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Artillery Row

Why Iowa will haunt the Democrats

America’s progressive party is stuck inside a meme that has gone viral — and for all the wrong reasons

Until about 10pm on Monday night, all was well. The quaint absurdity of the Iowa caucus was playing out exactly as it always has done, with overexcited TV reporters chasing midwesterners around high school gymnasiums as they decided which Democratic Presidential candidate to back. These are the familiar opening credits to a new season of American Democracy, and we were all humming along.

But as a short hold up in reporting became a long delay, reports of a faulty app emerged, and candidates decided to give preemptive non-victory speeches to fill the airtime before hopping on planes to New Hampshire, impatience gave way to fury. As the night wore on, and the data-hungry cable news pundits were still waiting to feast, it became clear that the Democratic party had a political Fyre Festival on its hands.

Two days on, America  — or the slither of the country still paying attention — is waiting for 14 per cent of the results. The numbers we do have effectively make Iowa a split decision between socialist independent Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who has set his stall out as the moderate option and is the first openly gay serious presidential contender in history. But before we get into the consequences of the actual results, it is worth lingering a little longer on the bungling itself, which is a lot more than a minor nuisance.

The Democrats find themselves stuck inside a meme that has gone viral. The joke will persist long after it gets old, and the punchlines write themselves for Republicans, who now have an easy response every time an opponent touts an ambitious plan for government action. ‘If you can’t organise a caucus, why should we trust you with our healthcare?’ will be the not-entirely-unreasonable question. The Washington Post’s libertarian-leaning columnist George Will summed it up neatly when he called the Iowa farce “a hilarious parody of progressive governance — ambitious, complex, subtle and a carnival of unintended consequences.”

Sanders’ rambunctious outriders were quick to cry conspiracy, implying that the delay could be part of a cunning establishment plan to deny their man his moment (even if the real winner of Iowa is Buttigieg). As is often the case in politics, the evidence suggests cock up rather than conspiracy. However, this honest mistake is an especially revealing one.

At the centre of the storm is an app caucus chairs were supposed to use to report the results. When the volunteers responsible for on-the-ground administration of the vote did so, “coding errors” got in the way. Notwithstanding the important question of why these errors were only discovered on the night, it is far from clear that a shiny new purpose-built app that needed to be downloaded from beta testing platforms designed for developers is the best way to organise 1,600 clipboard-carrying Iowan volunteers — especially when they seemed perfectly content with the free software offered to them by Microsoft last year.

One is left with the distinct sense of a political elite motivated first and foremost by its continued existence and enrichment

The story behind the app of the hour reads like a parody of the modern Democratic establishment. It was built by a company called Shadow Inc, based — inevitably, at a WeWork in Washington, DC. Its website boasts about “building a long-term, side-by-side ‘Shadow’ of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large”. According to the New York Times, its senior staff all worked on Hilary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Registered at the same address is ACRONYM, the nonprofit that launched Shadow. Its board includes Democratic bigwigs like Obama aide David Plouffe and is run by Tara McGowan, a journalist turned Democratic operative. Launched to great fanfare, this digital campaign organisation aims to beat Trump at his own social media game in this year’s election, one microtargeted ad at a time. (One man’s fake news is another’s disruption.) Underlining the small of this particular world is the coincidence that McGowan’s husband works as a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg, whose campaign has paid Shadow $42,500 for software.

One is left with the distinct sense of a political elite motivated first and foremost by its continued existence and enrichment, and whose claims of competence are time and again undermined by its actions. There is a lesson in there for anyone still unsure why Washington is so loathed by the rest of the country.

When it comes to the race for the nomination, the Iowa fiasco is a win for the caucus’s losers and a loss for its winners. It dampening the impact of first-in-the-nation state’s narrative setting power, though perhaps not as drastically as some are suggesting. The chaotic delay softened only slightly the blow to Joe Biden’s chances delivered by a disappointing fourth-placed finish. He is running out of time and money to persuade voters he really is the candidate best-placed to beat Trump. The weaker he looks, the more confident his rivals for the ‘Stop Bernie’ candidacy will feel.

Buttigieg will feel the most aggrieved of the two co-winners. He had bet his long-shot candidacy on a win in Iowa. His rewards for delivering are not as great as they could have been. Sanders, meanwhile, came into the state with high expectations and leaves unscathed — the progressive to beat, even if liberal Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s third place finish keeps her in the fight.

Perhaps the biggest winner was the candidate who declined to take part in the ruckus. Billionaire media mogul and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is ignoring early states, instead lavishing unprecedented amounts of money on advertising across the country and aiming for a surge that starts on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states hold their primaries. After the Iowa kerfuffle, Bloomberg has decided to double his already eye-watering advertising spending; he has burned through $300m since he entered the race in late November.

That is an ominous sign for Bloomberg’s rivals, and it confirms what the partial Iowan results demonstrate: that this race is as wide open as it was at the start of the week. Also on display in those results is a deep divide in the Democratic party. According to the Iowan results reported so far, 47 per cent of voters backed Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the two candidates of the party’s progressive wing. 51 per cent opted for one of the three major moderate options, Buttigieg, Biden or Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. How that all shakes out is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that this is not just a fight for the nomination, but a battle for the soul of the Democratic party. A long, bruising primary race may be the only way to settle that.

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