When the Iowa caucuses went to hell in a handbasket last week, they probably took some of Americans’ last morsels of trust in the political system down too. But when I asked political scientists and psychologists about the impact of the bungled caucuses on overall political cynicism, they, by and large, weren’t particularly concerned. The vast majority of voters probably won’t care all that much, they said; instead, these experts are more worried about the indirect effects. Long after the shoddy apps have been forgotten, mistrust and bitterness could still be trickling down from political elites to everyone else.
We’re already primed to think something’s wrong with our voting system. Even before the caucuses, more than 40 percent of Americans felt the country wasn’t prepared to keep the November elections secure, and 45 percent thought it was likely that not all votes were going to be counted. Partisans of a losing candidate are less likely to believe their vote was counted correctly, while winners get a boost in electoral confidence that can last for months.
But the Iowa debacle is important because it caused political elites to be as openly distrustful as some voters already are. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez tweeted an exasperated-sounding call for a recanvass of the results. Congresswoman and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard railed against the lack of transparency and integrity in the caucuses. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has also questioned the integrity of the process. And President Trump’s two eldest sons both claimed that the caucuses had been rigged. (There is no evidence to suggest the caucus results were altered — just that the reporting process was run incompetently.)
These are all people at the top of the political influence pyramid, who have fans who share their political ideology and who have the media attention necessary to make their opinions widely known. The public doesn’t just thoughtlessly follow what these political elites say, of course, but study after study has shown that what they say does matter.