What happened — or didn’t happen — in Iowa last night is unbelievably bad. It is an international embarrassment, one that will raise legitimate (as well as silly) questions about the state of American democracy and accountability. The failure of this new app to collate and transmit voter data from the Caucus will have especially painful consequences for the Democrats — not just for their candidates, but for the party as a whole.
The delegates up for grabs in Iowa matter very little in the overall race to the Democratic National Convention this July (just 41 pledged delegates could be claimed last night), but the attention paid to the Iowa Caucus is practically priceless as far as candidate’s campaigns are concerned. In a normal primary year, the Iowa result would separate realistic nominees from the rest of the pack. It can surprise, upset, and make the party faithful move in a completely different direction to what was expected. As FiveThiryEight’s Nate Silver explains in his blog today, the power of Iowa is immense: if it didn’t exist, the primary race would look completely different.
As it happens, it does exist — and data on the winner lives somewhere between a broken app, some phone calls, and pictures of scraps of paper used to tally up local precincts’ votes — but its relevance is quickly fading away. By the time the results are announced, the candidates will already be campaigning hard in New Hampshire, the next primary state. There are likely to be just as many options on the ballot, as the Iowa cull won’t have properly taken place. And the national attention given to Iowa’s winner and runner-up will continue to be overshadowed by the shambolic breakdown of this year’s caucus infrastructure. At a time when trust and good faith in American politics is at rock bottom, Iowa’s Democratic party couldn’t have picked a worse time to launch their uselessness on the nation. Conspiracy theories are running amuck, adding quite generously to the pot America has already accumulated over the past four years.
The Democratic party is united on one thing this election season, and that’s removing President Trump from office. It remains to be seen if this is enough of a policy agenda to win back the Oval Office in November, but given the ideological stand-offs and increasing friction between the Democratic candidates, they have to find common ground where they can and their loathing of President Trump is it. But last night’s disaster will do nothing to bring the lot together. It’s more likely to be used as an excuse for poor showing in future primaries, a reason to criticize the party’s internal processes, and may prove a bad incentive to give fellow candidates a much harder time out on the campaign trail. The sooner they coalesce behind one person, the better their shot at the White House becomes.
But I suspect the Democratic party has more to fear than just the backlash of disgruntled candidates, skeptical Bernie Bros or hostile hashtags. For American voters casually tuning in across the nation, this level of incompetence reinforces their worst concerns about the Democratic party — they centralize, they spend money, and they make things worse for it. If the party can’t make an app work in Iowa, how will that bode for rolling out a single-payer healthcare system for 360 million people? If they can’t transmit simple data from one device to another, how are they going to redesign American’s entire industrial economy through a ‘Green New Deal’? How can they be trusted to implement a mandate delivered by voters in November, if they can’t even tally up the votes?
Political errors — especially in tech — are by no means unique to the Democratic party. The problem is that the party’s agenda advocates transferring themselves and the state more power (also known as more opportunities to mess things up). Even the most centrist candidates in the race have indulged the left-wing of the party with more spending and growing the state. While surely unintended, the Iowa app will now be remembered as the first flavor of the Democratic machine in action, and the party’s promise that state interference will vastly improve the country may be looking just as broken as the app itself.