Some might consider it amusing … until it happens to you. Iowa had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day last Monday. You may be familiar with Judith Viorst’s children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, published in 1972[i]. It has sold over 4 million copies and was one of my children’s favorite books. The quotes in bold are from the book.
You know the story. Alexander just had a very bad day. “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning, I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
Iowa is a very nice state that woke up last Monday morning, hardly anticipating that the day would not go well at all. It was 1972 when Iowa became the first state to hold a Democratic caucus, with the first Republican caucus following four years later. For almost fifty years, the Iowa caucuses have kicked off the presidential primary campaign season. The Iowa Caucus is a closed caucus, which means that only people of the same party caucus together. As expected, President Donald Trump won the 2020 Republican caucus handily with 97.1% of the votes.
I’m new to caucusing and was eager to participate in the Democratic caucus as a resident of Iowa and a citizen of the United States. Gary and I made sure to be at our precinct well before 7 p.m. and avoided a long line because we had preregistered. 1,600 caucuses were held in the 99 counties of Iowa, all meeting the same night. The sites are often schools, churches, or other public buildings. There were seven staffers at our site, leading the process and keeping us organized. Sometimes, multiple precincts met in different parts of the building.
The gym was packed with three hundred voters. Some people were fortunate to sit in folding chairs. Others sat on the hard gym floor or stood the entire time. Youth were required to be in a separate place in the building so as not to be mixed up with caucus voters. Children under 13 were able to remain with their parents.
After receiving careful instructions, we began. There were many Democratic candidates from which to choose, and one person was chosen to speak no more than two minutes in support of each candidate. Then we voted by moving to different parts of the room that were designated for various candidates. As a reminder, we Iowans have a history of electing the next president at our caucuses.
If a candidate’s “preference group” is not made up of at least 15% of the caucus-goers, that candidate’s group isn’t viable. In the second step of the caucus, these voters can then realign with one of the other candidate groups that are viable and fill out a second preference card. There is time for interaction, as people try to woo other voters to their candidate group. Another headcount is taken, delegates are apportioned to the county convention, and issues for the party platform are discussed.
The Iowa Caucus is democracy at its finest. Gary and I had a wonderful experience meeting people who live in our area of greater Des Moines. Iowans take seriously our responsibility as the first bellwether event on the road to election night. There was tremendous energy in the gym as people mingled and had stimulating conversations. I even met some fellow United Methodists. Of course, it helps when you live in a state where “Iowa Nice” is our most famous slogan. Iowans want to do things right. Our rows of corn are straight, our pork is tasty, and we aim to please. We are agreeable, folksy, earnest, trusting, and neighborly. We even had a “free will” offering to support the school custodian and cover costs of fundraising for local and statewide candidates.
That’s why it’s been so difficult to work through our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
You see, there was this software glitch. The Iowa Democratic Party was using a new app to report caucus results, but there were issues. The app hadn’t been vetted for statewide use, many precinct chairs did not have adequate training for using the app, and volunteers had difficulty logging in or even downloading the app. Precinct chairs were then asked to call in results, as they had always done previously. But this clogged up the phone system, and some precinct chairs were on hold for up to ninety minutes. It was, indeed, the perfect storm and a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for Iowa. “Alexander said, ‘I think I’ll move to Australia.’”
As the presidential candidates quickly moved on to New Hampshire for tomorrow’s primary, they awaited final results. The state of Iowa was reeling from this system-wide disaster, and it wasn’t until Thursday evening that 100% of the precincts had reported in and tentative results could be reliably announced. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, garnered 26.2% in state delegate equivalents, which is the metric by which the Iowa winner is determined. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont had 26.1%. However, Sanders narrowly led in the popular vote.
After the Iowa Democratic Party’s release of new results late Sunday, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg leads Senator Bernie Sanders by a margin of 0.09 percentage points, with two more state equivalents than Sanders. Sanders has used his option to ask the Iowa Democratic party for a recheck of the vote count since caucus participants, media, and candidates themselves have all discovered errors in the results.
Meanwhile, the chair of the Iowa Democratic party, Troy Price, announced that an independent investigation would take place to determine “what went right, what went wrong, from start of finish.” Price said on Friday afternoon, “Iowa Democrats demand better of us. Quite frankly, we demand better of ourselves.”
What can we learn from our terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in Iowa?
- Stuff happens. We all have bad days. Sometimes we just wake up with a feeling that something unfortunate is going to happen. Other times we are caught by surprise, as we were in Iowa. It’s particularly painful and embarrassing when the stakes are so high.
“At school Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of the sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle. At singing time she said I sang too loud. At counting time I left out sixteen. Who needs sixteen?”
- We live in an age when we expect immediate results and instant gratification. We think it is outrageous and have little patience when asked to wait and or when something interferes with our plans.
- Technology is not always our friend, despite our best efforts. Technology does not always come through, so it’s important to have a back-up plan. In this case, paper records will ultimately validate the results.
- As a nation, we seem to be in a reactive and contentious state of mind right now, especially in the political arena. We are quick to expose flaws, shame others for messing up, spread untruths, and often stick to the party line, even when our conscience may advise us otherwise.
- The mark of character is how we respond when things do not go as expected. Rather than become angry or blame others, we should humbly accept responsibility if we are at fault, be transparent, offer forgiveness and grace if others are at fault, make things right, pick ourselves up, and move on.
“The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia.”
And yes, even in Iowa.
[i] Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Simon and Schuster, 1972.