Leading Democrat and ambassador to Iowa, Jim Larew joined host Michael Patrick Leahy Friday morning on The Tennessee Star Report – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – to discuss the dueling claims of victory of the Iowa caucuses.
During the second hour, Larew explained how Sanders and Buttigieg were both claiming victorious although Buttigieg was narrowly behind by about 6,000 votes in the first alignment while state delegate numbers showed a two-point lead over Sanders.
Before taking a call, Larew expressed his concern for the future of the Iowa caucuses questioning how we will nominate people and whether the system is still right for citizen participation.
Leahy: We are joined now by our good friend Jim Larew from Iowa City, Iowa who is our ambassador to the Democratic presidential field.
Larew: Good morning. We’re flying the white flag retreat up here in Iowa. (Leahy laughs) They’ll lobby the bombs into Iowa. We’re alive but we’re hunkered down. (Chuckles)
Leahy: We were in the studio together along with our Harvard friend and classmate Nancy Zweng on Tuesday morning. And at that time, there at been no results that had come in from the previous evening’s caucus. We went over the details of the debacle. Now Jim, it seems like it’s just the caucus results that won’t go away. We’re talking about it all the time.
I think now with all but 99.9% of precincts reporting, the report is that Pete Buttigieg has a very narrow lead. A state delegate equivalent 564 to 562 over Bernie Sanders and yet Bernie Sanders has 6,000 more votes in the first alignment. Both are claiming victory. What do you make of this Jim?
Larew: Well, I think if we’re not careful we’ll lose sight of what service I think really the caucuses provide to the nomination process, and really both parties that may fluctuate from one to which party is most affected. Somehow you bring down a large field to a narrower group of qualified people who then go forward from Iowa as opposed to picking the winner in either case. I think that’s presumptuous.
But there’s a lot of pressure on the system and as these have become big media events, and we’re glad that they are a democracy force for information. But the pressure that these systems should pick the winner is probably more than they can bear. There are for caucuses lots of bodies all run by volunteers in 1700 locations.
For one night out of every four, it’s not going to be flawless. But it’s going to be pretty good. And to the extent that this field was narrowed down to four or five in effect candidates who then go forward and let other states make further determinations is probably not an unreasonable way for a party to proceed.
But in terms of sidestepping the votes down to the hundreds of one percent which is what we’re talking about comparing Buttigieg to Sanders. What you can really say is that they both did extremely well. They both were well organized. They came out off know where.
You think of Buttigieg, a mayor with a name you can hardly pronounce. And there he is towards the top. That’s a huge story. Public discourse right now is how to parse out the few hundred of percentage points of difference. And I don’t think that will ever be resolved. The larger question is there that this wasn’t a bad way to start out the process but I’d have to agree in terms of messaging and all the rest it’s a debacle for the Iowa caucus process.
Leahy: Both Bernie Sanders and Buttigieg have claimed victory. They have reason to claim victory, both of them.
Larew: They do.
Leahy: Elizabeth Warren in third is not a spectacular finish. But Joe Biden in fourth that was a very bad finish for him.
Larew: I think he’s really struggling now. One of the parts of the process here is the bounce that candidates can get out of Iowa going into New Hampshire and unfortunately of the delay in Iowa announcing any kind of outcome. All the candidates were rather deprived of that. Maybe Biden benefited. His bad showing was sort of blurred over. But the bounce, it appears that it is. I think Buttigieg has risen ten points in ten days over in New Hampshire.
Leahy: In New Hampshire?
Larew: And that’s because unusual in New Hampshire it’s candidates from the guest state do the best. Buttigieg from Indiana having that kind of surge is getting something out of Iowa. He messaged it brilliantly. He has a right to claim some share of the lead.
And he’s at night when the cameras were on and stepped forward and said I’m the winner. So he’s getting that kind of bounce. What it means, in the long run, is to be seen. But bringing people out of obscurity into a national platform is what the Iowa caucuses had done. The winner of Iowa caucuses if you take both parties into account, not necessarily end up winning, but they usually become real contenders. But Biden, I think he’s struggling. He’s hanging from a thread here.
Leahy: I have a hypothetical question then the big question. Here’s the hypothetical. If the results now show basically show a very tiny narrow 1/10th of a percent lead for Buttigieg in state delegate equivalence and a 6,000 vote lead in the first alignment vote for Bernie Sanders. If those results had been known Monday night at 11:00 p.m. as opposed to Friday morning at 6:00 a.m. How would the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign have been perceived differently?
Larew: I don’t think in terms of the standing of the candidates would have been different. But the reputation of Iowa would have been salvaged. You wonder whether we can count here in Iowa. What happened I think after those results were known Biden’s loss has become Buttigieg’s gain.
There’s almost an equivalent shift downwards for Biden and upwards for Buttigieg. They are swimming in the same lane. I don’t think that impact would have been affected by an immediate announcement. It was clear on the ground that Biden had not done well. The exact measure was not known. But at the same time, Warren and Sanders are pretty much in a standoff. I think that will be the next interesting contest.
At some level of abstraction, the two of them appear to be in the same lane. But when it gets down to it, they are two very different liberals in my opinion. And they may end up battling something out. They haven’t yet. But you didn’t see much shift there because they present themselves as being two peas in a pod. I don’t think they can both survive that way. I think you’re going to see a battle there.
They come from very different traditions of the liberal campaign party. The shift has been a finite number of voters. When it gets down to it, this group of undecideds is really sort of mythical and people really do have preferences. I think if you look at the flow chart, Biden has lost altitude and Buttigieg has gained.
They really are the moderates of this field without a whole lot of differences between them. The answer is, I don’t think much but I do think it’s a hard shot and an unflattering portrait of Iowa Democrats that we could have done better with the outcome.
Leahy: The big question for you today Jim is this. Can Iowa salvage its reputation? And will in 2024, the Iowa caucuses still be the first in the nation?
Larew: I don’t know. I think 50 years ago caucuses seemed like such a better alternative to what was going on back then. Cigar smoking back rooms. Power brokers making the decision as to who would be our candidate. Caucuses are as transparent as you can get. But they come with difficulties and whether 50 years later the public has the tolerance for the kind of messy edges that caucuses bring.
I’m not sure that it’s the thing to go on forward. Whether caucuses as a general phenomenon survive is an open question. Whether Iowa, if caucuses were to continue would play the role they’ve played now, I don’t know. But we’ve certainly taken a bruising.
I think we’re going to have to think about things as to how we’re going to nominate people going forward for the next 50 years. And whether the system we’ve set up now is right for citizen participation. Candidates who are not well-financed, to begin with, and have a shot. Or if, and this is where I think we’re headed. Whether it’s oligarchs or very wealthy people having a leg up on everyone else. I think that’s a potential trend for the future that’s worrisome for me. But we’ll see how people work this out and how Iowa stands up under these pressures.
Listen to the full second hour:
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Photos “Pete Buttigieg” and “Bernie Sanders” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Background Photo “Iowa Capitol” by Cburnett. CC BY-SA 3.0.