The final results rolled in for the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses this past Sunday ending a turbulent and arguably “disastrous” week for the Democratic party and its bid to prevent President Donald Trump from winning reelection in November. It began that Monday night with the first contest between the Democratic candidates that will determine the party’s nominee. It was a chaotic and muddled way to kick off the nomination process that did nothing to help the Democrats show unity or that there would be no suspicion of an unfair nominating process. At a time when they are trying to make the case that President Trump has taken actions and used rhetoric that could be said to demagogic or put us on a path of democratic backsliding, it is particularly damaging to start off the process like this, with suspicion and incompetence. This could be an example of democratic backsliding that Oxford University political scientist Nancy Bermeo describes as manipulating elections strategically which is much more complex and lower key then something as blatant as election day vote fraud. In this writing I will try to lay out what I believe is a disturbing pattern in recent years that has shown underhanded action to show favor to certain candidates over others and how the caucus process itself makes this easy.
There had already been doubts and rumors going into this primary especially among the Bernie Sanders wing of the party that there would be a fair process for the Democratic nomination especially after many Sanders supporters felt that he and his campaign were treated unfairly and had the deck stacked against him last time by the DNC and Democratic establishment. The first issues of suspicion came the weekend before the caucus when the anticipated release of the Des Moines Register poll which is seen as a very accurate last-minute preview of how the contest may go was abruptly canceled. The official reasons were due to supposedly human error and complaints from the Pete Buttigieg campaign on how the poll had been conducted. (Shepard & Schneider, n.d.)Critics say however it didn’t want to show a significant lead for Sanders going into the race. Before we go into the chaos of what happened in this year’s caucus let us look at the debacle of the caucus itself.
For many the Iowa caucus system seems destined to disenfranchise. They kick off at 7 pm and conclude on their own time. If you can’t make it then, or if you can’t stick it out to the end, you’re mostly out of luck. Absentee voting isn’t an option for Iowans out of state for work or school. To people who dislike and deem the Electoral college to be undemocratic in which less populated rural areas have an unfair advantage the Iowa Caucus system seems to fit that pattern. It takes much less participants in some smaller rural county to earn a delegate than higher populated counties to also earn one delegate. The confusing and complicated way caucuses are run contribute to often low voter turnout. This marks the third straight caucus with murky results. First was 2012 on the Republican side in which it initially was reported that Mitt Romney had won a very close race but was revealed two weeks later that Santorum had in fact won a close race. This arguably might have hurt potential momentum for Santorum to be the frontrunner instead of Romney who was said to be favored by the Republican establishment. 2016 on the Democratic side ended with an extremely close outcome where Hillary Clinton was announced to have won an extremely close caucus against Bernie Sanders. Delegates were even said to have been decided by coin toss in which Clinton won the majority of those. The popular vote total was also not released. Again, the person seemed to be favored by the political establishment was seen to have won under cloudy circumstances. Now we come to the mess of the 2020 Caucus.
Results of the 2020 Democratic Caucus were supposed to start rolling in the night of the contest but irregularities and a failure with the main app that was supposed to be used were being blamed for the delay. When results slowly began to come out there were reports of inconsistencies and flaws. Finally, all the results came out six days after the election. Pete Buttigieg came out slightly ahead in the delegate count while Bernie Sanders had won the popular vote. For the third straight time doubt in the results and in the process, itself had come out. The point of what the 2020 Iowa Caucus disaster has to do with democratic backsliding is that it has contributed to the belief in this country that even though we have elections there isn’t always a fair process or even result. The caucus system seems to be outdated. The behind closed doors chaotic process leaves the contest vulnerable to manipulation and backsliding.
I connected this problem with the reading On Democratic Backsliding written by Nancy Bermeo. In it Bermeo points out one of the new trends to backslide democracy is “manipulating elections strategically” (Bermeo). This involves tilting the electoral field and making it harder for certain types of candidates to get the upper hand. It does not involve voter fraud but involves sleezy tactics and manipulation to get the result they desire. This comes at an important time where people on both sides already have weakened trust in many institutions in the USA. It is easy to blame everything on Trump and his antics and actions since campaigning for and becoming President but not everything can be put on him. This disastrous start of the Democratic nomination process causes many doubts among people that they will have a fair choice in deciding. This can cause many to disengage from the system and turn to more extreme measures on both sides. The electoral system in this country needs an overall reform if we are not to backslide into authoritarianism and oligarchy. I do not think personally we are close to that but as we have read, backsliding can be a long boring process that lacks a dramatic moment that may be able to spark resistance. This was another thing pointed out in the Bermeo article.
In conclusion the point of this writing is that this sloppy and potentially unfair start to the presidential nomination process could be one of the many stops on the road to backsliding and we as a people must push for reform to avoid it. The people know it and those in the media honest enough to acknowledge it know it as well.
(Article originally written on February 11, 2020. Published April 27,2019)
Beaumont, H. (n.d.). Retrieved from Aljazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/02/caucus-disaster-wrong-200204204306989.html
Bermeo, N. (n.d.). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy.
Hendler, C. (n.d.). Retrieved from Mother Jones: https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/02/iowa-caucus-undemocratic/
Shepard, S., & Schneider, E. (n.d.). Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/02/01/des-moines-register-poll-not-released-after-apparent-mishap-110284
Silver, N. (n.d.). Retrieved from The New York Times: https://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/19/the-semantics-and-statistics-of-santorums-win-in-iowa/?mtrref=undefined&gwh=42BB7F13C3BB44805F7A21E916E2E361&gwt=pay&assetType=REGIWALL
When the point of election manipulation was brought up, I could not help think but of what happened in Georgia in 2018. So often with democratic erosion we think of it in terms of what is happening on a federal level, but it is important that it also happens at the state and local level, which is also more likely to affect the citizens. Many representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives run repeatedly unopposed or virtually unopposed, a reality much more common at the State House and Senate level, as well as city councils and county commissioners.
What Georgia experienced two years ago was a master class in what democratic erosion looks. The candidate who would end up winning, Brian Kemp, was Secretary of State at the time and thus responsible for overseeing the election; the one he was running in. Thousands of people who were part of minority groups were purged from being registered to vote prior to election. On the day of the election, voting machines at polling locations in precincts largely up of minority groups were simply not working. Kemp would go on to narrowly defeat his opponent Stacy Abrams, now a front runner for Joe Biden’s VP candidate, by just 55,000 votes. It is clear that this election could have clearly had a different outcome if not for the election manipulation by Kemp and other Georgia Republicans in government.