Iowa's Completely Bizarro Caucuses

I can't believe I stayed up past my bedtime for this.
Publish date:
February 2, 2016
politics, iowa, 2016 Election

Last night was the Iowa caucuses, as I'm sure most people with an Internet connection, television subscription, or radio is aware — also, sorry to international readers who are already exhausted with the U.S. electoral process. Just think, you have 26 more caucus/primary nights to sit through before the conventions!

Iowa's first-in-the-nation position is widely considered a big deal and candidates tend to build momentum from an Iowa win — or drop out, as Huckabee and O'Malley did last night. The results aren't actually that strongly predictive of who wins the nomination or takes the White House, but they're still the off-to-the-races moment of the election.

First of all, caucuses completely confuse me despite patient explanations from multiple Iowans, and the Democratic caucuses in particular seem to be doubly confusing. I get the general gist of things, though, and there are a few things about them that really concern me.

1) There's a reason ballots are traditionally secret. While having a nice chat with the neighbors and openly declaring support for a candidate sounds nice on principle, it seems bound to lead to pressure from other voters, including shouting, bullying, and more. Which in fact it seems to have done, at least according to some reports on Twitter from people who felt really browbeaten by other people at their caucus sites. Here in California, electioneering is prohibited within 100 feet of the polls, and I really strongly support that.

2) Caucuses by nature privilege people with the ability to adhere to a pretty short voting window. In more and more states, early voting and extended polling hours are becoming common, as are vote by mail schemes. To caucus, people have to show up at a very specific time and have only a few hours to vote. Typically, they need to be early to make sure they get through the doors in time to be counted, which means that they need to be able to get off work, take care of caregiving obligations, and manage other demands on their schedules. This creates a situation in which the voices in the caucuses do not proportionally represent the population — the single Latina can't make it, the woman caring for an aging parent too frail to leave the house can't make it, the college student working two jobs can't make it.

3) Speaking of making it to the polls... Iowa this year took some additional steps to protect access to caucusing for overseas military and college students who are registered to vote in Iowa even if they're not living there full-time right now. But there's another big group who couldn't make it to the polls: Disabled Iowans. Many polling places were physically inaccessible, depriving disabled people of their right to vote.

Roughly 12 percent of Iowa is disabled, and while not everyone needs accommodations like ramps, large-print voter information, sign language interpretation, doorways of sufficient width, and clear egress to polling place locations, some definitely do. We won't know how many Iowans were deprived of voting rights for some time to come, I suspect.

Setting aside my deep concerns about the caucuses, one thing is undeniable about last night: There was record turnout, which was fantastic. I like seeing people engaged with and excited about voting, and it's undeniable that they were hyped. The results definitely highlighted the fact that Republicans are facing down a three way race on the way to Super Tuesday — when a huge number of states have primaries, another big turning point in electoral politics — with Trump, Cruz, and Rubio fighting for polling points.

Trump thought the big turnout would benefit him, and he was wrong — I didn't think Cruz would perform as well as he did, and I was also wrong. I also thought that Trump would throw a giant tantrum over his second place position, and he ultimately gave a pretty mellow speech (and also wants to buy a farm apparently?). Of note: Before Trump started surging in the polls, Cruz was my worst nightmare, and I'm not a huge fan of Rubio, either. So basically Cerberus 2016, is what I am saying.

But the real drama, of course, was the Sanders/Clinton showdown, the moment we've all been waiting for, and the two battled it out long past anyone's bedtime, with Clinton ultimately squeaking out a very narrow win. O'Malley's votes could have made for a more decisive Clinton victory — or let Sanders pull ahead, but that's only part of the story.

Because Sanders has been a huge hit with youth voters, and in fact, electoral statistics show that he performed ridiculously well with young voters, while Clinton tended to appeal to older ones. He's also been a huge motivating force, driving big turnout at events and generating a really passionate fanbase, so I've got to ask the obvious question: Where were all those youth voters last night? Iowa's caucus isn't taken by popular vote, but had more of his supporters been on the ground, they might have taken more caucus sites. And considering Clinton's incredibly narrow margin of victory, it could have made the ballgame.

