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The App That Ate the Iowa Caucuses
As we head into the New Hampshire primary, politics – and political media – need a reboot
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We at Public Seminar were bleary yesterday as we went about our various duties, but we can only imagine what the Democratic presidential candidates, their staffs, and the journalists that trail them everywhere, felt like. Have you ever made that jump from the East Coast to Iowa and back? It is interminable, even if you aren’t doing it in the middle of the night. Take it from us: no one on those planes slept. And it didn’t help that the Iowa Caucuses, the primary that is supposed to set the tone – not just for the New Hampshire contest next week, but the whole primary season – had no confirmed winner. A new phone app, designed to tabulate and report a complicated ritual that often makes no sense, even to those who are doing it, failed – and the Iowa Democratic party seemed not to have had a back-up plan.
One thing that was clear is that our system for broadcasting elections needs overhauling. Election night shows are over-reliant on provided endless amounts of trivial information, in the name of context, that actually distracts audiences from taking in, or thinking about, the bigger picture. In fact, the MSNBC team seemed desperate to persuade us that something was happening, an effort that became increasingly difficult as the evening wore on. Poor Steve Kornacki, a political journalist famous for his ability to do math in his head, talk and draw at the same time, stood in front of his magical screen for hours telling us the ages and genders of caucus goers, his legendary impersonation of an MIT teaching assistant rendered useless when no vote tallies appeared. Highlight of the broadcast included Sanders’ national campaign co-chair Nina Turner calling former New York City Mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg an oligarch, causing both Chris Matthews and Jason Matthews to flip out; and Rachel Maddow complimenting Katy Tur on the great job she was doing running up and down stadium steps in high heels.
We went to bed a little after eleven. We made that decision when MSNBC, in all of its wisdom, jumped straight from Biden’s rambling valedictory to Buttigieg crisply declaring victory, without covering Warren’s speech.
Why not show Warren live, you might ask, giving her the free TV time that Biden, Sanders, Klobuchar and Buttigieg all had to give “victory” speeches? If I were a Bernie Bro, I would say it was a conspiracy. Yes, conspiracies are circulating on social media today. The app in question was, it is rumored by some to have been secretly financed by the Buttigieg campaign; others claim it was built by a digital consulting firm owned by Robby Mook. You remember Robby from your 2016 email inbox, right? He ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Now is it all making sense to you?
I thought it would. Oh – and by the way: in a tweet posted shortly before midnight, Mook denied having any connection with the app.
Naturally, in this week’s issue of Public Seminar, we look at politics, corruption and – to give you a rest – cities. To begin our politics cluster, Julia Azari argues in an essay first published earlier this week that “Bernie Sanders is the Logical Successor to the Trump Presidency” because, should he be elected, he too will probably have to overcome Congress’s inevitable reluctance to endorse his program – and his own limitations as a coalition builder – by governing through executive order. Frances Chiu argues that Sanders’ radicalism was first imagined in 1791 by Thomas Paine, and our Past Present podcast team explores the demise of the moderate Republican.
In a collection of essays, all written by political scientist Jessica Pisano, we examine Ukraine’s corruption – and our own. In the first, Pisano introduces us to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and reminds us “that Ukrainians saw Zelensky as offering a kind of moral leadership, sincerity and interest in their lives at a time in Ukraine’s history when their elected officials had lost their trust.” In the second, Pisano explains why – after having been pressured by President Donald Trump to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter – insisted that he had not been pressured at all. And in a third essay, Pisano argues that the reputation that Trump sought to tarnish may have actually been Zelensky’s.
Our final section begins with a look at the legacy of Great Britain’s Private Finance Initiative (PFI): David Anderson argues that “the long-term reverberations of PFI schemes have produced false economies and debt spirals, and reduced any sense of public accountability.” In “The Daunting Math of New York City’s Housing Crisis,” Alex Schwartz calls on the federal government to address the lack of affordable homes; and historian Julia Foulkes evaluates another urban tale, the revival of “West Side Story” that opened on Broadway this month.
As we put this week’s book to bed, Donald Trump is doing a live campaign commercial disguised as a State of the Union Address, and there is still no winner coming out of Iowa. With over 60% of the votes accounted for, Pete Buttigieg has a narrow lead over Bernie Sanders; Elizabeth Warren is third; and Joe Biden is a dismal fourth. Amy Klobuchar, who was the first candidate to throw in the towel, give a speech, and get on her plane, is in fifth. Bloomberg, who did not compete in Iowa, has responded to the chaos by doubling his ad buys. All other candidates swim with the fishes -- metaphorically, of course.
We’ll see you in New Hampshire – where they use voting machines.