What the hell just happened in Iowa?

The Democratic party is reeling after Monday night.
Isaac Saul Feb 4, 2020
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Today’s read: 8 minutes.

The Iowa caucuses go up in flames, a question about Bloomberg’s chances and the latest numbers on who is going to be the Democratic nominee.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a gun sense reform forum. Photo: Gage Skidmore | Flickr

What D.C. is talking about.

Iowa. Last night, caucus-goers showed up to make their voices heard in the first stop on the campaign trail. Except very few voices were actually heard. Iowa Democratic party officials did not release any data from the caucuses, citing “inconsistencies in the reporting of results” that were done through an app the party had paid for. At 6 a.m. this morning, when most people expected to have a clear winner, just 33 of 1,765 precincts were reporting official results. In a statement released today, the party said there was a “coding issue” in the reporting system that sent over accurate but incomplete data. They noticed the inconsistencies when lining it up with manually recorded information. Now party officials are going through photos, reporting done through phone calls, the “paper trail,” etc. to accurately report the data.

Party officials and local Iowa reporters had previously warned that the app Democrats were using was having issues, but no large-scale testing was done to address them and now we have this. What appears to have happened is volunteers had trouble downloading, using or understanding the app, and then opted for the backup system of calling in their results. But because so many volunteers did that, the phone lines were overwhelmed. This left volunteers who were trying to report results on hold for hours at a time, some of whom just gave up.

All of this threw one of the most important campaign stops into disarray. Iowa is not valuable for its delegate count, which is relatively small. It’s valuable because whoever wins Iowa creates momentum in their campaign, as it’s the first state to have a voice. But with no official results ready for the public late Monday, campaigns began releasing their own internal data. Bernie Sanders published results showing Bernie Sanders in the lead. Pete Buttigieg delivered a speech that made it sound an awful lot like Pete Buttigieg had won. Elizabeth Warren told reporters she was feeling pretty good. Joe Biden’s campaign said he did what needed to be done in order to be on the right path to the nomination. And by this morning, each candidate had boarded a plane and took off for New Hampshire, where the next state voting begins on Tuesday. Everyone is hopeful the official results will come out today, but as of 12 p.m. EST — there’s still nothing.

What the left is saying.

Bernie’s supporters are infuriated. This whole thing smells of a conspiracy and the conspiracies are running wild. Left-wing reporters were sharing FEC filings showing Pete Buttigieg and Hillary Clinton campaign vets had funded the progressive company that created the app used for the caucuses (there is also reporting that Joe Biden did as well). That, of course, isn’t indicative of anything shady — it’s just a data point to grasp onto. But it doesn’t help that the company who built the app is literally called “Shadow Inc.” Paired with the fact the most famous Iowa polling place spiked its final poll this week (which we then found out showed Sanders in the lead) all while Buttigieg is declaring a victory in Iowa has left a lot of people fuming. Biden’s camp is probably celebrating, given that polls showed they may have a rough night. Now the would-be winner is missing out on the major press bump that usually follows an Iowa victory. Warren’s camp has remained even-handed, insisting people wait to see the results but also saying their internal data shows they had a strong night. The overarching reaction has mostly been mockery and disgust. How could the party blow this so badly? After so many months and years of organizing, volunteering, campaigning and TV ads, how could they not have the single most important infrastructure in place — a way to accurately and quickly count the votes? And even some of Iowa’s legendary political reporters are now declaring the Iowa caucuses dead. It’s not the first time Iowa has been a mess. All this will almost certainly lead to major changes for the next election, which could see Iowa move to a regular primary voting system or see it moved out of its position as the first state to vote in the primary.

What the right is saying.

They’re having a hearty laugh. Republicans caucused last night, too. And it was nothing like this. Bill Weld and Joe Walsh, the two Republicans trying to challenge Trump in the primary, pulled in 1.27% and 1.08% of the vote, respectively. Trump got 97.16%. He crushed them, perhaps ending the never-Trump conservative dream for good. Not only that, but the Democratic party made a mockery of itself in the same day. Many of the refrains were the same: this party — the same one demanding it takes over your health care and alleviate student loan debt and start a database for gun owners — can’t even tally votes in an election? How hard could it be? Conservatives are also gleefully throwing gasoline on the rumors that the DNC is “rigging” the election against Bernie again, inflaming the party’s divisions and highlighting all the intraparty fighting that’s going on. If Republicans could have drawn up a script for last night that would have benefitted them the most, they probably wouldn’t have even dreamed of the disaster that fell into their laps over the last 24 hours. It was a huge embarrassment for Democrats and a huge win for Trump’s message that the Democratic party is incompetent and unorganized.

