What happened in Iowa? Analyze the results with Post Opinions.

Feb 06, 2020

Read the transcript of our Post Opinions chat with David Byler, Henry Olsen and Karen Tumulty on the results of the Iowa caucuses.

Read David’s, Henry’s, and Karen’s columns, or play around with our Post Opinions simulator.

Apologies for the delay, we had some technical difficulties. I'm today's chat producer, Zainab, and Karen, David and Henry are all are here and ready to answer your questions on all things Iowa! Bring it on. 

"Technical difficulties" seem to be the theme of the 2020 campaign so far...

They are taking forever, will we ever get a clear winner? (writing this knowing full well that we may get a winner by the time you see this)

We can trust they will be close to the real results. The "first alignment" results should be accurate. But after that mistakes could be made and that will raise questions about the precise number of State Delegate Equivalents a candidate should have gotten. It's not clear any error, however, will change the number of national convention delegates someone should have gotten.

There's an idea that winning the Iowa caucuses means a boast in media coverage, but Pete Buttigoog was on every Sunday show last weekend so how can he get any more coverage? Also maybe I didn't follow it enough, but it felt like he somehow made zero news and the story was mainly him just doing a lot of interview rather anything he said in them?

This is a great question -- we know from past elections that candidates who get win and/or underperform *and* get a lot of news coverage tend to get solid bounces. Buttigieg's case is weird because he jumped on the news coverage before he officially won, and Sanders looks like he'll *at least* split the victory with Buttigieg because of the multiple totals.  And Iowa news is competing with impeachment, corona virus and other huge stories. 

Which is a fancy way of saying we are in deeply weird territory here, and we don't really know what the boost in New Hampshire (or lack thereof) will look like 

I am sure I'm with every other Democrat right now in saying that I am so incredibly furious at this screw-up that if the Democratic Party doesn't CHANGE THE FREAKING RULES and do it differently next time and every time thereafter I will never give them a penny again. I used to give an automatic monthly amount but NO MORE. My question: how realistic is it that we could get a process that rotates the first state to vote (preferably in a primary for Gawd's sake)? I'm in New Jersey and we're the 11th most populous state and WE NEVER GET TO HAVE AN IMPACT IN THE PRIMARY!! Gosh darn it! Stronger language is required, but then there's no chance this gets printed.

I absolutely agree that the first-in-the-nation contests should alternate, and that ideally, they should be in states that are more diverse and reflective of the voters of the two parties. But I still think things should begin in a small state, where candidates don't need Bloomberg-size table stakes to play and where voters get a chance to see these people up close. It is the first -- and usually the last opportunity -- voters will have to do that. 


Henry here - I agree, and some people have suggested Hawaii, which has a very large Asian and Native Hawaiian population, might be a good substitute. 

I actually think New Jersey might be a decent early state -- it's small enough geographically and it's reasonably representative of the overall party. It's expensive to run there, but nowhere is perfect. Maybe your state should get an earlier slot! 

Why were they 'allowed' to perform a coin flip that stole a clearly chosen win from Sanders?

Believe it or not, the Iowa Democratic Party allows ties to be broken by any method available. The coin toss is frequently used.

Are they what you expected? Curious to hear from all three of you on this.

I expected Sanders to win the first alignment by a little more than he has. I am not surprised Biden fell a lot from his polling strength. I'm surprised so much of it went to Buttigieg. I expected more of it to go to Klobuchar.

Not really. If you look at past pre-election polls in caucus states, you'll see that there's a *ton* of error. Sanders was a little bit ahead coming into this, but anyone from the top four had a good shot. Even Klobuchar had an outside chance. 

Basically the state looked like a mess heading into the caucuses, and (maybe unsurprisingly) still does! 

So Iowans just don't care what African-Americans think?

I think this is a little too harsh. If you look at Iowa demographics, you'll see that it's disproportionately white but not *all* white. A candidate who does well with nonwhite voters can get a good bump that really helps in the caucuses (see Obama 2008). But there's a reason that South Carolina and Nevada are in the process -- the Democratic Party is highly diverse, so it's trying to make sure different constituencies are represented early (though having Iowa and New Hampshire as the first two doesn't really reflect the shape of the modern party, and the process would likely be better with at least one replaced with another state) 

So Republicans are going to keep the Iowa caucuses as the first one? What would that mean?

