Friday News Roundup — February 7, 2020
What the Heck Happened in Iowa?; Truth as the First Casualty; Russia’s Bid for the Atlantic; Plus News You May Have Missed
Good morning, and happy Friday from everyone here at CSPC. The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump came to a close this week with an acquittal from the U.S. Senate. Although the trial itself went out with a whimper rather than a bang, the emotional announcement by Senator Mitt Romney that he would vote to convict on Article I drew much media attention. Many in the GOP have called for Romney’s expulsion from the party, which is extraordinary given the fact that the senator was the GOP’s presidential nominee just eight years ago. That said, Senator Romney was the first member of the Senate ever to vote for the removal of a president from his own party.
President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday also turned heads, but not so much for the content of the speech itself. From a spurned handshake to a ripped speech, the evening reflected an America divided and the rancor heading into 2020. You can see a transcript of the president’s speech here and a list of his special guests here.
In this week’s roundup, Chris covers the absolute debacle created by the Democratic Party in Iowa. Dan looks at the spread of the Wuhan Coronavirus and how China quashed a whistleblower, while Joshua covers the moves of a resurgent Russia to increase their presence in the Atlantic. Our interns, Wyatt and Aida, take on some of this week’s news items that you may have missed.
Addressing the Donkey in the Room
Last week, I discussed the history of our current primary process. I also briefly covered possible reforms to the system, pointing out the peculiarity of placing Iowa and New Hampshire first in the process. I had not planned on writing about the primary again this week, and had the Iowa Caucuses transpired as they have for the past 50 years, I would likely be focused on some other issue. Like many in the political realm, however, I’ve spent the past few days wrapping my head around what the heck happened on Monday night. Even this morning, we still do not have a full picture of the Iowa results or an idea of who the ultimate victor would be.
On Monday, the caucuses themselves went on fairly normally. Voters registered at their caucus sites, gathered in groups based on their preferred candidate, and waited for precinct captains to count each supporter in each group. If a candidate received less than 15% support at a given caucus site, their supporters would be forced to migrate to the group of a different candidate (or an uncommitted group that declined to support any particular candidate) until no group received less than 15% of support among voters at that site. In essence, the system is a version of ranked-choice voting where voters are physically distributed into groups rather than marking their preferences on a ballot to be counted later. Precinct captains tallied the numbers for the second distribution, and voters dispersed and went about their business. This is where the problems started.
Since caucus results are counted in real time, it usually takes almost no time for the results to be reported once the caucuses themselves end. In years past, precinct captains have simply called in their results to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP), which checks them over and then reports them to the results, ultimately certifying a winner by the end of the night. This year, however, new rules and new technological systems created a perfect storm that put the Party on its heels almost immediately.
Results were expected to be reported as early as 8:30PM, but by midnight less than 2% of results had been related to the press. The Iowa Democratic Party at first blamed the delay on an extensive “quality control” process that they had in place to ensure that the votes were counted and reported accurately. They then began to issue statements citing a new mobile app that was created specifically for this year’s caucuses, asserting that precinct captains were unable to submit results due to faulty code. Assuming that the app would eliminate the need for a large number of phone operators at Party headquarters, the IDP hired far fewer than in years past. This decision caused phone lines to become overwhelmed rather quickly when the app began to fail, and precinct captains faced an hours-long backlog when attempting to call in their results.
Another factor contributing to the confusion is a new set of rules regarding what results are relayed to the press. In the past, the only results reported to the public were State Delegate Equivalency (SDE), a ratio of state to county convention delegates that determines how many national convention delegates will be allocated to each candidate. This year, at the urging of that Sanders campaign in the interest of transparency, the IDP has reported the exact number of votes each candidate received in both first and second rounds of voting, effectively tripling the amount of data processed by the Party after being sent in from precinct captains.
News anchors became visibly frustrated as the night progressed with literally no results being reported, and campaigns reportedly grew impatient with the IDP due to their evasiveness regarding their status. The delay continued as the Party attempted to “fix the app,” but they finally started reporting tallies roughly 21 hours after the caucuses began. However, only about 70% of the votes were released by the end of the night on Tuesday, leaving the results of the caucuses still in question. By this time, candidates had either remained silent on the contest (Biden) or claimed victory (Buttigieg and Sanders) and left to continue the campaign in New Hampshire. Conspiracy theories began to arise from supporters in each camp, some saying that the IDP was trying to limit the polling bump that their candidate would receive when 100% of the results were finally announced. The Biden campaign called for answers from the Party and suggested that the results may be illegitimate, but they continued to gradually report results.