My take.

First, let me just say a lot of the stuff from the left being thrown around is total garbage. And it should be treated as such. The very suggestion that Pete Buttigieg is somehow “behind” this is stupid and nonsensical. Buttigieg is polling fifth nationally across the U.S., according to the latest Monmouth Poll. He consistently is in the top three in Iowa and had a real shot to win the night last night (and he very well may have!). Why would he want the results to be muddied and delayed? His campaign invested heavily in Iowa precisely to get the positive media attention and momentum that came with a win. Any notion that he would want what happened last night to happen is just idiotic.

Second, there’s no doubt Bernie Sanders is getting screwed here. There’s also no doubt that he’s not well-liked by the Democratic party. Sanders was leading in the famous Selzer poll that didn’t get released, he (by early estimates) was the initial favorite of Iowa caucusgoers and he absolutely invested heavily in winning Iowa. But the way this narrative is playing out could end up benefitting him all the same: Bernie vs. the establishment is the narrative he’s thrived on for years.

Third, nothing was hacked or intruded or crashed. Everyone knew this app was a big problem, but nobody did anything. Last night seems to be a mix of volunteer incompetence and poor software on a poorly tested app. Paired with the pressure of the moment and the absolute chaos that is the Iowa caucus, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Based on the fact they can’t even get something as important as an election app to work, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me the Democratic party is orchestrating a vast conspiracy to destroy the candidates they don’t like. Eventually, these results are going to come in. When they do, we have every reason to trust that they’re accurate. Iowa caucuses happen out in the open and are heavily recorded, so even though getting that data to a central location has been a total mess, I can assure you the results that we get in the end are not going to be rigged or distorted.

Still, the real winners from last night are Mike Bloomberg (more on him below) and Donald Trump. Bloomberg invested nothing in Iowa and New Hampshire and has been making a play for Super Tuesday this whole time. While he still doesn’t have a clear path to the nomination, he at least can say he avoided this whole mess. For Trump, the entire night comports nicely with his depiction of the Democratic party as being incompetent and in disarray. Even better for him, it all went down the same day Gallup released a new poll showing he had a 49% approval rating amongst American adults, the highest of his entire presidency. Also, for what it’s worth, turnout in Iowa last night was relatively low — and less than expected. That’s a very not good sign for Democrats, especially folks like Bernie, as if this news couldn’t get any worse for the left.

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Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Asking questions is easy. All you have to do is reply to this email or tweet at @TangleNews.

Q: Are there really moderate or centrist Democrats who think Bloomberg is a better alternative to Biden? That's flabbergasting to me, and I'm not the biggest Biden guy in the world. But I do consider myself a moderate or centrist Democrat (I'm officially an independent but certainly lean far more left than right) and I cannot fathom Bloomberg as a serious candidate. He just seems totally irrelevant to me and it's only his money that's keeping him on TV via ads and presumably an upcoming debate appearance. If by some chance you want to use this as a Q and A topic to elaborate, I ask that you please don't use my name.

- Anonymous

Tangle: When Bloomberg first entered the race, I basically had the same reaction. I scoffed at his chances. In fact, a good friend of mine who is gung-ho on his candidacy roped me into a silly 30 to 1 odds bet on 10 dollars that he would win the nomination. At the time, I thought his odds were more like 300 to 1. The next day he was endorsed by Judge Judy, the most recognizable face on cable television, and his campaign has been having a bizarre ascension since.

Zooming out to the big picture, here’s why Bloomberg is a serious candidate: He’s got the credentials, having been the mayor of America’s largest city for 11 years. He’s got the business experience, having started some of America’s most successful companies and earning vast sums of wealth from that experience. He’s been on the ground in the gun violence fight for some time and has earned real street credit from people who want to reform gun laws. And, as you noted, he’s got the money. Bloomberg has deeper pockets than any fundraising can possibly match, and he’s already spending more than $200 million on ads for himself and ads bashing Trump across television, digital and radio.

