Joe Biden can’t quite explain his vote for the Iraq War in 2002? Bernie Sanders has been insistently consistent about everything for decades? Elizabeth Warren has detailed thoughts about comprehensive policy change? Amy Klobuchar would like you to know she’s reasonable and moderate? You don’t say!
So if you’re a primary voter, particularly one in Iowa where chances are that three or four candidates have personally barged into your kitchen to look deeply into your eyes and explain their vision for America, why the hell haven’t you made your mind up by now?
There have been seven debates, hundreds of town halls, uncountable media profiles, the release of approximately 12,000 policy plans, thousands of staff and volunteers knocking on doors and making phone calls, not to mention the fact that the field has been whittled down considerably, with the departure of many of the major candidates and a few of the minor ones. If you don’t know whom you like by now, there’s something seriously wrong.
I’ve long been on record arguing that caucuses, and the Iowa caucuses in particular, are a crime against democracy and ought to be done away with (and don’t get me started on the Iowa State Fair). And now after all this campaigning, most potential Iowa voters are still scratching their chins and saying, “Gee, I’m just not sure.”
According to last week’s Des Moines Register poll (the gold standard of Iowa polling), only 40 percent of likely caucus-goers said their mind was made up on their first choice. And to be clear, these are people who say they’re going to caucus; never mind the majority of Iowa Democrats who either won’t bother or won’t be able to make it to a caucus (in 2016, with hotly contested races in both parties, turnout for the Iowa caucuses was a measly 16 percent).
This indecision makes the outcome extremely hard to predict, not only because all the polls show a tight race but also because of the way the Iowa caucuses work. They feature a cousin to instant-runoff voting, in which if a candidate doesn’t garner 15 percent in any particular caucus, that candidate’s voters then have to make another choice from among the contenders who do have 15 percent or more in that precinct.
The result is a lot of horse-trading and shuffling around in the middle school gym, which is one of the reasons it takes so long. It means that it could end up mattering a great deal whether, for instance, Amy Klobuchar voters also like Pete Buttigieg or Andrew Yang voters also like Elizabeth Warren. Especially when we in the media treat even the smallest margin of victory as a triumph for one candidate and a tragedy for the others.
I don’t want to completely discount the possibility that some voters, including some of those 60 percent of Iowa Democrats, might have tuned in to Tuesday’s debate and gotten closer to making a decision. Sometimes what people need is reassurance, to resolve their uncertainty and do what they were already inclined to do.
For instance, just before the debate we got into a renewed discussion about whether a woman can win the general election, something many people have doubts about. As expected, the candidates were asked about it, and when it was Warren’s turn she made a clever argument:
Since Donald Trump was elected, women candidates have outperformed men candidates in competitive races. And in 2018, we took back the House; we took back statehouses, because of women candidates and women voters.Look, I don’t deny that the question is there. Back in the 1960s, people asked, “Could a Catholic win?” Back in 2008, people asked if an African American could win. In both times the Democratic Party stepped up and said yes, got behind their candidate and we changed America. That’s who we are.
That not only addresses the practical concern about beating Trump, but also links the question to people’s identity as Democrats, saying that the truest expression of that identity is to vote for her.
That might have persuaded people who were on the fence, and it might not have. But something has to, because barring some shocking set of new revelations, there’s no reason anyone who has been paying attention shouldn’t have a pretty good idea by now of who they support.
Then somebody will win Iowa, and we can all decide that that candidate is a winner and the rest of them are losers, based on the feelings of a few thousand fickle voters who only just made up their minds.
It never hurts to remind ourselves that even if this process can be fun, full of uncertain outcomes and interesting personalities, it’s kind of a crazy way to decide who leads the world’s dominant superpower.