Who needs the Russians when you have Lindsey Graham, the president’s own sons, Joe Biden’s campaign, and Ilhan Omar all questioning the legitimacy of the Iowa caucuses?
Faith in American elections took a big hit in 2016, thanks in part to Russian disinformation campaigns. But as Americans head into the 2020 presidential campaign, U.S. political figures are already undermining faith in the democratic process.
The Iowa Democratic party’s embarrassing faceplant on caucus night offered the perfect opportunity for conspiracy mongering. However, Sen. Bernie Sanders — who accused the Democratic party of rigging the 2016 election to box him out and help Hillary Clinton win the nomination — rejected those rumors.
“We should all be disappointed in the inability of the party to come up with timely results, but we are not casting aspersions on the votes that are being counted,” Sanders said Tuesday. “There’s no excuse for not having results last night, but that doesn’t mean to say that the totals that come in will be inaccurate. That’s unfair, I think, to try to do.”
Sanders’s comment was a swipe at Joe Biden’s campaign, which reacted to the chaotic mess of Monday night by sowing doubt about whether the results could be trusted.
“We have real concerns about the integrity of the process,” said Kate Bedingfield, deputy campaign manager for Joe Biden, on CNN Tuesday morning. “Election integrity is obviously of the utmost importance.”
Iowa Democratic officials were “saying they’re just trying to get it right. What reason do you have to believe that this isn’t just a matter of getting it right,” CNN’s John Berman asked Bedingfield.
“If you have a process where you can’t be confident that the results that are being reported are reflective of the votes people cast last night and the process, that’s a real concern,” Bedingfield said. “People should be able to have faith that the process was fair.”
This reflected a dramatic turn of events. Sanders claimed just last summer that the 2016 election was “rigged” against him. As recently as last week, one of his closest advisers, Jeff Weaver, accused the Democratic National Committee of creating a “rigged system” by changing the rules to qualify for debates.
But by Monday, Weaver was on MSNBC saying the 2020 election is “not currently rigged.”
Other Democrats who support Sanders, however, speculated that the delay in releasing the Iowa results was part of a plot to hurt Bernie. Some made similar claims after the Des Moines Register canceled the release of poll results on Saturday due to a problem with its methodology.
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., who has endorsed Sanders, retweeted a pro-Bernie writer’s breathless attempts to spin conspiracy theories with a sarcastic “This can’t be it!”
Now, there were still questions about the accuracy of the first batch of caucus results when they were released late Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t know if I trust this information,” CNN’s Chief Political Correspondent John King said on live television as Wolf Blitzer asked him to dig into county-by-county results.
Troy Price, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, tried to tamp down concerns about the reliability of the caucus results. “The underlying data, the raw data, is secure. It was always secure,” Price said at a press conference.
But on the Republican side, there was another form of conspiracy theory promotion. Prominent Republicans like Eric and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s sons, gleefully promoted the idea that the DNC was plotting against Sanders.
Donald Trump Jr.’s Twitter feed was an incoherent mix of accusations that the Democrats were conducting an elaborate scheme to steal the nomination from Sanders while at the same time he claimed that they are too incompetent to conduct a caucus effectively. Both cannot be true.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also chimed in about the reasons for the caucus results delay. “What are the odds that … it has nothing to do with a Bernie blowout and a Biden crash?” Graham wrote.
Erick Erickson, a conservative talk radio host and writer, was at least honest enough to admit what was really going on. “I don’t think Iowa sabotaged the caucus to hurt Bernie Sanders. But I really hope a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters think that,” Erickson tweeted.
But Bo Harmon, a Republican political operative, voiced concerns to Erickson about the corrosive impact on American democracy.
“I just fear [that with] Trump saying the elections are rigged, all the interference from Russia and others, now the Iowa debacle, neither side trusts the election results, doesn't honor them,” Harmon wrote. “It doesn't seem good.”
Erickson wrote back that he was being “flippant” with his original tweet but agreed with Harmon’s concern. “You’re right, we have a serious situation with both the integrity of and faith in institutions that is increasingly bipartisan,” he said.
Paul Barrett, who has overseen the publication of reports on disinformation in the digital age at New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, compares what the Republicans are doing now to Russian interference four years ago.
“Republicans alleging without proof that the Iowa caucuses were rigged strikes me as domestically generated partisan disinformation,” Barrett told Yahoo News.
The most recent Stern report states that “while Russian operatives and other foreign-based actors are all but certain to surface (or resurface) in 2020, a greater volume of disinformation probably will come from domestic U.S. sources.”
And once those types of conspiracies are floated or amplified by U.S.-based sources acting out of partisan motives, they can be weaponized and spread even further by bad actors whose goal is to attack American democracy.
“As for Biden questioning the legitimacy of the flawed Iowa process,” Barrett said, “I'm afraid that just smacks of desperation by a desperate candidate.”
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