The first is from Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), perhaps President Trump’s most stalwart supporter in the Senate.
What are the odds? Probably fairly low. But consider both what Graham is presenting and insinuating. He’s presenting two technical glitches as completely upending established systems. He’s insinuating that this was done out of fear that former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign is faltering and Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) is surging.
The presentation is inaccurate. The much-hyped Des Moines Register-CNN poll was tabled once the pollsters discovered that former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg hadn’t been presented as an option to some respondents. Not knowing how extensive the problem might have been, the poll was set aside out of an abundance of caution. Something similar happened with the caucus results themselves: A coding error on a system designed to tabulate results didn’t display all of the results from the caucuses, prompting the Iowa Democratic Party to unexpectedly switch to a different system for tallying results.
It’s the insinuation that’s driving things, though. It’s probably not the case that Graham thinks there was a broad anti-Biden conspiracy. He, like Trump’s team of surrogates, is almost certainly just hyping the idea that Sanders is getting submarined because they saw how that strategy worked in 2016. If Sanders doesn’t get the nomination, Graham and Trump are happy to have his supporters think that the primary was stolen — and therefore, ideally, not come vote for the Democratic nominee. The conspiracy here doesn’t even make sense: A newspaper in Des Moines is going to sabotage its poll results — and the money and media attention that follow — solely to have some incremental effect on the Democratic primary process?
Or, really, no effect at all, because the caucuses were imminent anyway. If Biden was going to tank and Sanders to surge, it would come out in the voting.
If your response to that is something like, Aha! But that’s why they rigged the voting, you should understand that the glitch in reporting the results will not affect the actual tallies. After questions were raised about the results in the 2016 caucuses, the state Democratic Party introduced a paper backup for the process, including cards signed by voters with their initial and final candidate preferences. (The party is still collecting those cards.) That system can’t “crash,” and if worse came to worse, it could be matched against the actual caucus attendees.
Early results from individual caucuses suggest that Sanders did do well, as polling suggested was likely. So much for Graham’s conspiracy theory.
But, of course, he isn’t alone. Sanders supporters seized on the idea that the process was rigged with alacrity. Among them was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Sanders endorser who shared a slightly different assessment of what might have happened.
The presentation differs from Graham’s more than the insinuation.
Here again a chain of events is misrepresented to bolster the theory. Yes, Democratic campaigns and the Iowa state party hired a firm called Shadow to do outreach work. The name sounds nefarious, which certainly doesn’t help, but there’s a reason for it: The firm wants to build “a long-term, side-by-side ‘Shadow’ of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large,” according to its website.
Yes, Buttigieg’s campaign paid Shadow for its services — but so did the Biden campaign and the campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). It’s a vendor for Democratic campaigns, so Democratic campaigns gave it money. Why? Because Shadow provides tools such as a text messaging system for contacting voters, which is what Buttigieg’s campaign says it was buying.
Buttigieg did declare himself “victorious” in the caucuses, but as we wrote last week, the close race in the state, the addition of multiple levels of result reporting — uh, ideally — and the tendency of campaigns to tout close losses as wins all suggest that Buttigieg was giving a speech he would have given anyway.
The focus on Buttigieg here is a tell about what the original tweeter and Omar are hoping to insinuate: that a moderate candidate engaged in a complicated effort to control the results in Iowa and thereby win. It’s all vague and hand-wavey, enough to be able to say, “We were just asking questions.” But that’s what they were getting at.
Again, the question that must be asked is: Is this feasible? And the answer is: Not really.
Coming into the caucuses, Buttigieg was polling third in Iowa, a bit behind Biden and about six points behind Sanders. He was positioned to do well if things fell into place, and there are hints that they did. Preliminary entrance polling, for example, showed Buttigieg as the second choice of a lot of demographic groups, a distinctly useful position to be in during a process where second choices actually come into play.
In other words, there’s not much reason to think that Buttigieg would have had to engage in some nefarious process to come out as a “victor” in the caucuses.
What’s particularly odd about the theories being driven by Sanders supporters is that Sanders will probably come out of Iowa with an actual win on at least some of the metrics captured by the party. Biden’s campaign raised its own questions about the process — and those reports suggesting that things didn’t go very well give them a reason to do so. Sanders doesn’t appear to have such a need, nor has his campaign raised any issues like those elevated by Omar.
The simplest explanation is that a glitch in software purchased by the Iowa Democratic Party provided fodder for motivated observers to suggest that someone, somewhere was getting manipulated. What is best ascribed to a mistake or incompetence is instead presented as nefarious.
We ask this question, then. In your personal experience, what’s more often been the cause of gigantic messes: deliberate conspiratorial schemes or people making dumb mistakes? Yes, sometimes there are conspiracies afoot. But so far, the safest assumption is that there wasn’t one in Iowa.