Des Moines, Iowa, Feb. 3, 2020. Photo by Phil Roeder.
As the hours passed on Monday night with not a single official result available from the Iowa Democratic caucuses, the biggest winner of the evening became obvious.
It was Florida, my home state.
For 20 years, Florida has carried the burden of being the nation’s electoral laughingstock. Without us, nobody would have ever heard nor cared about the phrases “hanging chads” or “butterfly ballots.” Along with beaches, golf courses, Godzilla-reminiscent lizards and reggaeton, we are famed for the weeks we can spend counting and recounting votes. In Brenda Snipes, we have the only nationally famous former county elections supervisor since the Revolutionary War. I defy anyone to name another state that has made a major party presidential candidate concede and then unconcede an election in the same evening.
And then you came along, Iowa Democrats, and made it all go away in a single night. Bless you. It makes me want to ask our congressional delegation to support your ethanol mandates, although it would help if you could say something nice about our sugar import quotas in return.
As Chris Cuomo said on CNN, you had a single job to do, and you did it spectacularly badly. After a year of campaigning, after giving every Iowan a chance to meet every Democrat who was running for president (and that was pretty much every Democrat who has ever printed a campaign button), you had to count the choices of perhaps as many bodies as could fit into your Hawkeyes’ football stadium on a pair of back-to-back Saturdays. And you couldn’t do it. Not in one hour. Not in four hours. Not even by the time I wrote these lines, fully 12 hours after your citizens started huddling with neighbors and strangers in school gymnasiums across your frozen state.
This column will run on Thursday, though I wrote it earlier in the week. We should know the results of the caucuses by then – and if not by this week’s Thursday, then at least by some future Thursday. But nobody will really care. On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump delivered his State of the Union speech. He did so not merely as a then-impeached president – his acquittal was expected the following day, but had not yet arrived – but as the winner of, yes, the 2020 Iowa caucuses. Republicans held caucuses on Monday, too. Trump got something like 95% of the vote, according to the early counts I saw before the Democrats stole every glimmer of attention. The groundhog that appeared with Bill Murray in the Jeep commercial during Sunday’s Super Bowl got the other 5%.
Speaking of ground-dwelling rodents, did you know that besides being the former holder of the nation’s most messed-up elections, Broward County, Florida is also where the 1980 movie “Caddyshack” was filmed? It’s true. That groundhog would never have agreed to climb into a Snugli with Murray if the actor had not first proved himself with our gopher. Granted, our gopher was a puppet, and Murray’s character spent the entire film trying to kill it. But in Florida we forgive and forget. This is only partly because we have so many senior citizens that forgetting comes rather easily.
We Floridians were not the only winner in Monday’s caucus collapse. Michael Bloomberg has set out to prove that Democrats were actually correct in their claims after Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that this nation’s elections will be bought by the rich and powerful, namely him. Bloomberg has much less charisma than our Florida gopher puppet, but he is more data-driven. Alone among the dozens of Democrats seeking their party’s nomination, he decided that Iowa wasn’t worth the investment. (He also kept checking his mailbox for an invitation that never arrived.) Now he looks like a genius, which he actually may be. With none of his rivals getting the hoped-for Iowa bounce, Bloomberg could yet demonstrate that raw intelligence, or vast piles of cash, or preferably both, can carry someone to the White House. Or he could illustrate that they can’t.
The remaining winner on Monday night was Joe Biden. The former vice president is running as the “safe” Democrat who can unite the party and defeat Trump in November. The Biden camp must have been dying an agonizing death early in the evening. CNN flashed images from Grinnell, a college town east of Des Moines, showing a room where just 3.4% of caucus goers were assembled in Biden’s corner. Even the groundhog running on the Republican side was doing better.
Team Biden hoped to pull out a better showing in other precincts populated by older, more rural Iowans, the sort of people who think of ground-dwelling rodents as pests rather than celebrities. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t – by some future Thursday we may know – but in any case it looked as though Biden was headed toward a disappointing showing that could have sent his entire campaign on a downward trajectory. When you are the New York Yankees or the New England Patriots, anything short of total victory is a defeat. Biden has been running in the Belichick-Brady lane of the Democratic primary. He can’t afford many defeats, if any.
Instead, he got a reprieve. A free ticket to equally frozen New Hampshire, where he probably faces another disappointing night next Tuesday. By not losing on Monday in Iowa (at least not right away), Biden came out on top in much the way Rodney Dangerfield’s “Caddyshack” character, Al Czervik, delighted in sticking it to the man, even though he was the man.
Maybe the Iowa debacle saved Biden’s campaign. It shouldn’t take more than about 40 Thursdays, at most, until we know. If the White House thing doesn’t work out, Biden will be more than welcome to settle in Florida. We have nice golf courses, sans gophers. I’m sure Trump would be happy to sponsor him for membership at a good club. And we’re humble enough to know that our elections systems could always stand a little improvement, so Biden is welcome to volunteer. Thanks again, Iowa, for reminding Florida what can go wrong when you try too hard to “be the ball,” and take your eye off it in the process.