Whoever pulls ahead in the final count, it was a serious defeat for democracy. The caucuses occur in public, so at the end of the day we’ll probably get a count we can trust, but the Iowa Democratic party seems to have done everything possible to make people lose confidence in the results’ reliability. First, by deploying an untested app with no transparency, they opened up suspicion about manipulation. Second, by keeping the results they had under wraps, without giving any explanation or timeline, they made themselves look like they were sitting on results because they didn’t like the outcome. Third, by releasing results that contained obvious errors (which tended to go against Sanders), and delaying a bunch of results that pulled Sanders closer to Buttigieg, they looked conspiratorial. The arcane delegate math didn’t help: as cable news election experts tried to explain how more votes for Sanders turns into more delegates for Buttigieg, they made American elections look absurd.
The result of all this was that whoever the victor was got denied their election night glory, and the story of frontrunner Joe Biden’s total wipeout got lost in the muddle. But even worse, people who had invested themselves in this election were made to feel powerless. With its lack of transparency or communication, the Iowa Democratic party seemed to be treating them with total contempt. It was as if they were saying: “You thought you had a democracy? Hah. Sorry, but the party is in charge, not you.” It was a depressing feeling of losing control, of feeling like unknown people in back rooms are the ones who get to determine what happens. Even if they aren’t determining the winner, they’re certainly determining whether the winner will get a triumphant media victory or have their win be a quiet non-story weeks after the fact.