In other words, it was mediocre. About 170,000 people participated in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses, far short of the unprecedented 240,000 voters who turned out in 2008 and launched Barack Obama on his way to the White House. What was so exciting a dozen years ago was not only how many Iowans showed up, but who they were: young people, first-time caucusgoers, an ethnically diverse mix of voters in an overwhelmingly white state.
Until recent days, there had been plenty of buzz among Democrats that this year would set a new record. There was even some loose talk that turnout could reach 300,000, which would be incontrovertible evidence of the passion that their party is feeling about the prospect of defeating President Trump in November.
Indications last year gave them plenty of reason for that kind of confidence. When Elizabeth Warren made her first visit to the state as a candidate in early January 2019, people lined up two-and-a-half hours in advance to get into one event that I went to in Ankeny. More than 12,000 people showed up for the traditional Democratic Steak Fry last September, so eager were Iowans to hear from the 17 candidates who spoke there. At the state party’s big annual fundraising dinner in November, an estimated 13,000 euphoric Democrats packed the Wells Fargo Arena in downtown Des Moines practically to the rafters.
In the past week, I’ve been struck at how different the atmosphere felt.
The single-minded focus on getting Trump out of the White House was there, and remains far more a motivator than any differences these Democrats have over issues such as health care. But the voters I talked to seemed confused and anxious in the final hours before the caucuses, more torn than usual over which candidate to pick in a field that still numbers nearly a dozen. All but absent were the public displays of commitment to one candidate or another — the yard signs that typically dot suburban lawns and plaster the sides of barns in the countryside.
So what does the fact that so few actually turned out mean for the primary going forward? So-so turnout blows a hole in the rationale of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in particular. His electability argument is that he can inspire the passion it takes to bring out young people and disaffected Americans who normally don’t vote. Sanders had shown a surge in the most recent polls. But as he told a crowd in Indianola on Saturday: “If the voter turnout is low, we’re going to lose. It’s as simple as all that.”
On Monday night, I attended two caucuses that met in the same church hall in Waukee, an outer suburb of Des Moines that is in the fastest-growing part of the state. Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg won both of them — handily.
In one of the caucuses I observed, Sanders, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang were deemed “non-viable” on the first round of balloting. Their supporters had to find someone else to back on the second round. On the other side of the partition that divided the church hall in Waukee, former vice president Joe Biden didn’t survive the first cut.
As the disappointed Yang and Sanders supporters pondered which way to go for the second alignment, the contingents for the other candidates gathered around them and chanted: “Anyone but Trump!”
How typical was this small glimpse of results across the state broadly? That is what we are waiting to hear. Buttigieg’s speech here on Monday night sounded very much like a declaration of victory, so maybe he knows something, based on the army of observers that he and other candidates had stationed in caucuses around Iowa.
But in the meantime, the campaigns have already moved on to New Hampshire. The countless hours of stumping and organizing in Iowa are behind them. And no doubt they are all wondering: What was the point of it?