That's a great question. The party caucuses are also used for party organizing purposes, so the Democrats will still have caucuses in four years. They may just not use it to select presidential convention delegates. The GOP allocates delegates solely on the first preference votes, so their caucus is much easier to organize and less prone to the problems the Democrats' system created.

In the grand scheme of things, the Republican caucuses are not as significant as the Democratic ones. In seven of the 10 contested Democratic races since 1972, the winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone on to be the party's presidential nominee. By comparison, not since George W. Bush in 2000 has the winner of the Republican caucuses (where there is no Republican in the White House) ended up as the party's standardbearer. 

I think the key to the first question is that inertia is big. If nobody acts strongly from the right to stop Iowa (and why would they? this mess was on the Democratic side) they'll still keep Iowa. On the other hand, if Democrats lose in 2020 and decide to move Iowa, it's anyone's guess whether the GOP follows their lead 

Assuming Trump remains popular with the GOP, is Trump, Jr., the prohibitive favorite in 2024? Trump would savage anybody who dared to criticize his son.

I don't think so. Pence will run and so will a host of other politicians. The party may back Trump but I don't think that loyalty transfers automatically to his son.

The 2024 GOP Primary is a fascinating idea. Basically it's where the party will nail down what Trump-ism is and means, since Trump isn't always the most clear and coherent political philosopher. Don Jr is one possible candidate, but he's not a prohibitive favorite. I imagine Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Mike Pence and many others will all be scrambling to put together a post-Trump platform. It's anyone's guess who will win. 

So Democrats want to win over states they have lost like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, etc... and the idea is ditch Iowa for Hawaii? This seems like a weird plan?

I'm not sure Hawaii is the greatest pick for an Iowa replacement. And it's not immediately clear to me that winning a primary in a state (where the electorate is just your party) and winning swing voters is the same thing. For what it's worth, I think swapping New Hampshire for Massachusetts and making Iowa a primary would be an interesting change. It'd keep regional diversity up, include another real city in the early states, and not cause too great of a disturbance. But there are a lot of reasons (e.g. New Hampshire fighting for it's first in the nation slot) that something like that may not happen. 

I voted for mayor Pete at the Iowa caucus. We have had one known president with dementia and another who probably showing signs as well. I am 62 myself and I am aware that I don’t have the energy that I had when I was younger. Biden, Sanders, Trump, and Warren are all in their 70s. We have a minimum age for presidential candidates, why do we not have a maximum age? I could live with any of the candidates but I voted for Pete because he was not in his 70s.

This is a sentiment that I heard over and over -- especially from older voters. When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated the first time, he was a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday, and was, at that point, the oldest president in U.S. history. The "age issue" had dogged him his entire campaign. Of course, health and life spans have changed since then, but I think age concerns are one reason Bernie Sanders (at least, the last I looked) got only 4 percent of the vote from Iowa caucusgoers over the age of 65, who constituted about a quarter of the people who showed up on Monday night.

Age is such a fascinating question in this primary and in US politics in general. A lot of voters sympathize with your view, but people still vote for candidates who are in their 60s and 70s. It's one of those preferences that's strong in theory, but doesn't usually show up in voting -- though it seems you're an exception to that pattern ;) 

IMHO the Iowa caucuses are a result of white people being in control for so long that they haven't taken a look at ALL Americans. Does the Iowa debacle now make those in power look at the ethnicity of this country or will they continue to only look in the mirror?

I think there are a lot of reasons that Iowa has had its place for so long -- some good, some not so great. But for what it's worth, I think anyone who really wants reform probably has to be rooting for catastrophe. The last time the parties reinvented the primary system was in the aftermath of 1968 (Hubert Humphrey vs Richard Nixon vs George Wallace) and the disastrous Democratic Convention. If Bernie Sanders were to win the nomination and then lose the general election, Democrats might decide to overhaul their system. But if a Democrat wins the White House, they might not change anything -- after all, why switch strategies if you're winning? 

