As it became clear that the results of what might be the last edition of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus would not be released Monday evening, each of the so-called top-tier candidates hoping to take on Donald Trump in November did what politicians do: They spun it as best as they could.
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was never expected to win, but congratulated her supporters for helping her campaign "punch above our weight”.
“We are feeling so good tonight, and I cannot wait — somehow, some way, I’m gonna get on a plane tonight to New Hampshire,” Klobuchar said. “We are bringing this ticket to New Hampshire.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, long thought to be the putative frontrunner but rumored to have finished as low as fourth in the final totals, told supporters: “We feel good about where we are," and said he'd get a decent share of delegates in the end as he heads to New Hampshire.
Another sitting Senator thought to be among the probable top finishers in Iowa — Vermont's Bernie Sanders — also struck positive notes when addressing supporters, who he told that he had "a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa." In contrast, his main competitor from the Democratic Party's liberal wing, Massachusetts' Elizabeth Warren, sounded a note of caution when she spoke Monday evening.
“We don’t know all the results tonight, but tonight has already showed that Americans have a deep hunger for big, structural change to make our economy and our democracy work for everyone,” she said. “Tonight showed that our path to victory is to fight hard for the changes that everyone is demanding.”
But it was the youngest candidate in the field, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who went all-in with his attempt at perception management.
“So we don’t know all the results, but we know by the time it’s all said and done, Iowa, you have shocked the nation,” said Buttigieg, who stood to be the first openly gay candidate to win a presidential primary or caucus if his prediction — "by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious" — came true.
To most observers, Buttigieg's remarks were simply those of a young politician trying to project confidence heading into yet another close contest. But once news broke that the reason for the delay in results was the app commissioned by the Iowa Democratic Party for the submission of caucus results, developed by a company founded by veterans of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, a number of high-profile figures began to suggest that a conspiracy was afoot.
Some of the disinformation in question came from prominent people in President Trump's orbit.
At 11.36pm on Monday, the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted that: "The fix is in... AGAIN and we get to watch it play out on live TV."
His brother, Eric Trump, weighed in a few minutes later when he wrote: "Mark my words, they are rigging this thing... what a mess."
It was a message targeted to supporters of Sanders, who Trump campaign officials hope will either come out in strong enough numbers to let the president run for re-election against a self-declared socialist, or stay home in anger if he is not the nominee.
It was also a message that top Sanders surrogates were more than willing to pick up.
One of those surrogates, activist Shaun King, got rather specific in his accusations.
"The poll that has been released right before the election in Iowa for 76 years straight was scrapped because Pete’s team complained. And Pete’s team funded the company that built the failed election app in Iowa. And Pete declared victory before results released?" King tweeted Tuesday morning.
Another high-profile Sanders backer, Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, retweeted a tweet by a Sanders-supporting journalist which implied a connection between the Buttigieg campaign engaging the firm that developed the Iowa caucus app for unrelated services, the app's failure, and what the journalist called Buttigieg's decision to "declare himself Iowa winner with no result."
"This can't be it!" Omar wrote to her 1.8 million followers.
But Sanders' obviously passionate surrogates' claims that something untoward is happening in Iowa at the behest of the dreaded "establishment" ignore the fact that the changes to this year's Iowa caucus were made at the recommendation of the post-2016 "unity commission" established to pacify Bernieworlders. It was them who were convinced that the Democratic National Committee rigged the 2016 primary against Sanders (there is no evidence of this).
The uproar coming from the Sanders backers who'd read stolen DNC emails released by Wikileaks, who were now alleging that a corrupt bargain had been made between the Clinton campaign and the DNC, meant some action had to be taken to mollify Sanders' people, said Khary Penebaker, a DNC member who endorsed Cory Booker last year.
"We recognize that we no longer had control of the narrative despite what we might have thought that actually happened in . This is where people were at this point, and we needed to make adjustments to accommodate that," he told me, though he stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the DNC.
According to a person with direct knowledge with the process which led to the rule changes, Iowa's "Frankenstein caucus" was the result of accommodations for Sanders supporters who wanted to maintain Iowa's and Nevada's first-in-the-nation caucuses, rather than end the practice of holding caucuses altogether, because caucuses were thought to favor Sanders. The use of the app was necessitated by rules put in place to make the caucuses more like primaries by releasing more data, including first-round preference totals.
"That's going away," the person predicted, adding that Americans may have seen the last of the Iowa caucuses.
Penebaker, who noted that he was among those who favored the switch to primaries during the debates over the "unity commission" recommendations, said the Sanders camp's desire to keep the caucuses in place was the result of them "looking out for [their] candidate's interests, rather than the interests of actual voters," and added that the vitriol being directed by Sanders supporters at DNC Chair Tom Perez, Buttigieg, and others is unhelpful.
"It's not helping our party or our candidates when we have to revert back to 'the easiest thing to think about is this, there's gotta be something nefarious going on’," he said. "We're trying to make this as fair and as transparent as possibly can be given the circumstances are in front of us and we're not out there trying to rig anything."
"I just don't see how when you, when you want to have a big tent, when you know you need to bring more people to the party who will vote for you in a general election, how this kind of behavior is one that appears to be welcoming," he continued. "It's OK to disagree, but it's not OK to behave in a way that is so toxic... and as a voter and as a parent, I don't see how this is going to make my daughter, who is 21 years old, want to go out and do something."
Simon Rosenberg, a former strategist for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who now runs the centrist New Democratic Network think tank, said that it's "astonishing" that the DNC would make mistakes that might open up the sorts of fissures between Sanders supporters and the rest of the Democratic Party that kept many voters home in 2016. But he added that Sanders is putting his candidacy in peril with the negativity surrounding his candidacy.
"I think it would be smart of everyone involved in this to recognize this may have been an unfortunate and innocent error, and to now focus on winning New Hampshire and moving on, so any kind of sustained dwelling on this is going to be counterproductive," he said. "My hope [is] that Bernie has learned that at the end of the day, the kind of the fissures that evolved in 2016 in the Democratic Party were hurtful to him, and hurtful to the party.”
Rosenberg also pointed out that Sanders' support this year is just half of what he commanded in 2016: ”He's in the low twenties right now when he was in the forties [in 2016]. He's lost half of his votes, and part of the reason he's lost half of his vote is because people don't like the way that he attacked the Democratic Party[.] So if he wants to be the Democratic nominee and not just a spoiler, this is a real test for him in terms of whether he's learned that the way he handled this in 2016 was wrong and whether he's actually trying to win the nomination going forward, as opposed to being a spoiler in the race."
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