The Iowa Caucuses will be remembered for a very long time for the Democrats’ incompetence in managing the process, but that debacle turns out to be small potatoes. Last night’s kickoff of Democratic presidential-primary voting was supposed to highlight the enthusiasm voters across the country have in defeating Donald Trump. Instead, as the Washington Pot’s Karen Tumulty reports this morning, the turnout itself came in at nearly half of what some had predicted — and fell 70,000 short of Barack Obama’s 2008 turnout:
Even as the Iowa Democratic Party was trying to sort out the chaos in its reporting system, a party official announced that turnout was “on pace” with what they had seen in 2016.
In other words, it was mediocre. About 170,000 people participated in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses, far short of the unprecedented 240,000 voters who turned out in 2008 and launched Barack Obama on his way to the White House. What was so exciting a dozen years ago was not only how many Iowans showed up, but who they were: young people, first-time caucusgoers, an ethnically diverse mix of voters in an overwhelmingly white state.
Until recent days, there had been plenty of buzz among Democrats that this year would set a new record. There was even some loose talk that turnout could reach 300,000, which would be incontrovertible evidence of the passion that their party is feeling about the prospect of defeating President Trump in November.
People tend to forget just how talented Obama was at organizing, so expectations that any of the current candidates would outperform him were ambitious, let’s just say. Party leaders and pundits alike figured that the progressive grassroots and the establishment-minded voters would turn out in droves to send a message to their supposed bête noire, Donald Trump. Iowans had the opportunity to demonstrate heightened enthusiasm, but in the end they may not have even hit their 2016 level of 171,109 participants — one which pitted current frontrunner Bernie Sanders against Hillary Clinton.
For a party relying on a considerable grassroots backlash to Trump’s presidency to boost turnout in November, this is nothing short of disaster — and a wake-up call. The progressive argument that their candidates can turn out The People turns out to be as much vaporware as the socialism they’re selling:
So what does the fact that so few actually turned out mean for the primary going forward? So-so turnout blows a hole in the rationale of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in particular. His electability argument is that he can inspire the passion it takes to bring out young people and disaffected Americans who normally don’t vote. Sanders had shown a surge in the most recent polls. But as he told a crowd in Indianola on Saturday: “If the voter turnout is low, we’re going to lose. It’s as simple as all that.”
No kidding. And guess where the turnout was most disappointing? In new voters, NBC News reports:
The entrance poll showed just about a third of voters — 35 percent — caucusing this year are first-timers, a lower level than in 2016, when first-timers made up 44 percent of the Hawkeye State’s Democratic caucusgoers.
And this year’s level of new participants is well shy of that in 2008, when a whopping 57 percent of Democrats said they had never caucused before.
Not only is the Democratic field not generating new enthusiasm at previous levels, the static overall number portends something even more ominous. If a third of the participants were new caucus attendees and the overall participation rate remained the same, then Democrats have apparently lost around 57,000 engaged voters in the last four years. The push to the Left has not, as its advocates claim, generated grassroots enthusiasm — it has turned off Democratic voters instead, and will play even worse in a general election.
One good thing may yet come out of the Hawkeye Hork. As David Axelrod predicted on CNN, the Iowa caucus might finally be dead:
“I think the Iowa caucuses are dead, dead, dead,” @davidaxelrod says as the Iowa results are still delayed. “I don't think that's even a discussion anymore. I think that the nail has been driven through the Iowa caucuses.” https://t.co/SwApcx6vD8 pic.twitter.com/kPRgomyABa
— CNN Newsroom (@CNNnewsroom) February 4, 2020
DMR analyst David Yepsen predicts Iowans will kill it off themselves after this embarrassment:
If one thing was certain from Monday’s debacle, Iowa had just signed its death warrant as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said.
“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa’s goose. Frankly, it should,” Yepsen said. “The real winner tonight was Donald Trump, who got to watch his opponents wallow in a mess. A lot of good Democratic candidates and people who fought their hearts out here for … nothing.
“I expect Iowans will move themselves to kill it off by holding a primary, and let the state move to someplace behind New Hampshire along with other states.”
A primary would do nothing to change the nature of retail politics by candidates in the state. It would do everything to give that effort real credibility and an accountable result. But Democrats have far bigger fish to fry than just the caucus management issues that got exposed last night.