For months, Iowa Democrats fretted that new rules would produce an excess of results on caucus night and complicate Democrats’ claims to victory at this critical juncture in the presidential nominating contest.
In the end, their problem was the opposite.
Widespread reporting problems meant that no official results were available to campaigns, the press or the public as of 3 a.m. CST, leaving the field in a state of heightened uncertainty.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price provided few answers, telling reporters on a middle-of-the-night press call that results would come at some point Tuesday. The call lasted less than two minutes.
In the absence of those numbers, multiple campaigns claimed victory as they boarded private planes destined for New Hampshire.
“I’ve said this entire time that we’re going to have to evaluate after this primary is done … the debate thresholds, the order of the states, the caucus versus primary,” said former housing secretary Julián Castro, a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. “What happened tonight made the argument for itself. Nobody can deny this is a broken way to do it. It was a total mess.”
Although Price promised to release the results once the party has verified each precinct’s results, there is a risk they will be largely disregarded as the news cycle hurtles forward. Tuesday is the president’s State of the Union address. The U.S. Senate is marching toward an impeachment vote. New Hampshire primary voters will have their say in seven days.
“The clock’s ticking,” said Iowa strategist Jeff Link, who is unaligned with a Democratic campaign. “Everyone wants to know what happened here tonight. But soon what’s going to happen next will take over.”
How it happened
The chaos unfolded slowly Monday night as it became clear that the delay in results was not due only to new rules that required more numbers to be released.
The Iowa Democratic Party said it expected swift results, thanks to a new smartphone app designed to help precinct leaders report numbers back to the party. But some Iowa Democrats said they were concerned in the days leading up to the caucuses that the app could malfunction.
Some precinct chairs reported Monday afternoon that they were unable to log into the app to report results.
► The latest: Democrats stuck in limbo as results remain uncertain
Bret Niles, chairman of the Linn County Democratic Party, said he was aware of eight of 86 precinct officials in that county who had trouble logging into the app as of about 2:30 p.m. Monday.
Precinct chairs were provided a PIN to test the mobile app, which was different than a login required for Caucus Day. Some might have entered the wrong login credentials Monday, creating temporary problems, Niles said.
Polk County Democrats Chairman Sean Bagniewski said he became aware of problems with the app around 8:30 p.m.
“We were dealing with what we thought were sporadic reporting issues,” he said. “Then it became the norm for the evening.”
About 10:30 p.m., Iowa Democratic Party Communications Director Mandy McClure issued a statement saying the party found inconsistencies in the three data sets — the first alignment, the second alignment and the overall delegate numbers — and that it would take longer than expected to report results.
But the backlash quickly grew more fierce. Shortly after 1 a.m., Price briefly addressed the media on a conference call, but he did not take questions.
“We are validating every piece of data we have within that paper trail and … (it) is taking longer than expected … to ensure we are eventually able to report results with full confidence,” he said. “We have said all along: We had backups in place for exactly this reason.”
Tanya Keith, a Warren supporter and the chair for Des Moines’ 35th precinct in the city’s Riverbend neighborhood, said she was glad to hear the state party was taking its time to report this year’s more complicated results.
“There were so many more candidates and there was so much more data, it just takes longer to report,” she said. “So rather than have this storyline, ‘Oh, this is mess,’ I say Democracy is messy, and we did a lot of Democracy tonight.”
Other Iowa caucusgoers were less forgiving.
“This is a disaster,” Mathew Johnson, a 46-year-old Urbandale resident, said as he exited U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ caucus night party. “To the rest of the country, we look like idiots.”
Brad Parscale, campaign manager for Republican President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election effort, piled on even as the Republican Party of Iowa mounted a defense of Price and the state Democratic Party.
“Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history,” Parscale said.
But Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who has always sided with his counterparts in the Iowa Democratic Party when it comes to protecting the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, said it’s better to be slow and right.
“I don’t think that any vote-counting entity at any level, whether it be for mayor in a town of 500 or the Iowa caucuses or any entire state in a senatorial race, I don’t think any of those entities should be penalized for double-counting and double-checking,” he said in an interview with Des Moines television station KDSM.
Delays have happened before
Iowa’s caucus results have often been called hours after they’ve concluded.
In 2012, it was shortly after 1:30 a.m. that Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses, besting rival Rick Santorum by just eight votes. But two weeks later, the Republican Party of Iowa announced that a recount of results showed Santorum as the winner.
► When have past results been announced? Turns out, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a delay
And in 2016, Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Andy McGuire announced at 2:30 a.m. local time on caucus night that Hillary Clinton had won by a slim margin. The Associated Press did not officially call the race until midday the next day.
But in the years since those contests, the drumbeat of calls to replace Iowa as the lead-off state in the presidential nominating calendar has grown more persistent. Concerns over diversity and inclusion have risen to the forefront this caucus cycle as a presidential field that was at one point the most diverse in history has winnowed to a mostly white pool of candidates.
The problems with Monday’s results have shifted the focus back to Iowa’s arcane rules and complex process.
“Our credibility is facing a test,” Link said. “And it’s important that we deliver accurate numbers as quickly as possible. I think it is smarter to wait and deliver credible results, because irreparably harming a candidate — which has been done in the past — is not an acceptable option.”