My former wife lives in Des Moines and reported that there were changes this year in the mechanics of caucusing that made Monday’s caucus, from her viewpoint at least, easily the best organized and least chaotic for attendees of the many she’s experienced. So I don’t think we can say the Iowa Democratic Party totally fumbled the game away. I believe the “debacle” was a one-off thing caused mainly by the introduction of too many new wrinkles in the reporting system—the requirement to report three tallies, the untested app, etc.—and that the Hawkeye state shouldn’t be stripped of its caucuses and the opportunity to bat leadoff in the Democratic primaries. Despite the arcane and archaic nature of the caucus, the race in Iowa is democracy at its purest, with citizens having ample opportunity to see and actually press flesh with those hoping to get their votes.

I appreciate your positivity! The world would be a better place if others shared it. One little wrench I might throw into this argument: the caucuses aren't pure democracy because the ballots aren't secret. Iowa is great in that candidates have to talk to people and really get to know them, but the actual voting process is subject to social pressure and weird dynamics. It's unique and interesting, but is it the most small-d democratic process? 

A state house race in VA was decided a few years ago by picking a name from a hat. Ties happen, and have to get broken somehow.

How about trying rock/paper/scissors?

What are the odds that Iowa is first in the nation again in 4 years?

Not as low as many might think? I tend to think that if a Democrat wins the White House, Republicans will keep the caucuses in 2024. And if that happens, Democrats may just forget about the problems of 2020 and use it again in 2028. Even if Democrats lose in 2020, people may forget. Memories are short in this insane sort of news environment. We'll see what happens, but I think we're underestimating the chances that Iowa sticks around 

How do we know how many people really voted in the Iowa caucus? Could it have been cyber messed with by Trump or foreign party. Did the voters use paper ballots or was it electronic ballots?

Every participant used paper ballots. 

Yes, every caucusgoer signed a card and turned it in. And the whole thing was done in the open, with campaign "observers" and media blanketing the caucuses. So it should be quite easy to audit if there is a challenge.

Previously Caucus has been held and delegates selected prior to the primary election. They are not well publicized. The attendees are hard core party players, usually from the extremes of each party and not at all representative of the population. The delegates eventually influence who represents the parties at the conventions. The popular vote means nothing. We need an electoral system where candidates are selected by a national primary and general election. The Electoral Collage is an excuse for a big party, balloons and BS. It’s time for a simple straightforward system where everyone has equal voice.

I get the frustrations with the current system, but for what it's worth it's hard to design a good system for this type of choice. A national primary might sound great, but that may make it hard for little-known candidates to have a break-out moment and upset the well-known front-runners. I think this is a tougher nut to crack than many think 

They are pretty different. What does that say about Iowa voters?

Maybe not a lot! 

We know that Bernie Sanders does well with progressive voters, and caucuses are flush with activists. So we can infer that Sanders has strength with that group. And we know that Buttigieg, a sort of hope-and-change Midwestern candidate was well-organized and managed to peel off some natural Biden and Warren voters. But interpreting elections is hard! Muddled results like this defy simple one line takeaways in my view 

I think it says there are different types of voters who like different sets of personal characteristics and philosophies. That's always on display in nomination contests, especially in the early ones.

It's a bit weird that older folks are supporting Pete B___ siting his age but actual young can't stand him, right?

Will be interesting to see if that shifts. Anecdotes aren't data, but I met a 17-year-old girl at the caucus I went to. (If you are eligible to vote by election day, you can caucus.) She told me that she had supported Bernie four years ago, though she couldn't vote. Why did she switch? A single conversation with a canvasser from Pete's campaign. It mattered to her that they had sought her out, that she seemed to matter to them. This is one of those things that a top-notch organization can do -- make people take a look at a candidate that they might not otherwise do. 

It is an interesting thing. I tend to think that if Buttigieg wins the nomination (still possible at this point) he'd have a lot of voters rally around him to oppose Trump. But the pattern of younger voters loving Sanders and Buttigieg attracting somewhat older voters shows that people don't always favor their generation 

I'm pretty convinced that we are going to end up with a brokered convention where Sanders comes in with the most delegates but someone else leaves with the nomination. Which I think would probably be disastrous enough that it's worth reinventing the primaries (note - I am not a Sanders voter, though I would definitely and pretty happily vote for him as the nominee).