While the story largely remained constant from this point on, two items are noteworthy. First, the IDP released a set of results on Wednesday that showed a significant number of delegates being allocated to Deval Patrick, who has polled at nearly 0% since entering the race. The Party quickly retracted the numbers, switching them out for corrected results that were consistent with those released previously. This caused many to question the “quality control” argument used to explain the delay since it began. Late Wednesday night, Senator Sanders received a significant boost in support after the results of multiple satellite caucuses were reported. Although Mayor Buttigieg had led the contest since the first results were reported, these new caucuses (a rule pushed for by the Sanders campaign after his narrow loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016) propelled Sanders to a statistical tie with Buttigieg.
While some have stuck to the traditional line of reporting focusing on the political implications of the caucuses (hint: Biden is in trouble), many have used the fiasco as an opportunity to question Iowa’s position in the nominating process. These questions are present on two levels: is Iowa’s system appropriate in the 21st century and should Iowa remain as important as it is compared to other states? At this point, many people outside of Iowa itself have responded with a resounding no to both.
Applying new technology to an outdated system does not make it a modern system. In fact, this circus indicates that it only widens the gap between the system and the modern era; the IDP may have ensured the death of the Iowa Caucuses as we know them. In practice, caucuses are democracy in its purest form. Like the town hall meetings of colonial New England, citizens gather in central locations and discuss the issues face to face, allowing voters to convince one another through discussion. Two factors in practice limit this vision the most in Iowa for the Democrats: turnout and SDE. Turnout is historically much lower in caucus states than in primary states; even in a crucial state like Iowa, only about 17% of eligible voters turned out in 2016 (compared to roughly 53% in New Hampshire). Without a more robust plan to get out the vote in caucus states, it is unlikely that this discrepancy will be solved without switching to a primary system.
Every four years, America seems to have a conversation about why Iowa is first in the nominating process. As I mentioned last week, Iowa is one of the least diverse and most rural states in the nation. For the GOP, this isn’t as much of an issue — white rural and suburban voters have been their base for decades, so such a state plays into that image (the future viability of that strategy is a story for another op-ed). For the Democrats, an increasingly urban, racially diverse, youthful party, Iowa is one of the least representative states they could choose as the most important contest in the process. While the argument normally goes that Iowa is important to participate in retail politics and appeal to midwestern voters, other states could serve this purpose just as well. Alternatively, a rotating regional primary would allow the midwest to share influence with the rest of the nation without losing it completely.
If the Iowa Democratic Party can convince voters and the DNC to let them retain their position at the head of the nomination process, drastic steps need to be taken to modernize the process. Even the Iowa Republican Party uses simple popular vote measures to select delegates, rather than adding the unnecessary SDE layer to the data. There is an argument to be made that caucuses as a whole are a tradition that should be preserved, but it will be an uphill battle after the IDP’s extremely poor performance this cycle. It may also complicate the nominating process moving forward by blunting the impact of the Iowa results. Whatever the caucus’ impact is this cycle, the long term implications of this debacle are interesting to consider.
“The Most Essential Command”
Dr. Li Wenliang was an opthamologist in Wuhan, China, who happened to notice an unusual pneumonia affecting patients during the course of his practice. When he sent a chat message to his fellow doctors encouraging caution over SARS-like illness and the need for protective measures. When local Chinese Communist Party authorities heard of Dr. Li’s warning, he was quickly brought into custody at the nearest Public Security Bureau. Rather than attempting to learn more about what Dr. Li was encountering in his patients, the Chinese authorities forced Dr. Li to sign a letter confessing to “making false comments” and “severely disturbing the social order.” On Thursday — after some confusion and reports of party officials attempting to keep Dr. Li on life support equipment — reports emerged that Dr. Li had indeed died from the coronavirus. At age 34, Dr. Li appears to be one of the youngest victims of a disease that official statistics suggest has inflicted the most harm on the elderly and those with existing medical conditions.
