Is Nevada About to Repeat the Iowa Clusterf**k?

Iowa Caucus, results
Rich Eychaner photographs caucus results with his smartphone at the caucus site for precinct 55 in downtown Des Moines, IA, on February 3, 2020. Photo credit: © Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 17 minutesProtecting Out Vote 2020

Yes, they are still counting votes in Iowa, which raises many questions: How did the Democratic caucuses there get so screwed up, whose fault was it, and is Nevada about to go the same route?

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk to longtime Iowa talk show host Jeff Stein. He has covered 11 Iowa caucuses and has watched their reputation be transformed from the epitome of civic participation to something resembling a bad reality cable show. What’s worse, he says, is that the efforts of Tom Perez and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to rewrite caucus rules are responsible for what went wrong.

The people of Iowa, once proud of their exercise in participatory democracy, are now angry at seeing their state become the butt of late-night jokes. All because the DNC tried to micromanage their election.

It’s a must-listen before this weekend’s Nevada caucus becomes a mirror-image of the Iowa chaos.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Some of you may remember that it took only three days for astronauts to reach the moon, yet it’s been almost three weeks and we still don’t have all the accurate results from the Iowa caucuses. And now we’re told that it may take a while to get the results from the Nevada caucuses coming up this weekend. It begs the question, are caucuses relevant? Are they democratic? Should they even exist in the 21st century?
Jeff Schechtman: We’re going to talk about this with my guest, Jeff Stein. He’s a talk show host on KXEL in Iowa. He’s an author, historian and broadcaster who’s covered 11 years of Iowa caucuses and 40 years of politics in the state of Iowa. He’s recognized as the foremost broadcast historian in the state and his daily radio feature on Iowa history, Iowa Almanac, airs on two dozen stations statewide. It is my pleasure to welcome Jeff Stein to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.
Jeff Stein: It is my privilege. Thanks so much for making the invitation, happy to do it.
Jeff Schechtman: You’ve covered a lot of Iowa caucuses. Talk first about how they’ve evolved. They used to be this small sleepy little event that kicked off the process. They’ve become something entirely different today.
Jeff Stein: And that really, Jeff, is the problem. The first caucus I covered was in 1980. There had been 13 of them over the course of time starting in 1972, so now I’ve been a part of 11 of them and this one is probably going to merge into the 12th, I guess, if they don’t get things settled pretty soon.
Jeff Stein: The way that it originally started was for people in a limited area, a precinct, you can’t get smaller, right, than a precinct, and they would get together. They would talk about issues. They would select delegates to the county convention. And along the way, that helped them interpret who they had a preference for because you would be voting for a delegate to the county convention that mirrored your views on things, not only issues, but also a presidential candidate.
Jeff Stein: Nobody really paid any attention to the first one in this modern era in 1972. This was all a reaction to the nightmare that the Democrats had with the national convention in Chicago and the late Mayor Daley, the first, back in 1968. So the party said we’ve got to be more small d democratic, so we need to open up the process, no more smoke filled rooms, no more party bosses. And that’s what led to this kind of thing being revitalized. Caucuses have been around in this state for 150 years, but not with regard to the presidential delegate selection process.
Jeff Stein: So again, nobody paid much attention in ’72. And then in ’76 a guy named Jimmy Carter got more delegates than any other candidate running. And since he went from zero to first with that. Then he got the nomination. Then he became president. Everybody said, “Well, that’s the playbook. That’s how you do it. You have to be a winner or top three in Iowa.” And that was all fine until about the last 12 years when the national parties just couldn’t leave well enough alone. They tried to micromanage things. You get the big cable networks who were trying to turn everything into a made for TV event, and they basically ruined what was a pretty pure democratic process.
Jeff Schechtman: And then tacked on to that this time, they made the counting process all the more complicated. And then they added a layer of untested technology to it.
Jeff Stein: And this is for all the complaints people may have about Iowa or Iowans. And I’m sure that the folks who were running the caucus on the Democrat side made some mistakes, no question. But everything that people are pointing toward, Jeff, that’s at the feet of Tom Perez. That’s at the feet of the Democratic National Committee.