We've seen this kind of thing before with young voters promising to turn out and then never materializing, but one place they definitely were was on Twitter, where the Bernbros were out in full force. Maybe you know them as Bernie bros, or Berners (my personal favorite), or any number of other things. They're the voters who are incredibly passionate in their support for their candidate, but choose to express that passion by harassing anyone who either challenges their candidate or suggests that some of the rhetoric being leveled at Hillary Clinton is deeply sexist.

I expect sexism from the right.

And to be honest, I expect it from the left, too, because I'm been observing liberal sexism for years, and apparently there's nothing more "progressive" than engaging in rampant sexism while claiming it's about ideology. I admire passion, but this isn't passion. It's something much deeper and uglier, and it's become such a problem for the campaign that its own staffers are pleading with supporters to police each other and tone it down.

This isn't just a problem with Bernie Sanders. In 2008, Obama supporters did the same thing to Hillary. A big part of that, argues Chez Pazienza, has to do with how much the left has bought in to 25 years of smears used to discredit Clinton on the part of the right. Those smears had much greater impact because she's a woman, and thus people are predisposed to view her with suspicion and hatred — this is what happens when you live in a sexist society. Imagined ideals of gender equality are still influenced by subconscious bias.

Take for example Glenn Greenwald's response to the scores of women who have documented really horrific interactions with Sanders supporters online. Greenwald is quite popular on the left, and his opinions have serious weight, particularly among young, liberal men. Thus, writing an opinion piece titled "The 'Bernie Bros' Narrative: a Cheap Campaign Tactic Masquerading as Journalism and Social Activism" was pretty inflammatory and a very decisive way to discount and devalue women while stanning for Bernie. He took the cheap shot of claiming that because women hate Hillary too, the issue of rampant sexism on the part of Bernie supporters isn't real (because women can't manifest bro behavior*? Because internalized sexism isn't a thing?).

I saw the Bernie bros of all genders out in full force last night, particularly after I Tweeted this piece of apparently highly controversial rhetoric:

My mentions were quickly crowded with Bernie stans while my block button got a workout — I have a rule that I don't bother to engage with people who aren't interested in having a conversation. I love talking with some Bernie supporters in part because I haven't picked a candidate yet, and people who are interested in having thoughtful discussions are my kind of people, so I'm not going to waste my time on people who are hurling insults at me. The number of assumptions made about my political leanings and gender were a fascinating illustration of the popular attitude that Clinton supporters "vote with their vaginas" and are a team of shrieking harpies, despite the fact that her supporters are actually pretty evenly split between men and women — just like Bernie's.

I saw women like Kate Harding and Sady Doyle getting the full bro treatment.

Curiously, I did not see any of the male Hillary supporters — or those defending her from sexism, regardless of political preference — in my social circles being viciously attacked. Observers have, however, seen people within Sanders circles who do indeed call out sexism be treated with extreme vitriol.

Are all Sanders supporters roaring sexist jerkfaces? Of course not. To claim otherwise would be disingenuous. Are all roaring sexist jerkfaces on the left Sanders supporters? No, of course not. But there's a considerable problem that's only going to get worse, and while many people hide behind the screen of disliking Clinton's policy stances, it's sexism that could ultimately bring her down. The fact that we can't have an honest conversation about the fact that people are hiding their sexism behind "disagreeing over policy" is a serious problem.

Come on, left. You can do better than this. Even if you don't support Hillary, come up with substantive commentary about her policy, not her as a human being or her family history. And when you see people attacking her, or her supporters, because of gender, say something — and that includes cases in which people are justifying their sexism with a thin veil of "oh but I just don't like her voting history" (93 percent identical to Sanders, FYI) or other such nonsense.

*I'm from California. Everyone who acts like a self-entitled douchenozzle is a bro regardless of gender.

Image credit: Phil Roeder/CC