While Dr. Li saw people succumbing to a new illness, the party refused to acknowledge the truth. For Dr. Li — despite the belated apologies of the same local officials who threatened his livelihood, freedom, and life — life in China was the epitome of life in George Orwell’s 1984:
“The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
For the apparatchiks of the Chinese Communist Party, the maintenance of “social order” is paramount for the length of one’s career — and lifespan. Part of the long memory of the Chinese leadership are the cycles where the emperor lost the “mandate of heaven” as evidenced through natural disaster, external invasion, or other cataclysm. While the initial response to the Wuhan Coronavirus reflects this desire for stability over truth, recent history — from the Tiananmen Square massacre to the children crushed in shoddy schools during an earthquake, from poisoned infant formula to the wholesale destruction of Uighur culture — demonstrates how truth, and human rights, take a back seat to the goals of the party and its maintenance of power.
Even if the reports are to be believed, that Dr. Li’s death was “delayed” through artificial means such that the party could avoid public outcry over his death, it is a reflection of the current mindset of the Chinese system. For the Chinese Communist Party’s political legitimacy, this is probably the most trying time since 1989. At that time, when the Chinese Communist Party was studying the failure of its European counterparts, the Chinese regime believed the lesson was clear — economic reform was possible, but there could be no weakening of the party’s grip on power. Key to that would be control of information.
What the Chinese regime now sees is not like the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, but rather its own version of Chernobyl. Well-dramatized for modern audiences via the HBO documentary, Chernobyl was a perfect example of a crisis exacerbated by blind party loyalty, censorship, and a desire to send information up the chain of command that reflected party doctrine rather than truth. Just as the people of Russia, Ukraine, and beyond bore the price of that incompetence in Pripyat, the people of China — and beyond — are seeing the price of a regime that sought to avoid a crisis rather than respond to a burgeoning outbreak.
Our sympathies must remain with the Chinese people. They, and the world, deserve the truth about the scale and impact of the Wuhan Coronavirus. The human toll is of the utmost concern, but we must also be prepared for the economic impact of further quarantines and disruption to global supply chains that have become so dependent on China.
We must also not take for granted the importance of truth and fact here in Western democracies either. The values of rationality, truth, and fact are under threat from partisan media and social media designed to spread partisan rancor. It has started with our politicians politicizing data from government scientists, dismissing expertise, or ignoring economic reality for the sake of partisan orthodoxy — or the applause of crowds seeking demagoguery over solutions.
When confronted with an uncomfortable, frightening truth, will we be Dr. Li?
The End of the Atlantic as a Sanctuary
Following the end of the Cold War, the Atlantic Ocean became and largely has since remained the preserve of the United States Navy. Indeed, in 2011 the U.S. Navy’s Second Fleet was disestablished, the threat having declined, if not evaporated, and the associated cost savings proving more attractive than maintaining a fleet focused on a weakened Russia.
Yet, while the United States focused on the “Long War” and counterinsurgency, the Russian bear rebuilt its naval capabilities and is now demonstrating capacities both unexpected and in excess of most analysts’ forecasts.
In essence, the Atlantic Ocean is no longer an uncontested sanctuary environment for the United States.
At a joint event CSIS-U.S. Naval Institute, U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Andrew “Woody” Lewis, the commander of the reestablished and now fully operational Second Fleet, warned that the naval cat-and-mouse game is reemerging in the Atlantic. “We have seen an ever-increasing number of Russian submarines deployed in the Atlantic, and these submarines are more capable than ever, deploying for longer periods of time, with more lethal weapons systems.”
It is worth quoting him at length:
“As such, our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location. Whether USS Gerald R. Ford is underway in the Virginia Operating Area for aircraft compatibility testing, or USS Nitze is crossing the Atlantic returning from deployment, or USS San Jacinto is underway as a ready deck for one of the helicopter squadrons conducting training on the East Coast, our sailors have the mindset that they are no longer uncontested and to expect to operate alongside our competitors each and every underway.”
What does this mean for the U.S. Navy? It means a return to the core competencies of the U.S. Navy, capabilities that, at least in the Atlantic theatre, may have atrophied: anti-submarine warfare (surface, sub-surface, and airborne), training crews to operate in contested environments. It means reinvesting in submarines and surface assets, as well as leveraging advanced technologies such as autonomous vehicles and the atrophied SOSUS warning network.