We could very well see this. I think that Sanders needs to have more than 40% of the delegates to be nominated. Party moderates and establishment types do not want to see him as the party's standard bearer and will make almost any deal they can to stop him.

This may happen, but it's also worth remembering that the party rank-and-file generally like Sanders. If he starts racking up the delegates, there may not be a lot the Democratic movers and shakers can do to stop him 

How long before Trump campaigns on the Dems couldn't even get the Iowa caucuses right, how can you trust them to run the country?

If you count Ted Cruz as part of the broader Trump Team (and you should), then it's already happening

Trump just said it at his live tv conference. They can't count ballots how can you trust them to run your healthcare, he said.

Whose bad idea was running the financial chat, the one - off caucus chat, and the singular political hat simultaneously! Bad move!

Definitive proof that THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A MEDIA CONSPIRACY!!!! We don't even talk to each other, much less coordinate...

It took me 30 minutes to realize I could respond to questions Henry and Karen had already answered on this thing. And I'm the millennial of the group! Karen is right -- we couldn't successfully do a conspiracy if we tried (which we don't)

I see the Constitution as having failed. Iowa is symbolic of an Electoral system failure. There is election reform legislation on Mitch McConnell’s desk. What is the evidence that I am wrong?

Important to recall that caucuses are run not by the state government but by the parties. The parties get to set their own rules for picking their nominees. 

Any thoughts on the dynamics of Warren's campaign in Iowa? I'm wondering why she didn't do better, given Sander's strong showing. To me, Warren is a bridge between Sanders' extremism and Pete's middle of the road.

That should be her argument going forward. I have not counted her out yet, and if she can keep getting in the 15-20% range she will stay relevant on Super Tuesday.

Warren has the potential to be a compromise candidate, and she arguably was one at her peak in mid-to-late 2019. But that's the problem with being a compromise candidate -- you have to create it at the right time. Which is no small feat 

So Pete had the money to devote to finding this one Iowans to vote. Bully for her, but doesn't move me much.

It wasn't just money. It was organization. His seemed fairly locally based as well. When I was driving around the Des Moines suburbs over the weekend, I ran into a canvasser for Pete knocking on doors in Waukee. She wasn't a paid campaign worker, just a woman from West Des Moines who wanted to do what she could to help. She told me: "I am so far out of my comfort zone, but I felt that I had to do this." Again, anecdotes are not data, but they are a good reason for folks like me to get ourselves out of DC and talk to people. 

The Washington Post is reporting that Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has just called for a recanvass in Iowa. Karen, Henry, David, what does this mean? Thoughts?

I think it adds to the general sense that nothing can be trusted coming out of Iowa, and it will add to the sense among Sanders' backers that the establishment fix is in. They'll note this is said only as it looks like Bernie will take the lead. If the IDP doesn't go through and publish all the results before doing a recanvass, it will smell to high heaven

Agree with Henry, and if things look close going into the Democratic convention in Milwaukee, well, as we used to say in Texas, saddle up!

Agree w/Henry and Karen 

I don't want to be that jerk to ask it and maybe you don't want to the jerk to ask, but I wish there was a journalist who would as Pete Buttigig why he seems to involve his military service as a kind of "get out of jail" card when pinned on any issue and why did he sign up for the reserves 10 years into the war when he was already Mayor of South Bend? Who would want to dishonest or question anybody's service in the armed forces, but the jerk in me kind of does want somebody else to push him a bit on it.

He writes about all of that at length in his autobiography.

If Sanders is the nominee, how many senate seats do the dems lose? Michigan and Alabama are the obvious ones, but where else would they be endangered?

I think it's too early to know. Sanders might wear better on the campaign trail than many think. But those are the two most obvious GOP pick ups. New Hampshire is probably next on the list.

Is this the same as a recount?

This just happened, so I'm not precisely sure of what they are talking about, but my initial hunch is that it would be more like an audit. And then if it shows problems, it would go to an actual recount.

Trump needs to put out a TV Ad showing a little boy's puppy being taken away and a little girl's kitten being taken away. Then both are euthanized cause under the Green New Deal we arent raising livestock, poultry or fish to feed them. They cant survive on a vegan food.

