I have some sympathy for those poor wretches in Iowa. Some.

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In 2000, there was “Palm Beach stupid.” Now, we have Iowa.

At least, I could swear there was such a (pre-social media) meme as “Palm Beach stupid,” a rather unkind reference to Floridians who lacked the ability to punch a hole in a card corresponding to the candidate of their choice. Yet I can’t find it by Googling, so maybe I dreamed it.

But we definitely have Iowa today, and similar scorn is being directed at it. Especially by Trump’s minions, such as his campaign manager:

Mind you, this is coming from a guy who can’t spell “Democratic.” But hey, Iowa sort of asked for it, right?

The good news is, all this scorn could have a salutary result: Maybe it will finally spell the end of the Iowa caucuses, at least as anything the rest of the nation pays attention to. That would be a good thing.

But while we’re slinging insults at them, and pondering a return to older, more legendary ways of picking leaders:

… I have to admit to a certain fellow-feeling for those poor losers up in Iowa. I’ve kinda been there.

I’ve been the guy in charge of election coverage at three newspapers in my career, in three states: Tennessee, Kansas and South Carolina. Pulling together results from a long ballot and publishing them accurately in the next days paper is — or at least, was in those days — an extremely complex affair that required a lot of different things to happen in different places simultaneously, and without a hitch.

My fellow editors would kindly surrender the resources of the newsroom to me — a hundred or so trained professional would be at my disposal — but it was always on me to figure out exactly who would do what at precisely what time, and how it would flow through the newspaper production process without things clogging up, so that the presses would roll on time and readers would actually receive their newspapers crammed with all that information.

One piece of that puzzle was getting the numbers and putting them into tables — candidate by candidate, county by county, and in the metro area, precinct by precinct. The numbers not only had to get into the charts, but to the reporters writing the stories, so our numbers would match. (We generally kept the use of numbers in the stories to a minimum, though, to simplify the coordination somewhat.)

In other words, a part of my job was doing what the people in Iowa have failed so spectacularly to do.

It usually went pretty well, but not always.

One of the lowest points of my professional life occurred in the early ’80s in Jackson, Tenn. The Jackson Sun was then an afternoon newspaper, which meant we had all night and part of the next morning to get things right before going to press, which meant our report needed to be more complete and accurate than what the morning papers had. And it generally was.

But one election, things went horribly wrong. After working all day on Election Day, and then all night pulling the results together, at mid-morning — about an hour before the presses were to roll — I realized the tables were wrong. Completely wrong. All the totals were wrong, and we couldn’t figure out why. We’re talking about full-page tables, densely packed with numbers.

I’d been up and going at full speed for more than 24 hours, and my brain just froze. What was I going to do? There was only one thing to do. Check every single number, and try to find a pattern that showed us what had gone wrong.

At that moment, my boss stepped in. Executive Editor Reid Ashe was and is a very smart guy, for whom I’ve always had the greatest respect. And he had a lot of respect for me, respect that I valued. For his part, he valued excellence. He had this art deco poster, a reproduction of one that had once hung in French train stations, that had this one word over the image of a locomotive: EXACTITUDE.


It was, if I recall correctly, the only decoration in his office. His walls bore that one message for the world. This is what mattered to him. Therefore, we understood, it needed to matter to us.

With a rather grim look on his face, he sat down at a table in a conference room with a calculator, and started to crunch all the numbers.

While he did that, I sat on the floor against the wall with my face in my hands. I had tried to sort it out, but my brain was too fried at that point — those numbers were sort of dancing around before my eyes. I had to wait while Reid had his go at it, with — at least, I imagined — steam coming out of his ears.

He figured it out (hey, he had had some sleep!), and we got the paper out. Eventually, I went home  and crashed.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a moment in my life when I felt more like a failure.

So as I say, I have some sympathy for those people in Iowa.

But it would still be great if this was not the way we started presidential elections going forward…

He had this one poster in his office...

Reid had this one decoration in his office…

17 thoughts on “I have some sympathy for those poor wretches in Iowa. Some.

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    That may have been the election when I kept running to the men’s room during the night and dry-heaving.

    I had a duodenal ulcer and didn’t know it. I just knew I had a lot of pain and nausea. I thought it was stress, and that didn’t help. But actually, it’s because I was treating my allergies with a lot of Alka-Seltzer Plus, which contained aspirin, and it was eating a hole in my duodenum.

    And I was trying to treat it with Pepto-Bismol, which was precisely the wrong thing to do, since it contains salicylate. It was making the ulcer worse. The only good part of that night was when I decided to eat the thermos of soup I’d brought with me. That soothed things for a while…

    That may not have been the same election night as the numbers debacle, but I like to think it was, because that gives me an additional excuse for not being on top of things the next morning.

    Of course, sleep is very important, even when you’re only about 30 years old and still think you can do anything. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, it was.

      But does anyone besides me remember that phrase, “Palm Beach stupid,” being used at that time? I may have heard it on SNL. But I also vaguely recall it being something Republicans said about Democrats who couldn’t figure out a punch card, so there was a partisan edge to it, and possibly a racist edge.

      But it’s been a long time.

      Anyway, I’m just surprised I can’t find it on Google…

    1. Jeff Mobley

      Well, according to Andrew Egger at The Dispatch, there should ultimately be a reasonably accurate result, but it’s a fair question:

      The strange fact of the matter is that none of the caucus results are unknown, exactly: Unlike in a primary, the results of each individual caucus are announced before caucusgoers go home at the end of the night. Each piece of the Iowa results, then, is known to some small group of Iowa Democrats or other—the rub is just in assembling all that information into something a candidate can carry into New Hampshire.

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Just imagine running a nationwide election the way last night went, and you see why we need the Electoral College has a benefitwhich ought to be obvious: election counting can go wrong (this isn’t the first time! – Recall Florida 2000). Better to contain the problems state-by-state rather than have a *nationwide* counting controversy.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Just imagine running a nationwide election the way last night went, and you see why we need the Electoral College has a benefit which ought to be obvious: election counting can go wrong (this isn’t the first time! – Recall Florida 2000). Better to contain the problems state-by-state rather than have a *nationwide* counting controversy.

      1. bud

        Barry is correct. Let the people decide elections not unknown electors. 2000 and now Iowa demonstrate how convoluted schemes to improve on the will of the people only INCREASES the chances of chaos.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Ah, but… correct me if I’m wrong… the changes Iowa was implementing were to make the process MORE democratic, more transparent, in response to past whining from Bernie’s people.

          Of course, the whole thing is a farce and always has been. At a caucus, you get the kinds of partisans who don’t mind broadcasting their preferences to the world. Anyone who was discrete about his or her political preferences would never show up at one. It’s very far from reflecting some sort of “will of the people.”

          I covered one once in Arkansas, in 1980. It was a zoo.

          Of course, I’ve never attended one as a participant. When I was a journalist, it would have been an ethical violation. Just showing up is picking sides. I’ve never had an opportunity since my newspaper days, but I wouldn’t care to go anyway…

    1. James Edward Cross

      Not sure about this. If the Electoral College were eliminated it seems likely that each state would continue to count its own vote and then those totals would be added together. That is how we get the popular vote totals now.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          You know, I got through college on Catch-22. Wrote all sorts of essays either entirely about it, or making reference to it. You’d be surprised how much of life and literature can be compared to Catch-22, in ways that get you a good grade.

          Anyway, it worked with the professors…


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