Trump’s campaign held a news conference with campaign manager Brad Parscale and Trump’s two adult sons near Des Moines on Monday afternoon.
“I can see Bernie trying to get messed with the same way the president got messed with back in our caucus,” Parscale said. “I can already see the establishment ...”
Donald Trump Jr. jumped in.
“You saw what happened the last time they rigged the election!” he added.
A few hours later, before the caucuses began, Parscale appeared on Fox News. He was asked if the anti-establishment energy Sanders's campaign demonstrated reminded him of what Trump enjoyed in 2016. But that wasn't exactly what Parscale wanted to talk about.
“I was having a little deja vu the last couple of weeks, I got to be honest with you. I don’t know exactly what’s going on in their backrooms. Turnout for us was great,” he said. “The party all came together and we elected — I think they’re in a much tougher spot. But I get that deja vu. I think things might be a little bit rigged against him.”
He made a facial expression meant to convey something such as I-hate-to-say-it-but.
That point about turnout for Trump’s side being great is important. The Trump campaign put a focus on ginning up support in Iowa, dispatching surrogates including Trump’s children and his acting White House chief of staff across the state to speak to supporters. Trump-friendly outlets such as the Washington Examiner bit on the story that Trump’s team hoped to tell.
“With no real contest,” the outlet's Byron York wrote on Twitter, “a show of Trump organizational strength.”
York meant that as an expression of awe, but it’s more accurate to read the phrasing as written. There was no real competition, but Trump poured resources in anyway — adding something of an asterisk to the overwhelming support he enjoyed.
Why was there no real competition? In part because the Republican Party nationally took steps to make sure there wouldn't be.
In September, the Des Moines Register reported the party would, in fact, hold caucuses in Iowa this year. That announcement was necessary because in other states — South Carolina and Arizona — the state parties had decided to forgo any actual contest. While there were some announced challengers to the president, there were no formal Republican debates.
Last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, party chairwoman Ronna McDaniel scoffed at the idea that other candidates should challenge Trump.
“They have the right to jump in and lose,” she said. “That's fine. They will lose. Horribly.”
They did in Iowa, certainly, as McDaniel and Trump’s campaign ensured they would by boxing them out.
Little did those same people know, though, how lucky they would be in their efforts to cast the opposition as the ones rigging the outcome. As soon as it became apparent the Democratic caucuses would be mired in uncertainty, Trump allies leaped at the opportunity to declare Democrats were trying to rig the outcome.
Parscale seized on the Democratic Party’s explanation that they were doing “quality control” on the results coming in.
Some Sanders supporters were inclined to agree. Unfounded theories about the delay in the count and about the phone app introduced to tally the caucus results spread quickly. Sanders’s base of support does have a broad distrust of the establishment, and the Iowa caucuses’ sloppy execution provided plenty of fuel for that view.
Trump’s team tried to be subtle in promoting it. Some of the campaign’s supporters, though, were more explicit. One declared that “they” — presumably the party — “stole Iowa from Bernie Sanders in 2016 and they’re going to try and do it again in 2020.” Conservative pundit Erick Erickson was explicit about the utility of the mistakes the Iowa Democratic Party had displayed.
I don’t think Iowa sabotaged the caucus to hurt Bernie Sanders. But I really hope a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters think that.— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) February 4, 2020
There’s no evidence that the failures to report caucus results stemmed from anything other than ineptitude, though even that provided fodder for Republicans.
President Trump, for example, tweeted about the problems with the caucuses Tuesday morning.
“The Democrat Caucus is an unmitigated disaster,” he wrote. “Nothing works, just like they ran the Country. Remember the 5 Billion Dollar Obamacare Website, that should have cost 2% of that. The only person that can claim a very big victory in Iowa last night is ‘Trump’.”
He hasn’t claimed the process was rigged against Sanders. No need, really; his team was making that case well before the caucuses even began.