Iowa Sets Up Democrats for Even More Chaos

(Bloomberg Opinion) --

As the count from Iowa’s caucuses continues, I think we can now say that what has happened couldn’t have done much more to maximize chaos in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination. That applies to the results so far as well as to how they were released.

We still have only 71% of precincts reported, and don’t know for sure if Bernie Sanders or Pete Buttigieg will be the winner. Buttigieg has a narrow lead in the traditional measure Iowa uses to assess the winner, something called “state delegate equivalents,” while Sanders has a small edge in total votes.

If you had asked me before the caucuses to rank the possible Iowa winners in terms of their chances of being nominated, I probably would have put Sanders and Buttigieg last. The Vermont senator in particular had an excellent chance to win in Iowa, according to the polls and other reporting — far better, for example, than Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar did. Had Klobuchar won, however, she would likely have received a ton of positive publicity for pulling off a big surprise; she was in good shape for putting together an everyone’s-second-choice type of winning coalition.

Sanders, on the other hand, has been a factional candidate. And Buttigieg was only doing a bit better in national polls than Klobuchar, while showing even less success at winning support from party actors. Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would have been even better bets than Klobuchar to capture the nomination, had they won in Iowa, given their better standings in the polls and support from party actors. 

So the winners were already less likely to be able to capitalize on the Iowa results and move on to a rapid, convincing victory in the nomination battle. But Sanders’s and Buttigieg’s wins are probably even less valuable, given the combination of the mixed result with the slow release of the initial results and the even slower final count, including the official declarations of who won (whenever that comes). 

This calculation continues, through the top five candidates. Take Klobuchar. She’s currently in fifth place in Iowa, with an outside chance of beating Biden. If she had finished fifth with 13% of the vote on caucus night, she might well have dropped out. But that’s not going to happen while she still has a chance of claiming fourth place. By the time that is resolved she’ll probably stick around just in case lighting strikes in New Hampshire.

After all, she’ll have a CNN town hall on Thursday and a Democratic debate on Friday, and she’s not that far out of fourth place, or even second place, in New Hampshire polls. Had she done just a bit better, she could have significantly hurt Biden’s chances without really helping her own long-shot possibility much.

I could describe similar scenarios for the others. In other words, not only does it appear that Iowa failed in its traditional role of knocking out candidates, it almost did the opposite: keeping in the previously weaker contenders, without much of a setback for the stronger ones. 

All that said, we’re still a long, long way from a contested convention. It’s likely that only two or three of these five candidates will make it through New Hampshire (Feb. 11), Nevada (Feb. 22) and South Carolina (Feb. 29).

Tom Steyer, who failed to register at all in Iowa, has polled well in Nevada and South Carolina, but there’s a very good chance that his support in those states, where he’s been mostly alone in TV advertising, will fade or collapse when the full campaign moves there. The same thing might happen to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is polling at about 10% nationally but may struggle to match the winners of the February primaries in news coverage. He needs to reach 15%, at any rate, to start winning delegates (Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg Opinion). 

Remember: So long as only two candidates are winning delegates, one of them is going to reach 50% plus one. Most candidates without a decent chance to be nominated drop out before the real delegate accumulation stage begins. It’s hard for things to be so balanced that as many as three, let alone four or five, have a realistic chance to win after the early primaries and caucuses. So probably only two candidates will win delegates, and one will have enough. 

The big exception would be a protest candidate who remains in the race without a chance to win, but who also can reach 15% in lots of places. The only one likely to do that is Bernie Sanders, and after Iowa he’s looking more like a candidate with a real chance of winning than a protest candidate. 

So even when the current chaos fades, the chances of continuing chaos are certainly higher today than they were at the beginning of the week. 

1. Julia Azari set the stage for a State of the Union speech in the context of a scandal. I pretty much have thought the same thing each year for President Donald Trump. Traditionally, the speech does two things: It functions as a valuable piece of democratic theater, in the best sense of the idea, and it functions as an important part of the policy-making process. Trump doesn’t do democratic theater, and doesn’t have much of an organized policy-making process. Instead, he treats the speech as something you hear at his rallies.

Of course, every president uses every prime-time address in part to boost his popularity, especially in an election year. But Trump is off the scale in terms of that being really the only thing going on. Since one prime-time speech months before the election isn’t going to move any votes, his State of the Union addresses are really just wasted opportunities. 

2. Tyler Yates at the Monkey Cage on the coming Senate acquittal of Trump and the future of democracy in the U.S.

3. Dan Drezner offers a bit of optimism about democracy in the U.S.

4. Rick Hasen on Trump’s reaction to the Iowa counting debacle.

5. Matthew Connelly on yet another example of the Trump administration’s lawlessness: Destroying official records.

6. And my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Ramesh Ponnuru on Trump’s strengths for re-election. Fair enough, although I’ll be interested in seeing where Trump’s approval rating settles a few weeks after impeachment is over. 

Confused? You can think of it as somewhat similar to the electoral college/popular vote split, or you can just accept that there are two slightly different countsbeing reported, with that delegate number getting the most coverage in the media reporting I’ve seen. OK, actually there are no less than four different Iowa counts. But I’ll stick with the two I think are reasonable measures of what happened.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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