I mean I tend to think there's lower hanging fruit for the Trump campaign, but we've seen stranger stuff 

Watching the caucuses happen, I was laughing the entire time. We are the most advanced democracy in the world and this is where we are at? Surely we can do better.

To be honest, I had a similar reaction. As the count continued to come in, I kept thinking "this is how we choose candidates to be leader of the free world" 

But for what it's worth, this is one of the worst election blunders in *years* I can't remember any nationally relevant debacle this bad since 2000. Which (at the risk of making us all feel old) was about two decades ago! 

As a gay American I was greatly looking forward to the moment when, if he'd won on Monday night, Mayor Pete would be joined by his husband for the usual post speech victory moment. How big of a cultural moment that would have been (or might be if he wins NH), or is it no longer a big deal?

This is an interesting question. I did a column during the 2018 campaign on the fact that there were record numbers of gay candidates running, but that they and their spouses and children and significant others were still grappling with the question of how much they wanted to make their personal lives part of it. You can read it here

Interesting point. At some point Chasten has to play that role - his absence would be as significant as his presence.

For the younglings, the 2000 Florida recounts were worst?

I was in Nashville on election night with the Gore campaign. Stayed up until 4 am, got two hours sleep and then woke up at dawn thinking: "Did I dream that?" The last thing I heard before I headed up to my hotel room had been one of the network people ask Gore chairman Bill Daley if he'd be available for a morning show. "Tell them they can find me in the bar," Daley replied. 

Given how unreliable any slow-moving results are in elections, do journalists and op-ed writers have a responsibility to not jump the gun when it comes to analyzing the significance of the data when it's not fully released?

This is such a great question. 

I think we have an obligation to balance, and be both fast and slow when needed. We should be careful and cautious in proclamations (e.g. not saying Buttigieg wins before we really know that) but also be fast enough to compete. *Somebody* is going to try to get a message out there fast no matter what, and it'd be good if people who were careful and smart participated and tried to make sure overly simplistic takes don't win the day 

I think the answer depends on how close the results are. Sometimes, a general trend becomes apparent pretty early. But I can tell you, in the Washington Post workspace in Des Moines, with deadlines approaching (and passing) for the print edition, things were pretty wild. There was a paper to get out.  

A lifelong Democrat, I am so sick of Iowa I find it difficult to function today. Those sanctimonious incompetents create a disaster of their undemocratic primary, and then complain that the impatient press and Americans in general just want answers too quickly these days, as if that is any answer to their mistakes. I wish just one Iowa democratic official would admit that they screwed this up, that it is absolutely without excuse, and that they apologize and will dismantle their silly system that makes a mockery of the party. I am hoping some columnist out there agrees!

I think every political columnist, reporter, analyst and person in the media has been frustrated by how long it's taken to get these results out 

Do you mean to tell me that insulting voters, acting out of touch, and intimidating and yelling at reporters DIDN'T work? Quelle Surprise. Next you'll be telling me that a guy who is up against two New England- based senators is going to struggle in New Hampshire.

For what it's worth, Biden's strategy kept him at the top of the polls for this entire primary. It had its weaknesses, but he has strengths too. I'd say that he still has a shot at the nomination, though the shape of the calendar (Iowa and New Hampshire first) was always a problem for him 

What does Pete actually want to do? Medicare for those who want it? There's a French Canadian expression (so people in New Hampshire might know it) which is basically "what does that eat in winter" in English meaning "how will this practically work" and stuff like that or his 5–5–5 plan for the Supreme Court seems kind of goofy?

Pete's been running more on his youth and his resume than his platform. The next few weeks will be a big test for him. When someone gets out in front, they attract attacks and scrutiny they haven't faced before. Elizabeth Warren didn't react well - the doubling down on Medicare-for-All cost her a lot. We'll see if Buttigieg and his platform can hold up.

I chaired my precinct Monday night and the caucus itself went much better than in '16 - until it came time to report. I'm interested in how most of the media herded into giving the SDE figure significantly more play than the raw vote totals. I understand the arguments in favor of that, but with the benefit of hindsight, do you still think that was best?

