Special Briefing: Elections, Tech and the Iowa Fiasco
As results from Iowa’s chaotic caucuses continue to trickle in, the debate over voting-related technology rages.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because OZY leads the way in covering the intersection of politics and tech.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? Partial results from Iowa’s chaotic caucuses show former Mayor Pete Buttigieg with a narrow delegate lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders. But logistical woes in the first-in-the-nation contest for the presidential nomination have ignited a firestorm: A debate about the Democratic Party’s technological prowess and management, raising serious questions about how the country will handle a close election in November. Oh, and don’t forget likely attempts at intrusion from overseas adversaries. As OZY columnist and former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin writes today, the Iowa debacle showed the world the U.S. isn’t “the efficient, well-organized superpower that many assumed we were.”
Why does it matter? The collision of politics and tech has been a focus of OZY’s reporting on the 2020 race from the outset. Back in September, we profiled Tara McGowan, “the Democrats’ most dangerous digital strategist” who now finds herself at the center of the caucus controversy. Her nonprofit ACRONYM birthed the tech company Shadow, which created the faulty app that kicked off the results reporting nightmare. Now, her mission to close the tech gap between Democrats and Republicans — and transform political consulting forever — is coming under a blinding spotlight.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Eyes on November. Foreign bad actors are already licking their chops at electronic reporting mechanisms, while conspiracy theories — fueled by leading Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham — abound that Democrats bungled Iowa to screw over Sanders. Spurned Sandernistas’ lack of support for Hillary Clinton was a factor in why the former secretary of state did not win in 2016. While the Iowa Democratic Party says there’s no evidence of intrusion with the caucuses, there’s still much to be done to secure the elections, such as Olya Gurevich’s AI-fueled work to call out misinformation. But familiar hacking methods aren’t necessarily the scariest: Transit systems and urban infrastructure could be weaponized on Election Day if America doesn’t work harder to secure them.
No winnowing. So what about the actual results? Sure, all of the top five candidates — Buttigieg, Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — were probably going to hit New Hampshire anyway. But now, even the lower-tier candidates, such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang, are showing no signs of dropping out. Partial returns show Biden securing a less-than-inspiring fourth place, but the controversy could help mitigate this setback. Either way, the Hawkeye State has failed to accomplish its long-established goal: to winnow the field of candidates.
Next race. What mattered even more than Iowa’s 41 pledged convention delegates were the emergent media narratives driving donations and on-the-ground energy in the next states on the calendar. With all that diminished, the stakes are now even higher in New Hampshire, which uses old-school paper ballots and runs a straightforward primary. OZY’s exclusive Forecast prediction model gives Sanders a significant edge in the Granite State.
End of the road? From former top Obama strategist David Plouffe to every wag on Twitter, a consensus has quickly emerged that this was the final blighted harvest for the long-embattled Iowa caucuses. For a Democratic Party that prides itself as a standard-bearer of America’s multicultural future, the 92 percent White turnout and convoluted process — making it harder for some marginalized groups to participate — aren’t a good look. Toss in the reporting debacle, and you’ll likely hear an even louder chorus of critics aiming to start somewhere else next time. How about Hawaii in February?
Double distraction. Technical glitches or not, the final days of Iowa campaigning were muted by President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in Washington. Despite the contenders engaging in innovative engagement tactics, from Mayor Pete’s Snapchat filters to Andrew Yang’s Discord channels, turnout was lower overall than the record-breaking expectation. And as the results dribbled out, the news cycle had already shifted to Trump’s State of the Union address that included more theatrics than usual — from radio host Rush Limbaugh’s surprise Medal of Freedom honor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi demonstratively tearing up Trump’s speech after he refused to shake her hand. Next up? Trump’s expected acquittal today in the Senate.
WHAT TO READ
Lessons Learned From the Iowa Caucuses, And Danger Signs Ahead, by Pam Fessler on NPR
“The spread of disinformation, especially on social media, is seen as one of the most serious threats to public confidence in this year’s elections.”
New Hampshire Wins the Iowa Caucuses, by Andrew Cline in The Wall Street Journal
“Iowa demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to rely on complex designs that are clever in theory but challenging in practice. By contrast, New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status is easy to defend because its primary system is easy to explain.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Chaotic Finish With No Winner Announced to Iowa Caucuses
“It will deepen the conversation about the validity of the Iowa caucuses, Iowa’s ability to carry them out, and why it is first.”
Watch on CBS on YouTube:
With Iowa Caucus Results Still Uncertain, Democrats Look to New Hampshire
“Let’s stay happy, and let’s head to New Hampshire.”
Watch on Washington Post on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Schadenfreude Moines. Iowa Republicans fared just fine with their own swift results, having caucused 97 percent for Trump. As it became clear the Democrats were headed for derailment, they delighted: The most popular right-wing Twitter joke of recent days? That this party wants to run everyone’s health care — yet they can’t even run a caucus.