Jeff Stein: Recall that they, and I’m going to be charitable here, had their thumb on the scale four years ago for Hillary Clinton. Well, in order to get Bernie Sanders to make nice and act like he was supporting Clinton in 2016 in the general election, they made all sorts of promises about opening up the process, in my mind, never intending to have to follow through on them. Well, Bernie held them to it. And they still never thought they’d have to worry much because who would have thought that he would run again? Well, low and behold, they forced states like Iowa to make changes in the caucus process. Now, Bernie is a player and all the chickens are coming home to roost.
Jeff Stein: Look, no one in Iowa wanted to open up the caucus process to make it more and more resemble a primary. And you even have Tom Perez now saying he wants to get rid of all the caucuses. Well, he sabotaged them to make his point to get to his ultimate outcome, so they were required. The Iowa folks were required to change the caucuses, including the reporting of three different streams of data. And they were forced to use an app that was mandated by the DNC, funded by folks who had horses in the race as it were, untested to where even one of the top DNC IT people looked at it the morning of and said, “Well, it works now, but I have no idea what’s going to happen when they put data in it.” That doesn’t give you much confidence, does it?
Jeff Stein: You can tell by the way Perez is acting where one minute he throws Iowa under the bus and then the backlash gets a little strong, so then he decides he better make nice and say, “We’re all in this together.” You’re going to have a nightmare in Nevada because they set it up to be that way, the national party. And they get what they deserve, as far as I’m concerned after this.
Jeff Schechtman: And with respect to Nevada, it may not have the app that caused the problem, but the whole problem with the three streams of data is exactly the same.
Jeff Stein: There is no difference other than as you say, Tom Perez says, “We won’t use that bad app again.” Well, they’re still using a form of technology that’s never been tested. And again, it’s the idea of: we want to make this seem open, and so what we’re going to do is actually raise more questions.
Jeff Stein: I’ll explain briefly the three streams of data. In the past, Democrats simply reported the delegate equivalence. Because really, what are we talking about? The nomination process with delegates. That’s the way you keep score. Again, it’s sort of like the popular versus electoral vote issue. I don’t care about the popular vote because the rules say we keep score with electoral votes. So the idea is that you report the delegates. That’s how you determine who wins.
Jeff Stein: But there are campaigns who sit in these precincts and count noses. And so they kind of come up with their own tabulation to crosscheck and keep those running the caucus honest. So the national party said, “Well, rather than have these unofficial numbers come floating around from various campaigns, let’s make sure that we distribute official numbers.” Well, again, that’s not what the purpose of the whole thing was, so you’ve added another layer to a process that by definition has become more complicated with more and more people being involved. And even though this really wasn’t a record, no more people turned out in Iowa in 2020 than they did four years before that. It still became just a real log jam.
Jeff Stein: So again, what’s different about Nevada other than the app? That’s your excellent question. What’s different? Nothing. So what’s to lead us to believe we’re going to have any better result in Nevada than we did in Iowa in terms of smoothness of process? I don’t have any confidence at all.
Jeff Schechtman: And it’s interesting that Perez is already covering his rear end saying, “Well, maybe we won’t have the results very quickly.”
Jeff Stein: Yeah, great. That’s the whole point, right? And again, I have had Tom Perez on my radio program. He hasn’t been on lately because I’ve invited him to come on and resign. And so apparently, he doesn’t seem to want to do that. But look, look at this whole process, the changing rules for debates. The candidates have no idea what the rules are because they keep changing. It’s kind of like we’re happy. Anybody is happy to play a game if you know what the rules are.
Jeff Stein: I heard someone on Twitter suggested that Michael Bloomberg is really a plant for the Republicans. That he’s spending this money just to stir things up on that side, so that Trump gets reelected. Frankly, if there is a plant anywhere, I’m, I think it must be Tom Perez because nobody, unless you were deliberately trying to sabotage your party’s efforts, would be running the debates, the primary and caucus schedule, all of this. You wouldn’t run it that way if you actually were trying to give your party confidence in the system. Bernie’s people still think they’re getting it stolen from them because of the super delegate thing and they’re probably going to wind up being right.
