not the ones we expected.
Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.