What the Iowa fallout revealed about the 2020 candidates

People react genuinely in times of stress

Democratic candidates.
(Image credit: Illustrated | vitalik19111992/iStock, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Aerial3/iStock)

Two days after the Iowa caucuses, the full results are still not in. With 71 percent of precincts reporting at time of writing, Bernie Sanders has the most votes by a narrow margin, while Pete Buttigieg has a slight lead in state delegates (due to the goofy Electoral College-style way the latter are allocated). But we can't yet say for sure who won — and thus the political media's favorite hobby of feverish narrative-building is out of reach for the moment.

In general, it's ridiculous on both substantive and moral grounds to give such attention to Iowa. It's a small, unrepresentative state, with only about 1 percent of the delegates up for grabs, and as every last American now knows, the caucus system is an absolute disgrace. But we can learn something about the character of the candidates and their campaigns from how they behaved during and after the caucuses, from the Biden campaign's flailing panic to Buttigieg's Machiavellian plotting.

Let's take them in turn.

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Pete Buttigieg. Team Pete displayed the campaign's signature oleaginous cynicism to perfection on caucus night. Indeed, even before it started they successfully suppressed the final Des Moines Register poll by whining that he wasn't included in one phone call survey. (The results showed Sanders ahead, and preventing the release may have dented his momentum.)

Then, before any official results were reported, Buttigieg smugly declared victory. "So we don't know all the results," he said in a speech to supporters, but "Iowa you have shocked the nation. Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious." He used his bargain-basement Obama impression to deliver Trumpian disinformation: "Because tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality." Hard to think of something more deniable than declaring victory with zero percent of the official results in. (Much of the political press, naturally, rewarded him with lavish praise for winning the "spin game.")

Joe Biden. We don't know who won Iowa, but we do know Biden got rinsed, winning only 13.2 percent of the reported vote at time of writing — massively underperforming even the polls that had him doing poorly. It's undoubtedly the most important result given that he is still leading national polls with a campaign message based entirely on his ability to win elections.

Afterwards, his camp made the situation worse by suggesting the vote had been somehow compromised. Despite the fact that there was no indication of a hack or meddling in the process, the Biden campaign quickly released a letter demanding a chance to respond before results were posted. A campaign spokesman said on CNN that they had "real concerns about the integrity of the process," and "election integrity is obviously of the utmost importance and so we really want to make sure the Iowa Democratic Party addresses this before they put out official data." It was an obvious attempt to muddle up the media coverage of Biden being trounced, and frankly also smacks of Trump's attacks on the electoral process.

Bernie Sanders. The Sanders campaign clearly expected to win, and were wrong-footed by both the delay in results and the fact that they were closer than they thought. Nevertheless, Team Sanders was careful in responding, only releasing their internal results (incidentally collected on a campaign phone app that worked perfectly well) when Buttigieg attempted to claim victory. In his speech, Sanders was breezily confident, but notably did not declare outright victory. "I have a strong feeling that at some point the results will be announced, and when those results are announced I have a strong feeling we'll be doing very very well here in Iowa," he told supporters.

After the Biden campaign cast doubt on the results, Sanders responded with calm reassurance. We "are not casting aspersions on the votes that are being counted," he told reporters the following day. "There is no excuse for not having results last night, but that doesn't mean to say the totals that are coming in are inaccurate."

Elizabeth Warren. The Warren campaign appears to have done better than anticipated, with 20.6 percent of the partial popular vote against Buttigieg's 25.2 percent and Sanders' 26.2 percent. That decently strong performance was lost in the media circus around the botched caucus, but her campaign shrugged off the mess. She neither claimed victory nor implicitly suggested the vote might have been somehow rigged, instead moving to New Hampshire for another week of campaigning. It's an outside shot at this point, but Warren might really have a chance of bouncing back.

People's character tends to reveal itself in times of stress, which the bungled Iowa caucuses at least provided in spades. We see today Buttigieg the ruthless and opportunistic political climber, Biden the incompetent and panicky bungler, Sanders the patient movement-builder, and Warren the steady and dogged campaigner. Future primary voters should take these revelations into account when making their choice.

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