I think media outlets were put in an impossible situation. Every vote total has pros and cons! The first preference is the most clear, small-d democratic option. The first plus second reflects most purely what a caucus does. And the SDEs are relevant to delegates and can be compared with past figures. So I don't know what the best solution is. Maybe pick a process that produces just one number? 

As a native New Hampshirite, I love all the attention we get during primary season, and the money it brings to our businesses, as well as the opportunity to see candidates in person. I still don't understand, though, why we have to drag primaries out for months. If I lived in one of the later primary states I'd be upset. Why don't we just do them all on the same day?

People say that having some small states early allows candidates without big money backing to emerge. But that doesn't explain why we now start a year before the first vote. It wasn't always that way, and our politics would be better off if we went back to the old shorter time frames.

As a reporter, however, I love when candidates get out early, because they are still accessible -- both to us and to the voters. When Mitt Romney gave his speech yesterday in the Senate, it reminded me of a conversation we once had in early 2007, aboard a small jet headed to Iowa. I learned something important about him -- and his father -- that informed my ability to understand what happened yesterday. You can read it here

Come on it was all fixed and aprt of DNC 's plan if Bernard was winning by hefty margin. With a firm supported by Mayor Pete you couldnt want for any more evidence

If you spend enough time with parties, the media or anyone in these circles I think you realize quickly that nobody in this world is organized enough to pull off a conspiracy. 

with a lot of ties still in the state...I hope the folks dissing the caucus will take note that there were many well meaning citizens who took the time to participate and the individual caucuses are staffed and run by volunteers, not paid officials. Yes, the errors were egregious, but the blame rests with the IDP upper-echelon officials who failed mightily in prepping and executing the reporting process.

One good thing about this circus is that I haven't heard too many people blame the volunteers you're talking about. 

A disaster and, for the Democratic Party, and embarrassment underscored by the fact that the Iowa electorate does not look like the Democratic Party nationwide. Hopefully this finally breaks the stranglehold that Iowa has had on the primary calendar so that the narrative around which candidates are viable is no longer driven by such a tiny, unrepresentative group of voters. Another benefit of that would be that maybe we'd have less fawning over "Midwestern values." I may be from the East Coast, but my values are just as American as those of someone from Iowa (or, say, Indiana), and I find it offensive to suggest that they're not.

I think parties would be best served by a series of primaries bunched on the same day that are regionally balanced. They won't do it, but these early races just are too unrepresentative and have way too much importance in winnowing the fields.

I heard a lot about how great it was, but it didn't appear to have delivered for her on caucus night. FWIW, her people were the first ones to contact me back in May.

Yes! The word was always that she had the best ground operation of any of the candidates. This is one of the great mysteries this year, and also, yet another example of how campaigns don't always play out the way you expect them to.

As a lifelong Dem, I think that the fix for the Iowa debacle is not caucus vs. primary, but removing Iowa -- and NH -- from their first in the nation voting status. What a waste of time, money and attention Iowa has been this year. Although the long-delayed results have been interesting, I think they are tainted, even though I'm glad to see Biden sinking to fourth place there. I don't think he's a strong enough candidate to be our nominee. What are my chances of seeing these two small, unrepresentative states removed from their power spots next time and thereafter? Bloomberg is proving to be prescient, a good quality in a candidate.

This Iowa debacle is the best possible result for Bloomberg, but he still has to deal with the fact that other candidates will get free media for the next month. He's taking a big gamble and its far from sure it will pay off.

That's all the time we have for today! Thank you all for your thoughtful questions and thank you Karen, David and Henry for being here. If you've got more questions, submit them to columnist Eugene Robinson for his weekly Opinions chat, and play around with our New Hampshire simulator.

This was loads of fun! Thank you so much for spending part of your day with us. And if you see me out there in NH, SC and beyond, please come say hi.

Thanks so much for joining! Great questions all around -- I really enjoyed it and hope you come back next time! 

Thanks for all the great questions!

In This Chat
David Byler
David Byler is a data analyst and political columnist focusing on elections, polling, demographics and statistics. He joined The Washington Post in 2019.
Karen Tumulty
Karen Tumulty is a Washington Post columnist covering national politics. She joined The Post in 2010 from Time magazine and has also worked at the Los Angeles Times.
Henry Olsen
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Recent Chats
  • Next: