On Monday night, Pete Buttigieg essentially declared victory in the Iowa caucus before any official results were reported. Early returns and Buttigieg’s internal numbers indicated favorable results for the South Bend mayor (likely a first or second place finish) so he ran with it. His speech was touted as a savvy political move. But the next morning he walked it back, leaning on the vague language he used about the results being a “shock” and that “something extraordinary had happened” in Iowa.
Bernie Sanders also spoke to a crowd (as almost every candidate did). His campaign released their internal numbers, which revealed him leading with 60% of precincts reporting. Sanders expressed his disappointment in the Iowa Democratic Party for bungling the caucus and delaying results, but came nowhere near declaring victory.
Just imagine if he had.
The same people heralding Buttigieg’s speech would trash Sanders today. Where Buttigieg was characterized as an “aggressive political player,” Sanders would be considered as divisive for using his internal numbers as a basis for victory. And there’s a good chance pundits and Democratic establishment types would’ve taken it even further than that, painting him as trying to steal the caucus.
“If Bernie had pulled this same stunt as Pete, pundits would have had a meltdown,” says progressive activist Jordan Uhl. “They would have tried to draw parallels, through an imperialistic lens, to leftist governments everywhere.”
Even the way Sanders supporters have been treated in the caucus’ aftermath has been revealing. Anyone, even journalists pointing out basic facts about the Shadow app’s development, the Buttigieg campaign’s investment in it or the slow release of official results has been labeled “conspiratorial.”
-Iowa Democratic Party uses secretive app for caucus reporting
-App stops working a few hours before caucus begins
-Results trickle in but show dominating performance for Sanders, death knell for Biden camp
-Counting now shut down by DNC for "quality control"
I have that right?
— Eoin Higgins (@EoinHiggins_) February 4, 2020
The slow release of results only further alienates Sanders supporters who feel like he’s being jilted by the DNC. As they continue rolling it out at a glacial pace, it’s clear Sanders hasn’t stolen anything. He leads the popular vote with 71% of precincts reported and stands to improve as the others roll in. But many media organizations and pundits have already rolled with the narrative that Buttigieg won Iowa. It’s nothing short of manufacturing consent, and it’s all the more frustrating knowing that if Sanders had pulled what Buttigieg did, he’d be vilified for it.
“At the end of the day, for the most shameless gatekeepers in media and politics, this isn’t about beating Trump,” Uhl says. “It’s about defeating Sanders.”
How a person deals with victory and defeat says a lot about them. But how they deal with neither might tell us even more.