After Caucus Mishaps, Iowa's Role In The Primary Process Is In The Spotlight

Feb 4, 2020
Originally published on February 4, 2020 8:04 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Democratic presidential race is in chaos after the Iowa caucuses produced no results last night - none. A technical glitch prevented the party from releasing any results, which they are trying to do today. We're going to talk about what that means for the presidential race going forward with the New Hampshire primary one week from today.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us in studio.

Hey there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Audie.

CORNISH: What does this mean for the caucus itself, which people are constantly complaining about?

LIASSON: Yes. This - the Iowa caucuses are the one thing about the Democratic primary process that Democrats love to hate. It was already being dissed as too white, too old, too liberal, not representative enough. The caucus process was criticized as not democratic enough. There was no secret ballot, hard to understand. But ironically, the new rules that got the Iowa Democratic Party tied up in knots last night were what the Bernie Sanders supporters wanted to make the process more transparent.

CORNISH: This was after their criticism of...

LIASSON: Yes, what happened last time.

CORNISH: ...What happened with Hillary Clinton.

LIASSON: So at a time when ballot access and the legitimacy of the ballot is under fire and a top priority for the Democratic Party, I think it's fair to predict that there will be a move to either neuter or eliminate Iowa's position and the caucus process in the future. And as far as - as much as President Trump is gloating about this Democratic FUBAR, remember Republicans in Iowa haven't done much better. Back in 2012, they couldn't announce the results either right away. They couldn't say that Rick Santorum beat Mitt Romney until way later, and Santorum lost any momentum from that.

CORNISH: What's happened in the absence of a clear result? I mean, candidates are already touching down in New Hampshire.

LIASSON: That's right. It's almost as if the Iowa caucuses never happened. The big joke is about that Des Moines Register poll - remember? - that didn't come out. It had no results. Well, it perfectly predicted the caucus 'cause they didn't have any results either.

But the point of the Iowa caucuses is to give a candidate momentum. Doesn't give them very many delegates - there's only 41 there. No one got momentum. Momentum is supposed to give you media attention and bragging rights. It's a perception. Now that moment is gone. It didn't winnow the field. Like a kid's soccer game, at least for now everyone can say they got a trophy.

But it did tell us one thing. Even though the Iowa Democratic Party couldn't tell us the results, they could tell us about turnout. And Democrats were predicting historic turnout. Bernie Sanders said Democrats win when we bring lots of new people into the process. He said that's what he could do. But estimates from the party are that turnout was more on pace with 2016, about 170,000 people turning out, than 2008, when they got 240,000 - so not huge turnout.

The only person it absolutely benefited is someone who wasn't even running in the caucuses, Mike Bloomberg. If the leader in the centrist lane up until now, Joe Biden, is really wounded from Iowa, Bloomberg is waiting with half a billion dollars.

CORNISH: This sounds a lot like 2016 in a way because that's when Republicans were the ones who were trying to rally around a centrist alternative to Donald Trump.

LIASSON: That's right. But I think Democrats might be better at that than Republicans. They've been forewarned. I think they've woken up a lot earlier - at least the centrist establishment Democrats have - to what they think is an existential threat from Bernie Sanders, although all of them say they'll unite behind whoever is the nominee. Bloomberg even says he'll support Sanders if he's the nominee.

What you hear from establishment Democrats is what John Kerry was overheard saying on a cellphone in an Iowa hotel lobby - that Sanders will take the party down whole. Because his brand is a political revolution - he's not a compromiser; he's not a moderate - that he will not help Democrats win who are in competitive districts and states. He's ideologically coherent, very consistent. That's his brand. He's absolutely consolidating the progressive wing of the party. He's exciting younger voters. But it remains to be seen if he can win a broader coalition.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, President Trump's campaign is gloating. Why?

LIASSON: Why? He's having a really great news cycle, if that's what you care about. He has the highest Gallup approval rating of his presidency so far - 49%. He's about to be acquitted by the Senate. And he's going to have a huge national audience for his State of the Union address tonight.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mara Liasson.

Thanks so much for the update.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.