In caucus crisis, Iowa Democrats slow to respond but take right steps

February 5, 2020


By: James Lynch, Cedar Rapids Gazette Wednesday February 5, 2020

Iowa Democrats and anyone else who wants to maintain the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses needs to “get up, brush yourself off and move forward,” according to a longtime Democrat now in crisis management.

So far, Iowa Democratic Party officials have done a good job of facing the music in the aftermath of Monday’s caucuses that produced no results until Tuesday afternoon, said Joe Shanahan of the LS2 Group in Des Moines.

Party Chairman Troy Price blamed a coding error in a phone app used as an option for local precinct official to relay results to the state party.

More importantly than the explanation, said Shanahan, who worked for the party in “almost pre-computer days when we didn’t own cellphones,” credited Price for owning up to the debacle.

“Troy recognized it was unacceptable and, on behalf of the party, he apologized to everyone who expected quicker results, to Democrats in Iowa and around the nation,” Shanahan said. “He’s clearly not happy about it. He’s got to maintain that sincerity and humbleness and mean it. I think he does.”

But he might have done that sooner, former Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Carrie Giddins Pergram told Campaigns & Elections magazine. The party waited until 10:30 p.m. Monday before a spokeswoman said that due to “data inconsistencies” no results would be given.

It might have helped if Price or someone from the party had spoken to journalists sooner “because the media has to fill the void,” said Pergram, who now teaches at American University in Washington.

Eileen Wixted, principal of Wixted & Company in West Des Moines, doesn’t work with political parties or candidates, but said the dynamics and properties of different crises are fundamentally the same. The response, she said, falls into two categories: operational, such as putting out the fire; and communication.

“In today’s digital platform there is such a demand for information and instantaneous information,” she said. In many cases, there is a tension in an organization between wanting to know everything about the crisis and communicating with the public.

As party officials saw their world turning sideways, Wixted said, it appears they made a decision to protect the integrity of the results — an operational response.

The delay in communicating that may not have been intentional, but opened the door to speculation.

“Back in the day when I anchored television news, we gathered all of the news, and everything that was fit to read at 6 o’clock we read,” she said. Audiences were used to waiting.

“Now we have an audience that expects to have a Google notification, to get a push alert when something happens. When those notifications don’t come, in the absence of information, people will believe the worst,” Wixted said.

“We all know technology sometimes lets us down. People can understand that,” she said. “The party acknowledged that it let people down in terms of the timeliness of results, but it did uphold what’s very important to Iowans — the integrity of the process and the integrity of the results.”

The breakdown in the process will not be quickly forgotten, Wixted said, “but we tend to move on to the next thing.”

The Iowa caucuses meltdown may be the story today, but the storyline will change.

“There’s the State of the Union, the non-handshake, the ripping up of the speech and now Mitt Romney comes out and blasts the president,” she said of headlines out of Washington masking the caucus failure story.

Price has promised an investigation, which Wixted believes is crucial in restoring confidence.

“They need to have a third party, independent in-depth investigation of what happened. They need to do that quickly. They need to have lots of people underneath the tent, perhaps including people from the different campaigns. What can they learn? Where did they fall down?” she asked.

When dealing with crises, Wixted applies the PEAR acronym — people, environment, assets and reputation. In this case, no one was injured, there was no environmental damage and assets were not lost.

“This is a real reputational knock. It’s going to take time to rebuild credibility and goodwill,” Wixted said. “A lot of the national media have spent time in Iowa. They’ve gotten to know Troy Price and all of the other people in both parties. My hope is that that type of relationship and good will over time — like most business relationships and friendships — will come into play and people will say, ‘You know, that could have happened anywhere. At least we learned something.’”