Then, Monday night happened. It has been 12 hours since the caucuses ended across much of the state, and the party is still trying to account for problems in its results-tabulation process. It’s not clear when we might know what happened in the state, fueling conspiracy theories by both Democrats and Republicans and more generally raising questions about Iowa’s lofty role in the nominating process.
It’s worth noting how overblown and perhaps premature much of it is. However messy the process and the handling of the results have been, actually “rigging” the outcome would be extremely difficult, given the number of people at each caucus site who know how their voting panned out and can cross-reference the eventual results.
But it’s certainly not pretty, or confidence-inspiring, and criticism from across the political spectrum is piling up.
This isn’t the first time in the past decade that the process has failed to produce a timely result, which in turn arguably affected what happened next (which, after all, is what makes Iowa important).
In 2012, it was the Republican caucus that was a mess. Back then, Mitt Romney was named the winner of the caucuses by eight votes — a narrow victory, yes, but still a victory for the favorite to be the Republican nominee.
Romney went on to win the New Hampshire primary comfortably, apparently winning the often-elusive double in the first two contests — he would have been the first Republican to ever win both Iowa and New Hampshire — and setting him on course to face incumbent President Barack Obama.
Except eight days after that New Hampshire win, we found Romney actually finished second in Iowa. The Iowa GOP announced, 16 days after the caucuses, that Rick Santorum had actually finished first — by 34 votes. But even that result was tinged by uncertainty:
Santorum’s strange, belated victory also served to embarrass the Iowa GOP — which had to admit that it had misallocated some votes, and simply lost some others, in a razor’s-edge election where every vote mattered.It also cast an unflattering light on the old-fashioned and convoluted system that the party uses to collect and count caucus votes.“It should be like a fine Swiss watch,” said Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt. “It’s really more like a sundial.” He said the system used by Iowa Democrats was not significantly better.
Given the irregularities and problems, in fact, the party even after the recount declined to declare either Romney or Santorum the actual winner:
… Iowa Republican leaders seemed to cast doubt on their own results, saying Thursday that it was hard to declare a “winner” without knowing what happened in those eight precincts. Matthew N. Strawn, the state party chairman, simply “congratulated” Santorum and Romney “on a hard-fought effort during the closest contest in caucus history.”
Eventually, amid pressure, the party decided to just declare Santorum the winner in a statement released just before midnight on a Friday night — prime news-dump time.
“To clarify conflicting reports and to affirm the results released Jan. 18 by the Republican Party of Iowa, Chairman Matthew Strawn and the State Central Committee declared senator Rick Santorum the winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucus,” the party wrote.
We’ll never know for sure what impact the delayed result had on the campaign as it continued to unfold. Santorum’s campaign claimed a “huge upset” and tried to re-create the momentum it might have had from a victory 2½ weeks earlier. “We’ve had two early-state contests with two winners, and the narrative that Gov. Romney and the media have been touting of ‘inevitability’ has been destroyed,” said Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley, who is now a spokesman in the White House.
Romney failed to win the next contest, in South Carolina, but he went on to win Florida and then Nevada. Santorum pulled off some upsets in a trio of less-important contests on Feb. 7, and he was able to keep the contest going into March. But Romney remained the clear favorite throughout.
Defenders of the Iowa caucuses on Monday night and Tuesday morning noted that whatever happens, we’ll still eventually know the winner. Some even argued it’s good that the winner perhaps won’t get the same kind of bump from Iowa — now that some attention has turned to New Hampshire — because it keeps the other states relevant.
Similarly, back in 2012, defenders of the caucuses noted that a 42-vote shift is hardly a big deal. The idea of a winner is simply a construct, especially in caucuses, they argued, in which what really matters is the eventual delegates won.
The Democratic Party’s process — which is more complicated than Republicans’ — has changed over the years, including in response to their own controversies in a close result in 2016. The Iowa Democratic Party this year has been encouraging emphasizing the total delegates a candidate wins over the sheer number of votes received.
Regardless of how critics feel about how significant Iowa should be, it plays a tremendously important role because it is first. How it handles that role can affect the race as it unfolds, perhaps more than any other state. Hiccups in the process can unquestionably hurt candidates and help others, as Bernie Sanders supporters are rightly arguing right now.
If an Iowa result doesn’t do as much to winnow the field or a win doesn’t do as much to bolster someone like Sanders’s chances, the state’s problems do matter. Momentum is a perception, but that perception matters in the nominating contest.
Whether Iowa should remain at the front of the line moving forward will undoubtedly be a hot topic moving forward. But it wasn’t just what happened Monday night that should inform that conversation; it’s also what happened eight years ago.