In a presidential election year, the Iowa Caucus is usually the first momentum push for a candidate, but what if there is no clear winner until days after the event?

Dr. Gregory Shufeldt

The confusion and technology glitches following the February 3 Iowa Caucus will likely result in a lot more than just delayed final results, Dr. Gregory Shufeldt, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Butler University says. The failure to announce a winner during the caucus could impact the November 3 presidential election.

“People need to have confidence in the election to participate. If you don’t trust the process, you might not participate,” says Shufeldt, who has published research on voter confidence and electoral integrity. “The things that happened in Iowa aren’t good. Even if it was from honest mistakes, it could affect the efficacy and enthusiasm in voting, and when a winner is announced, some might question the legitimacy of the results.”

After about five days of delay, Pete Buttigieg was announced as the Iowa Caucus winner on February 9, narrowly defeating Bernie Sanders. The candidates were in a virtual tie for the week as the final votes were tallied.

Following the 2016 Iowa caucus, which saw Hillary Clinton narrowly win over Bernie Sanders, candidates wanted more transparency in the process. The Iowa Democratic Party decided it would now announce three sets of results: initial head count, final viability headcount, and delegates allocated. What was supposed to be the clearest route to a winner slowed the process down as the data did not line up, says Shufeldt, who is teaching a U.S. Presidential Nominations course this semester.

In each of the precincts, caucus leaders collect “preference cards” from attendees, showing which candidate each participant favored. These exist in case a recount is requested, but they also provide a backstop for any technical reporting issues.

“Every four years, everyone updates their process on what they learned last time,” Shufeldt says. “In 2016 and before, they normally only released the final delegate results, which is all that matters for winning the nomination.”

Shufeldt says the media attention could be squandered for the winner as the focus will be on the flawed process, President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address February 4, and pending impeachment vote on February 5. It could also bring the end to the early caucuses and change how we nominate presidential candidates in the future.

“Iowa’s role as first in nation for caucuses will be revisited,” Shufeldt says. “That’s bad news for Iowa and then New Hampshire might lose some of their privileged status. There’s a whole host of concerns—how representative and inclusive they are—and that will affect the process of future elections.” 

An issue after the muddied process in the 2020 Iowa caucus is that it will cause voters to stay home on November 3. The combination of a flawed process and the lack of the voter’s preferred candidate could affect voter turnout. Shufeldt says a streamlined, accurate voting process is crucial, especially with political pundits debating the accuracy of the Electoral College versus the popular vote.

“The concern is if you feel your side lost the primary due to mistakes, will you support another candidate or stay home?” Shufeldt asks. “The Democratic candidate needs every vote, especially in states that have history of going back and forth between Republican and Democrat, like Iowa.”

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