What do the Russians hope to achieve? Moscow’s redeployment into the Atlantic is both posturing and strategic, and the two are linked. By deploying out into the Atlantic, Russia is demonstrating what it feels is the behavior of a great power, recapturing some of its post-Cold War luster as a great power.
Strategically, it introduces doubt into the calculus of America’s European allies. In the event of a conflict, the U.S. would need to ensure freedom of navigation in the Atlantic to surge assets to the European continent. Increased Russian activity in the Atlantic, however viable or significant would introduce a measure of doubt into the response calculus. Warsaw, Brussels, or Riga may question Washington’s willingness and ability to respond in the event of a crisis if the naval dynamic in the Atlantic is unsettled and uncertain.
This is on top of the fact that increased naval capabilities in and around Europe introduce direct concern into European capitals. In 2018, U.S. Admiral James Foggo, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe and Africa said, “the Kalibr-class cruise missile, for example, has been launched from coastal-defense systems, long-range aircraft, and submarines off the coast of Syria.” He added, “They’ve shown the capability to be able to reach pretty much all the capitals in Europe from any of the bodies of water that surround Europe.”
How this dynamic plays out will remain to be seen. Increased activity increases the likelihood of close encounters, missed signals, and possible unintentional (as well as intentional conflict). Just this past December, a Russian surveillance vessel was seen to be operating in an “unsafe manner”. It may be worthwhile dusting off Tom Clancy and having a re-read.
News You May Have Missed
The Coronavirus continues to spread across China, with health officials estimating over 24,000 incidents and around 500 deaths in total through this week. As the infected toll increases, other East Asian countries are taking measures to deal with the disease. Hong Kong has announced a two-week quarantine on all citizens and visitors from mainland China in fear of the disease spreading. In Japan, the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the 2020 Summer Olympics have publicly expressed reservations about the potential impact of the virus on the Games, including tourism and athletic safety. The comments of the chief executive hark back to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, where many observers worried about the impact of the Zika virus.
On January 24, 2020, in a 5–4 vote, the Supreme Court upheld Trump’s immigration policy that would allow the implementation of a rule to deny permanent residency to immigrants who are liable to potentially need government assistance in the future. There have been several lawsuits filed by states, cities, and non-profit organizations to prevent the rule’s passing, along with many harsh criticisms by various segments of the public, both in official, and unofficial capacities. Opponents have described it as being a “wealth test” that disproportionately prevents non-white and low income immigrants from living in the country. Under the policy, factors such as age, educational level, and English proficiency would be used to decide if the immigrant is likely to become a “public charge” and would affect their ability to receive government benefits if granted permanent legal residency. The administration has argued the rule serves to ensure immigrants be self-sufficient but still asked the Supreme Court to allow the rule to go into effect even before it had been ruled upon by the U.S. 2nd Court of Appeals.
Last Friday, the Trump administration announced that they would suspend visas to six countries: Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania. This move will add them to the original seven majority-Muslim nations on the controversial Executive Order 13769 that restricted migration. The travel ban faced many legal challenges and even reached the Supreme Court, but was eventually upheld. The administration provided their reasoning for the additions, saying that these countries were not sufficient in their security and communication practices. However, considering the current conflicts and mass killings in Myanmar, Nigeria, and Sudan, there may be additional reasons for their inclusion. Earlier in January, reports surfaced naming Belarus as a potential addition to the travel ban, but it did not make the list here.
Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer has taken the field of political forecasting by storm as she has pushed forth her new, radical ideas of election prediction to social media and the news. Meanwhile, more traditional and established political scientists have been left astounded by her research and relentless self-promotion on twitter which has led to being a guest on political news and radio shows. The classic view is that persuading the 15% of swing voters is essential to proper political forecasting, but Bitecofer strongly disagrees. She instead has turned her research to determining which demographics are being influenced to vote due to previous winners as a more accurate manner of predicting elections. Her decision came after seeing the inaccurate reports of which nominee would win the 2016 election and the split the nation suffered afterward. Despite harsh critics within her field toward her disruption of the political scientist status quo, research, and self-promotion techniques, Bitecofer is determined to continue polishing her models that have already proven to be extremely accurate during the 2018 midterm elections.
The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.