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Elections experts in Washington: Fiasco in Iowa highlights flaws in presidential nomination process

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 5, 2020

Bernie Sanders precinct captain Steven Meier tabulates results during the Democratic caucus at the UAW Hall in Dubuque, Iowa on Monday. The caucus’s belated results can be seen as one of the reasons to support presidential primaries, which have higher voter turnout and are tabulated by professional vote counters, local experts said Tuesday. (Eileen Meslar / AP)
Bernie Sanders precinct captain Steven Meier tabulates results during the Democratic caucus at the UAW Hall in Dubuque, Iowa on Monday. The caucus’s belated results can be seen as one of the reasons to support presidential primaries, which have higher voter turnout and are tabulated by professional vote counters, local experts said Tuesday. (Eileen Meslar / AP)

The Iowa caucus night debacle that delayed results in the Democratic presidential race until Tuesday afternoon shows no system of picking a candidate is perfect, local experts said as the first returns trickled in.

“Every system has tradeoffs,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. “There are advantages and disadvantages to each.”

Democrats in Washington and Idaho this year have ditched the caucus system that put tabulation of votes in the hands of political parties. Voters in Washington will receive their ballots in the mail after Feb. 19, and Idaho voters will go to the polls March 10.

Those ballots will be counted by election officials whose job is to tally votes, not reported through the smartphone app system that party members in Iowa are blaming for the belated results.

“That was operated by a private organization, it was not operated by election officials working in local government,” Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton said of the situation in Iowa.

The caucus system, which was used for decades to select candidates for president nationwide and by Washington Democrats through 2016, has its advantages, said Kevin Pirch, a professor of political science at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.

“It kind of depends on what you’re trying to achieve,” said Pirch, who specializes in campaign communication and voter behavior. “It allows for that debate and that deliberation. There’s a distinct advantage to having all those Democrats in a room, to try to figure out where their values are.”

Washington’s Democrats will still get that opportunity after the presidential primary, said Andrew Biviano, a former chairman of the Spokane County Democrats. It will just occur after voters have made their preferences known in the primary, when party members caucus to determine who will represent them at state and national conventions as well as decide their ideological platform heading into the 2020 presidential contest.

“The benefit is always that you get party building, you bring people together and have more of a community sense that you don’t get if you just go to the polls,” Biviano said.

Biviano chaired the local party in 2017 and 2018, and has been an active Democrat for several election cycles. He remembered the difficulty of organizing and running caucuses in spite of their benefits to the local party.

“I was pretty heavily involved in both of the last presidential caucuses, and they were just really hard,” he said.

Sharon Smith, who chaired the party from 2005 to 2009 and then was named vice chair of the state party through 2010, said she preferred a primary after speaking with frequent Democratic voters who were unaware of the caucus ahead of the 2016 campaign.

“Not one single door we knocked on knew about the caucuses,” Smith said. “That was the biggest red flag to me.”

Smith said she also believed having the caucus after the primary would allow Washington’s Democratic voters to both weigh in on their choice of candidate and participate in party-building discussions later in the election cycle.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I think it’s the fairest way.”

The results also aren’t always readily available as soon as the caucuses themselves are over. The same was true of Republican candidates in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, as a final winner of the contest – Rick Santorum – wasn’t declared until more than two weeks later.

The longer the wait for results, Pirch said, the more doubt begins to creep in about their legitimacy by both the media and voters.

“I think this is a bad part of our culture,” he said. “We think if it’s not instantaneous – it must be a nefarious reason it’s not instantaneous.”

Pirch said it might be that changing opinions and convictions about candidates even within their own party might be making the caucus system more and more obsolete as an initial method of determining a nominee. He cited exit poll results from the Washington Post reported Tuesday that showed 64% of caucusgoers in Iowa had decided their preference prior to January.

“For a caucus to truly work, the people attending it have to come in with an open mind,” Pirch said. “They have to be agreeable to new ideas, and we may not live in that kind of world right now.”

Clayton also questioned whether continuing the tradition of allowing small states like Iowa and New Hampshire to be the first bellwethers of presidential support made sense for the political parties. They make up a small portion of the delegates available at the national conventions, but hold a disproportionate sway over the early tenor of the race, Clayton said, and there have been pushes for regional primaries that would allow candidates to campaign in clustered geographic areas just prior to voters weighing in.

“I think eventually the question is if you go to a national primary, or a fixed regional-based primary,” Clayton said.

The scenario also allows well-funded candidates to completely buck traditional trends and bank on picking up delegates in larger chunks later in the campaign season. That’s the stated strategy of Michael Bloomberg, whose largely self-funded campaign announced Tuesday it would beef up already heavy ad spending in TV markets outside of Iowa and New Hampshire, including Spokane.

Pirch said if he were to pick winners of the caucus confusion, he’d start with Pete Buttigieg, who was leading with nearly 27% of the vote reported in Iowa on Tuesday afternoon. Then, he said, it would be Bloomberg, who received no delegates but whose campaign remained largely absent from the scrum that broke out among surrogates for the top-polling Democrat candidates after the caucuses.

The big winner, Pirch said, might be incumbent President Donald Trump, who easily won the GOP’s nomination in Iowa on Monday night and who can sit back as the Democratic candidates argue about who had a better showing in the Hawkeye state.

“Trump should be giggling about the whole thing,” Pirch said. “You’re creating campaign ads for him in the fall.”

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