Jeff Stein: And so again, where is the confidence that Democrats should have? Where is the confidence an Independent should have about one of the two major political parties? Non-existent.
Jeff Schechtman: As Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
Jeff Stein: That’s right. And that was at a time when they just could organically sort of fight with one another and be disorganized. Now, you have the official party apparatus sabotaging the efforts. And maybe it’s just incompetence. But boy, you’ve got to be really incompetent for all of this to happen. I want to give them at least some credit for deliberately trying to do some of this because the incompetence argument is just hard to fathom.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to go back and talk a little bit, especially since you’ve covered so many of these caucuses in Iowa as they’ve evolved, how this is seen through the eyes of the people that take the time out to learn the candidates, learn the issues and participate in these events.
Jeff Stein: Iowans are proud, but humble people. They are very proud of what had been their role. And I take it back to not just 2020, 2016, 2012. Remember, the Republicans declared the wrong winner on caucus night. 2016 was a dead heat for the Democrats, 2020 a dead heat. So really these last three have kind of given us an awkward feeling, but we’re very proud of it and we take it seriously.
Jeff Stein: I was born, raised and have lived in Iowa my entire life. If I didn’t like the winters, I’d leave. But the fact of the matter is, we do have pretty obnoxious winters here. There is not a lot else to do, so why not have a group of people of above average intelligence statistically who really care about it? This is our sport. All right. This is our pro sport. We don’t have pro sports teams in the state. The caucuses, politics, this is our pro sports and we take it very seriously. And so whenever we’re attacked about it, we take offense.
Jeff Stein: Right now, I would tell you that Iowans as a whole are mad. They’re mad that their name, the state name, is being bandied about this way because I still maintain, it’s not of the Iowans making. And so Iowa Democrats are upset because they just did what their national party said to do because otherwise their delegates wouldn’t get seated. And so, the feeling in the state is we are now tired of hearing about it because it’s not a happy thing, but we’re also mad because we think we have not been treated well by these folks from out of town. And I think there is ample evidence to support that, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, there is much talk now about the caucuses going away, particularly Iowa, particularly Iowa as the first. How do the people there feel about that at this point, given the spotlight that is now on them?
Jeff Stein: Well, again, it comes back to, we think we have done our jobs well. Our job is not to pick the presidential nominee. If that’s the case, you don’t need any of the rest of the caucuses or primaries. I don’t understand these folks who say, “Oh my goodness, we’ve had two contests, Iowa and New Hampshire, and we have no idea who the nominee will be.” Really? You want to settle it that quickly? What’s the point of the other 48 States weighing in or whatever?
Jeff Stein: We’re very proud of the part in the process because we think we take our job seriously. Our job is to be a BS detector, is to winnow the field in most years and play a role, not the role, but a role. And if it is taken away because of something not of our own making, well, that’s not going to sit real well.
Jeff Stein: But I do have to say, and I’ve talked to others on the national level who sort of play along with this, we’ve almost become a victim of our own success. There is no way to go back to the church basements and living rooms of the late 1970s, early 1980s. This has gotten bigger than all that. But I still think there is a way to save the core of it. If you just have these national folks who think they know better and one size fits all, just leave us alone.
Jeff Stein: There is a fellow by the name of Dave Nagle. Dave has been associated with the caucuses now for some 50 years. He was a congressman from Iowa. He was a state party chair. He’s a Democrat. He’s now in his mid-seventies still practicing law, literally three blocks away from where I’m sitting right now.
Jeff Stein: And when they first started talking about these changes a year and a half ago, I had him come into the radio studio and they said, “Well, what do you think of all this?” And his response was, “Well, we’d really rather that they just leave us alone because we know what we’re doing.”