To speak more directly to your question about moderate Democrats or centrists: the polls speak for themselves. Yesterday, amidst all the fuss about Iowa, a new national poll from Monmouth (which has an A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight) was released. In it, Bloomberg had risen two percentage points, tying Elizabeth Warren for third place in the country:

This poll isn’t an accident. Hundreds of millions of Americans watch television every day, and Bloomberg has flooded every cable news channel with ads. He’s even on the pre-roll for videos that run on CNN.com or Fox News. He’s so omnipresent that Trump is lashing out at him on Twitter, which is only driving more attention to his campaign.

And all of this is to say nothing of the unproven strategy he is employing this election. Instead of focusing on Iowa and New Hampshire, like all the candidates you’re seeing this week are, Bloomberg is skipping the early primary states. Apparently unworried about momentum there, he’s throwing all of his money at “Super Tuesday” states. That’s Tuesday, March 3rd, when the most delegate-rich states in the Democratic primary hit the polls. If last night’s debacle in Iowa is any indication, Bloomberg’s decision could have a huge payoff. The entire reason candidates dump money and time into Iowa is to get early press traction, and now those candidates are standing around pointing at their own polling data trying to convince people they just won Iowa.

From where I’m standing, Bloomberg is a serious threat to win the nomination. He has unlimited money, he’s rising in the polls, he’s got a unique campaign strategy and — one thing I didn’t mention — he’s also got the Democratic party. It’s no accident the DNC rules were recently changed in a way that will allow him to participate in debates this month. Bloomberg had funded the party for years and earned lots of goodwill. By the looks of it, that goodwill could pay off in a big way.

A story that matters.

In the suburbs of Philadelphia, not far from where I grew up, some 80,000 people across three townships are unable to drink the groundwater. It’s been contaminated by chemicals from firefighting foam at two decommissioned military bases, accord to the Wall Street Journal. The foam contains chemicals with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, or PFAS, which Tangle covered a few weeks ago. These chemicals are called “forever chemicals” because they take so long to break down. This is not an isolated incident. Similar battles are being waged in Virginia and New Jersey near other military bases. If ingested, the chemicals can cause high cholesterol, cancer, thyroid problems or immune system issues. All of this speaks to a larger problem America faces to keep its groundwater clean as government and corporate entities continue to dump chemicals and struggle to find ways to responsibly store waste. Click.


  • $14.27 million. The amount of money Tom Steyer spent on TV ads in Iowa.
  • $10.1 million. The amount of money Bernie Sanders spent on TV ads in Iowa.
  • $9.99 million. The amount of money Pete Buttigieg spent on TV ads in Iowa.
  • $6.52 million. The amount of money Andrew Yang spent on TV ads in Iowa.
  • 22%. Bernie Sanders’ share of support in the famous, previously unreleased and notoriously accurate Selzer Iowa poll, best among any Democrat.
  • 18%. Elizabeth Warrens’ share of support in the famous, previously unreleased and notoriously accurate Selzer Iowa poll, second-best among any Democrat.
  • 16%. Pete Buttigieg’s share of support in the famous, previously unreleased and notoriously accurate Selzer Iowa poll, third-best among any Democrat.
  • 29.66%. Bernie Sanders’ share of the Iowa delegates, according to the internal numbers his campaign released from 40% of the precincts in Iowa.
  • 24.59%. Pete Buttigieg’s share of the Iowa delegates, according to the internal numbers Sanders’ campaign released from 40% of the precincts in Iowa.

Have a nice day.

Nearly one million children have dangerous peanut allergies in America. Yesterday, the FDA approved a new drug that could help keep those kids safe. Named Palforzia, the drug contains a peanut protein that is administered orally to kids. The children are given a tiny bit of Palforzia over a six-month span with increasing dosages to build up their tolerance. While the drug won’t “cure” the peanut allergy, it’s been shown to create a strong enough tolerance that children who are deathly allergic to peanuts will be at less risk of serious exposure. It’s the first drug ever FDA approved to treat life-threatening peanut allergies in children. Click.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Buck County, PA — one of the most politically divisive counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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