Primary Elections Are Important—but They’re Also a Distraction

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Primary Elections Are Important—but They’re Also a Distraction

 Hillary Clinton takes a selfie with a supporter after speaking at a high school in West Des Moines, Iowa, in January. (Photo: Patrick Semansky / AP)

The media coverage of the horse race in Iowa on Monday night was hampered by pro-establishment spin. We need to see through that but also realize that the elections are only a small part of a progressive movement.


It’s hard not to get swept up in the 2016 primary elections, and their unusually long cycle has been a boon for the ratings and advertising incomes of the major media. Given how close the results of the Iowa caucuses were between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, every single delegate mattered. In the lead-up to the caucuses, polls showed a razor-thin advantage for Clinton, then a slim majority for Sanders, and finally there was an admission that it was simply “too close to call.”


In other words, it was anyone’s guess. Drawn to the horse race, I feverishly checked delegate counts Monday night and watched as the narrow edge of 4 percent that Clinton held over Sanders at the beginning of the night fell to only 0.3 percent. By Tuesday morning, after a missing precinct finally turned in its delegate count, that margin had further narrowed to 0.2 percent.


It was remarkable to find out soon afterward that the arcane rules of the Iowa caucuses are not very friendly to extremely close races. In at least six precincts in which the two leading Democratic candidates were exactly tied, the winners of those precincts were decided by coin tosses. Yes, the literal toss of a coin—a 50-50 chance. It was even more remarkable to learn that Clinton won all six coin tosses. The odds of such an occurrence are 1 in 64, indicating that if she had anything going for her Monday night, it was supreme luck.


Yet the media wasted no time in declaring Clinton the definitive winner. Nate Cohn, writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, even attempted to spin the virtual tie into a positive for Clinton by using painfully embarrassing logic. According to Cohn, Sanders “failed to win a state tailor made to his strengths,” which was an “ominous” sign for his campaign. Cohn simply ignored Clinton’s double-digit lead over Sanders in Iowa that he overcame in the course of the race. Rather than seeing Clinton’s campaign as being in trouble, he saw the opposite.


Soon after the results were announced, the Times, The Associated Press and CNN wasted no time in reporting that Clinton “won” the Democratic caucus. On the surface those headlines suggest that she has more support in Iowa than Sanders does. After all, the symbolism of declaring victory in the first vote count of the election season carries far more weight than the actual number of delegates by which a candidate beats opponents. What would the news media have done had Sanders won all six coin tosses, and probably more delegates? (My guess is that they would have emphasized the chance factor of the coin tosses and declared Clinton the de facto winner anyway.) Clinton surely feels the heavy weight of the 2008 Iowa caucus, in which she was soundly beaten by Barack Obama, who went on to sweep state after state. Notwithstanding her lucky delegate wins based on coin tosses on Monday, the headlines screaming her name as the winner could—she no doubt hopes—help generate a nationwide domino effect that carries her to the Democratic nomination.


Except that the next contest is Tuesday’s primary in New Hampshire, which follows a far more straightforward election format than the Iowa caucus—and there Sanders is in the lead. According to a new poll, he leads Clinton not by a few percentage points but by 31 points—double Clinton’s support. This is not surprising, given that New Hampshire voters are likely to be more familiar with Sanders, who has served as senator in the neighboring state of Vermont for decades. Still, if early races set the stage in primary season, a chance-based, razor-thin win for Clinton in Iowa followed by a definitive win for Sanders in New Hampshire would in no way mean the nomination was already decided in Clinton’s favor.


Oh, and by the way, Donald Trump lost the Republican race in Iowa. Yes, that happened, despite polls showing Trump with an edge over Ted Cruz before Monday. In what was virtually a three-way tie, Trump, Cruz and Marco Rubio each took home 20-something percent of delegates, with Cruz at a strong 27 percent. The Republican candidate most reviled in Washington, D.C., beat the candidate most reviled nationwide by more than 3 percentage points.


And although it is easy to get swept up by the official launch of the primary election season, it is crucial for Americans to put matters into perspective. Elections are easy to report on—there are hard facts and numbers. There is spin to be written, there are attack ads to critique, debates to follow, voting discrepancies to report and candidate personalities to assess. These elections are, in fact, a giant distraction from the real news of the day.

So while I kept getting sucked into the vortex of delegate numbers, I reminded myself to read about how the U.S. placed immigrant children with human traffickers; Washington, D.C., police killed yet another unarmed black man; and members of the armed white militia that occupied a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon have “criminal histories involving domestic violence, illegal firearm possession and terrorist threats.”


Internationally, the news that has been eclipsed by the circus in Iowa includes the ramping up of the U.S. war on Islamic State; the new Oxfam report detailing the shameful betrayal of Syria by rich countries; the news of 10,000 migrant children believed missing in Europe; and Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria that have killed dozens of people.


These are all issues that any candidate will have to tackle as president, despite the filters that corporate media place over our eyes. But what positions any candidate takes on these issues of great social and political importance is largely up to us. Ordinary Americans hold the key to shaping the policies of our government, which continues to be ranked as the most politically powerful in the world. Eight years ago, the prospect of Barack Obama’s candidacy sweeping clean our collective shame over George W. Bush’s mess was so seductive that we convinced ourselves that a single occupant of the White House would do what we wanted once we propelled him to victory. If anything, the past eight years ought to convince us that electing a reasonable human being (most of the Republican candidates do not meet that criterion, in my opinion) to the presidency is only a single step—and not even the first—in a very long, multistep movement for social justice.


Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and executive producer of Uprising, a daily radio program at KPFK Pacifica Radio, soon to be on Free Speech TV (click here for the campaign to televise Uprising). She is also the Director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a US-based non-profit that supports women's rights activists in Afghanistan and co-author of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence."

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