Jeff Stein: And he was so right because he could sense that when you have other people telling the state how to run its delegate selection process, you’re missing the whole point because what works in New York City doesn’t work in El Dora, Iowa. That’s the part of the whole point of a republic, isn’t it? So why not just let the States do it their own way? No, the party can’t help itself. And this is what they get for it. And we’re being drug through the mud with them.
Jeff Schechtman: And how is Iowa anticipating what they’re about to see in Nevada this weekend?
Jeff Stein: Ah, we feel for these folks. I mean, because I’ve seen how this movie ends. Right? It’s really interesting because there’s been talk. And the scapegoat in Iowa, the one who walked the plank was the state party chair, Troy Price, who wanted to see this through, but got pressure from folks nationally to get out of the way and be the scapegoat and he was a good soldier and did.
Jeff Stein: But the thing that’s interesting in when he’s asked, was asked about this in the first week or so after the caucuses, he said, “Look, every four years we have this conversation. Every four years, somebody thinks they have a better plan. Every four years, somebody tries to take it away from Iowa and we just assume that’ll happen again.” Now whether they’ll be more successful or not, that’s a different issue.
Jeff Stein: I can guarantee you if, for whatever reason Pete Buttigieg becomes president because he won in Iowa, he’s not going to want to change anything. Success breeds success. That’s really to the point of how the caucuses have stayed viable all this time because somebody in power looks at it. Well, even someone like Trump who didn’t win in Iowa, but understands how that helped him, he says, “Hey, you know, as long as I’ve got anything to say in the Republican Party, we’re not changing anything.” Obama was the same way. He won, so he didn’t want to change it in during his eight years in office.
Jeff Stein: So until somebody can come up with how to build a better mouse trap, I still have some confidence that you and I will have this conversation in four years, hopefully with a much happier Iowa caucus outcome.
Jeff Schechtman: Would Iowa settle for a primary?
Jeff Stein: Well, we have a primary for state races and we have it in June. The problem is if you had a presidential primary, you either have to have a second event, which costs much more money, or you have it in June when it’s irrelevant, or you move your state primary earlier and that balls up the works with the state legislature. You wouldn’t be first in the nation because New Hampshire would fight you for it.
Jeff Stein: The thing to understand is the reason we have caucuses is they’re a party building apparatus. Primaries are not. Primaries are simply about trying to get people to vote. They have caucuses when there is not a presidential election. We just don’t pay attention to it. The idea is this is when they start working databases, where they try to get more voters to be registered and involved in the party, where they start selecting candidates for state office if nobody is there to run. This is how they build ground game for state politics, and that includes a presidential election and general election.
Jeff Stein: So if you get rid of the presidential caucuses, they’re still going to have caucuses. Basically, we just have no say in the process because I just… It’s fine. Go ahead and have your presidential primary in June, but it’s not going to mean anything. California had theirs in June for generations until they realized they were losing out. And so they were willing to spend the money for a Super Tuesday presidential primary. And who knows if that’s going to be a good idea this year or not.
Jeff Schechtman: What ability is there now that everybody is so plugged into this and everybody thinks they’re a pundit and following all of this, the degree to which there is an opportunity for mischief in these primaries, people from the other party participating to try and get what they perceive to be as a weaker candidate?
Jeff Stein: Well, you have that in New Hampshire, right. You can go in and you can vote any place, any way you want, right. The thing with the caucus, and this is to your point, with the caucus, you’re with your neighbors. And if the neighborhood strong Republican shows up at the Democrat caucus, well that doesn’t happen because the neighbors say, “Wait a second. You’re the fox in the henhouse here. You’re the skunk. Get out.”
Jeff Stein: With the primary, if it’s an open primary, well you really don’t know what mischief might be created. And even if it’s a closed primary, you go up, you change your registration. Do you take the ballot? You go vote, you turn it in, you change your registration back. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s, the rules allow it very, very clearly.
