The following editorial appeared in the Feb. 4 edition of The Des Moines Register:
Iowa’s role in the presidential election is far more than Monday’s precinct caucuses and the still-unfolding nightmare of the long-missing results.
What happened is more akin to a gymnastics routine, one in which the state Democratic Party belly-flopped the landing. But the state should also be judged on what happened before that, when Iowans did what they were supposed to do. They did it for months.
They talked to candidates, attended events, knocked on doors, listened in coffee shops, asked questions at forums and helped people in 49 other states get to know the people seeking to be the next president.
That continued Monday night, when tens of thousands of people gathered in schools and churches to be part of the process of selecting Democratic and Republican nominees for president.
Much remains to be untangled about what steps state Democratic Party officials took and didn’t take over the past four years that led them to be unjustifiably confident that they could share comprehensive caucus results within hours of most of the 1,765 gatherings convening.
Apparent missteps in planning, failed execution and leaders’ dismal performance in crisis management may well exact a toll for the state beyond the sober denunciations and clever (or not) jokes at Iowa’s expense that took over television and the internet in the days after the caucuses.
But if the outcome is accurate, credible results, then who is harmed by a delay of hours or even a couple of days? Journalists with airtime to fill and stories to write, and … who else, exactly?
Problems with the caucus format, primarily the various ways its format excludes people, are well-documented. But its virtues, with genuine discussion among neighbors and a complicated process executed ably and almost exclusively by volunteers, stood out again Monday. The reliance on rank-and-file Democrats is a strength.
When it came time to tabulate what happened, the state party’s processes — which, to be fair, were radically reworked for this year at the insistence of the national party — made all of that into a vulnerability.
Informed observers warned that the mobile app developed to convey results to headquarters was a risky step. And in fact it wasn’t ready for prime time. How thoroughly was the app put through its paces?
Either way, precinct workers have said they weren’t comfortable even before Monday with the app. Did the party have a robust enough staffing and a detailed enough backup plan to efficiently and expeditiously collect results over the phone?
Perhaps the least excusable error: sparse crisis communication, resulting in a bad thing becoming much worse.
Party officials did make some good choices, among them not rushing to publish results as the clamor picked up. They clearly learned the lesson of the Republicans’ Mitt Romney-Rick Santorum switcheroo in 2012.
And thank goodness that the party has paper preference cards on hand to allow them to largely reconstruct each caucus, an innovation for these caucuses. The results will closely resemble what happened in the precincts Monday night — a confidence that wouldn’t have been available before 2020.
The egg on Iowa’s face inevitably prompts questions about whether another state should take the privilege and scrutiny of going first on the presidential nominating calendar.
This episode makes it harder to argue that Iowa is exceptional.
It’s the bad landing, of course, that everyone will remember. And it’s necessary to dig in and determine all the ways that caucus night went awry. But let’s not lose sight of the grass-roots involvement that a caucus process fosters.
Under new scrutiny from a skeptical nation, Iowans will need to weigh whether that is worth working to preserve.