The Botched Results Weren’t the Democrats’ Only Big Problem in Iowa

Why did so few Iowans show up to caucus?

An almost empty gym with empty chairs awaiting caucus goers.
The gym is ready for caucus goers on Feb. 3, 2020 in Carpenter, Iowa. Steve Pope/Getty Images

On this week’s Political Gabfest, Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz discussed the disastrous Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney’s impeachment vote, and the Trump administration’s expanded immigration ban. This transcript of one exchange from their Iowa conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: Perhaps the more alarming fact for Democrats, besides the total incompetence of the conduct of the actual caucuses, was the rather low turnout. The data that’s been release so far suggests that around 170,000 Iowans caucused—about the same levels as in 2016, but far below the 240,000 who participated in the caucuses in 2008. It seems Iowa Democratic voters did not get too enthused, were not there in huge numbers. Emily, is that something the Democrats should worry about as much as they’re worrying about the fact that they botched their opening act?

Emily Bazelon: Oh, more, I think. Right now it feels like this Democratic field is weak. People are worried not about the policy proposals coming out of it—that part of the discussion has been really interesting and varied and robust—but this question of which of these candidates is going to get momentum behind them, can unify the party, can bring in independents and defeat Donald Trump. I think that feels really unclear to a lot of voters. You’re seeing a lot of division and factions and fracturing. If that continues for a long time, that is going to be dangerous for the Democrats and their chances of winning in November.

John Dickerson: I think whenever you’re having to make excuses for low turnout, you’re in bad shape. If you have low turnout across several different contests in several different states, then that’s a clear signal about the worry Democrats have to have about the enthusiasm in their party.

Plotz: There was that theory about the Republicans in 2016, John, that Trump had come in and represented this strange, out-there group of people who other candidates in the field didn’t want to be associated with. Yet when push came to shove, party loyalty plus the new group of voters Trump brought in swamped the Never Trump folks who were disgusted by what he did—at least for Electoral College purposes. Can Democrats hope for something similar? When push comes to shove, they will unify around the party and will the marginal new voters be valuable enough to get them a win?

Dickerson: That question feeds into the larger one in the Democratic Party right now, which is what kind of candidate do you want, and is there a sort of blunt-force power to a Bernie Sanders candidacy that creates the kind of dynamic you’re talking about?

But there are other things the Democrats can count on, at least at some level, which is that their best turnout mechanism—or one of their best turnout mechanisms—is the president who on Thursday morning was attacking Democrats at the National Prayer Breakfast, a venue where presidents traditionally don’t do that kind of thing. And also in the way the president is responding to Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union and so forth. That is a base motivating mechanism for Democrats. Will that be enough? Will that be enough in the right states? I don’t know, but Democrats still have that going for them as they go through what will be several months of really tough tearing each other apart. Then the question will be, does the base of the Democratic Party behave like the base in the Republican Party?

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