Jeff Stein: I was hearing someone today advocate for a wide open primary, like in a state like Louisiana where everybody is on the ballot and the top two vote-getters go to the general election even if they’re from the same party. That defeats the whole point of a strong party, doesn’t it? Because it just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense unless the state is so biased in one direction, there is no point in having the other party even show up.
Jeff Stein: But, the mischief that can be created in a closed system is nothing more than me saying to my wife, “Yep, this is who I’m going to vote for.” Then I go in and do something else and she never knows. And any of this could happen. You multiply that out and it’s impossible to do polling on it because again, that whole industry has been corrupted, especially by people who, well frankly, just like to mess with the pollsters.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that the people in Iowa at this point, and you talk to them every day, so you have the best sense of this, really want to see this whole thing collapse in Nevada this weekend in the hope that it teaches the party a lesson and Iowa is not out there hanging all by itself?
Jeff Stein: I’m an Independent, so therefore my interest is in essentially in good government, but I’m a big honk for Iowa. And so yeah, there is a part of me that wants to see Nevada crash and burn worse than Iowa did, so that at the very least, it’s not just us. Now, that’s a terrible thing to admit, but I will because I’d love to see us keep our role to… I don’t think what happened a couple of weeks ago is our fault. I don’t know how widespread that is because that’s really kind of nasty to hope that these folks who’ve put in as much time there as we did here to have a failure.
Jeff Stein: But if it exposes the corruption that I maintain is going on within the high levels of the Democrat Party, well, maybe you have to tear it down fully before you can build it back up. They didn’t tear it down after 2018. They just put, as we say around here in Hog Country, “lipstick on the pig.”
Jeff Schechtman: Will the people in Iowa look at this in a way that impacts, do you think, or influences how they might vote come November?
Jeff Stein: No, I really don’t think so because the fact of the matter is there were about 170,000 Iowa Democrats who showed up out of 620,000. Well, there are more Republicans than that, about 650,000 registered in Iowa, but there are about 750,000 non- affiliated or Independent voters. In other words, again, Independents, many more of those than either Republicans or Democrats. So it’s just kind of an entertaining side show for those who don’t have a party affiliation. They just sit back and say, “Okay, we have three official parties in Iowa, Republican, Democrat, and Libertarian. Okay, you tell us who your choices are, put up your best candidates, and then I as an Independent, I’ll decide.” So they’re just sitting back and waiting. The rest of it is just noise to them, frankly.
Jeff Schechtman: If nothing else, it increases the attendance and the national exposure for the state fair.
Jeff Stein: Yeah. You got to love to see people grabbing turkey legs as big as your head and other food on a stick. It’s entertaining to see how uncomfortable those people are. When you see these people who are used to either eating a different way, well there were two candidates in the Democrat field who were vegan, and they get thrust a turkey leg to gnaw on as they walked through the state fair.
Jeff Stein: One of the things that’s interesting is, yes, we do have that. So for example, in the 2020 caucus, they’re all there at the 2019 Iowa State Fair. You saw them in 2018, the ones who were just testing the waters. And then basically the state fair just now is the time where, and there is a special place where the newspaper has a soapbox, and that’s where they come and gather and act very awkward out of their element, which again is entertaining for some of us to see as well.
Jeff Stein: Interesting, if you think of it back in the 2016 or the 2015 state fair, 2016 caucus, Trump shows up in his helicopter, lands it on a field outside the fairgrounds, but he acted, in a full suit, more normal than some of these other folks. He gave kids a tour of the helicopter. He went around the state fair. He interacted with people and just acted much more like one of the people than some of these folks who had their aides go to a farm store and buy them a denim shirt thinking that was going to help them fit in. It was just so obvious, the price tag might’ve as well been hanging off of it.
Jeff Schechtman: Build it and they will come, I guess.
Jeff Stein: There you go, nice Iowa reference.
Jeff Schechtman: Jeff Stein, I thank you so much for spending some time with us today and we look forward to seeing what happens this weekend in Nevada.
Jeff Stein: Great fun, call anytime. Happy to talk with you again.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
Jeff Schechtman: If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Xrmap / Wikimedia.

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