DES MOINES — At a brief training the Sunday before the Iowa caucuses, Iowa Democratic Party officials told the volunteers tasked with staffing a telephone hotline system to arrive Monday morning with books, puzzles and games — they were unlikely to be busy for hours.
But throughout the day and into the night, the phones rang almost constantly in the so-called boiler room, where about 50 phone stations had been set up in a security-encased call center at the downtown Des Moines Iowa Events Center.
On the other end of the phone lines were dozens of precinct leaders and county party chairs from across the state who could not download or log into a new cell phone app designed to allow easy tabulation and transmission of caucus night results.
The volunteers tasked with helping the local leaders said they had never seen the app, nor had they been trained to use it.
Iowa Democrats inside the room later described the chaos to the Des Moines Register, accounts that were bolstered by publicly available information from party officials, campaigns and candidates. But the clear problems did not trigger a change in strategy from the organizations tasked with ensuring the 2020 Iowa caucuses ran smoothly.
Instead, officials with the party tightened communication from their centralized location and forged ahead with a plan that relied almost entirely on the functionality of a cell phone app that, hours before most Iowans would caucus, was already showing signs of collapse.
Party officials would not publicly acknowledge any problems until hours later. A full tally of the caucus results would not be available for days. And the future of Iowa’s prized first-in-the-nation caucuses hangs in the balance as party leaders sort through the aftermath.
“The failures of this are larger than any one person,” one Iowa Democrat said. “These failures were systemic.”
The set-up inside the Iowa Democratic Party’s Caucus Day headquarters prevented easy communication among those involved. The boiler room sequestered those taking phone calls. Another room had been set up nearby for important political figures. And a strategy room acted as a command center.
Few people had access to more than one room.
So as calls piled up, it was unclear to those inside the boiler room whether party leaders located elsewhere were aware of the problems. The app, which was not complete until “pretty close to caucus time” and party chairman Troy Price had never tried to use, had not yet collapsed, but precinct leaders were having problems accessing it.
The app had been layered with security precautions, requiring both a PIN and precinct ID, that were among the features confusing many users.
Volunteers entered the day expecting to answer phone calls from Iowans looking for their caucus locations. They were armed only with an FAQ page related to the app.
Soon, a backlog of calls developed inside the boiler room as volunteers struggled to answer questions related to the app and as precinct leader after precinct leader said they would instead plan to call in results later that night, after their caucus.
The volunteers answering phones had no official directive for how to adjust their plans as a result of the meltdown.
About 40 people had arrived by 5 p.m. to staff the phones.
“It’s busy and it’s hard and it’s not a lot of fun, but it’s not chaos,” one volunteer said.
Still, most calls focused on the app, as precinct chairs tried to log in and download it. Paper signs hung from the wall of the room listing categories of phone calls. They included things like, “chairperson not present,” “delegate misallocation,” and “where is my caucus location?” Each had a handful of tally marks beneath the corresponding heading.
But volunteers said there were between 75 and 100 tally marks noted under the headline, “the app isn’t working.”
“Our initial instructions were if someone was having problems with the app to tell them to just call in their results,” another volunteer said.
The vast majority of precincts convened their caucuses at 7 p.m. in Iowa — nearly 1,700 precincts across the state. Each precinct would need to report results back to the state party.
With county party chairs already publicly critiquing the app, many precinct leaders said they planned to report their results through the hotline no matter what.
Sean Bagniewski is Democratic chair in Polk County, home to Des Moines and surrounding suburbs, which make up roughly 20% of the state’s caucus precincts. He said he told his precinct leaders to abandon the app and use the phones.
“At that point, it should have been clear to every person we were going to be taking almost all of these 1,700 reports over the phone,” one volunteer said.
As the calls came in, volunteers had begun taking down results on paper forms and passing them into the strategy room, which had morphed into a makeshift data entry center. One person who was in the room said the “system” they created involved taking the data and compiling it through Google Docs.
People sat in clusters with their laptops — papers piling up around them. Boxes were labeled “new results” for those that needed to be added, and another “still f—ed” for those that had problems with the math, the person said.
Around 8:30 p.m., a few results had begun to flow into the public reporting system. Some of the larger precincts across the state were still wrapping up. Yet on cable television stations, which had hyped the caucus results live from Iowa for days, pundits already had started to speculate forcefully that something had gone wrong behind the scenes.
“I just think the idea of the caucus has failed to reach the viability threshold,” Van Jones said on CNN. “This is starting to feel like a real debacle.”
Those inside the boiler room knew something had gone wrong. About 60 people were staffing phones, but the incoming calls had reached an avalanche by 9 p.m. It didn’t subside until hours later.
“It was hell,” said one volunteer.
The volunteers were getting complaints and pranks, including some from supporters of Republican President Donald Trump. Other callers tried to report fake results after the ID and PIN numbers from some precincts were posted in photos on Twitter. Many more callers were journalists seeking information.
“On Caucus Day, the Iowa Democratic Party experienced an unusually high volume of inbound phone calls to its caucus hotline, including supporters of President Trump,” Mandy McClure, communications director for the party, said in a statement to the Des Moines Register later. “The unexplained, and at times hostile, calls contributed to the delay in the Iowa Democratic Party’s collection of results, but in no way affected the integrity of information gathered or the accuracy of data sets reported.”
Iowa state auditor Rob Sand was among those answering phone calls in the boiler room.
“It just became very clear that members of the public in general had started calling,” he said.
“One call would be someone screaming at me that CNN was screaming about the results,” said a different volunteer. “And then the next call would be somebody actually calling in the results. Or journalists were phone banking the phone bank. So we couldn’t talk to precinct captains because CNN was having their entire staff f—ing phone bank us.”
Some were friendly Iowans seeking to give the call center volunteers a boost.
“We had, every so often, the sweet calls from someone asking, ‘How’s it going? I’m thinking of you guys,’” said one volunteer. “But it was like, ‘Get off the phone!’”
When precinct leaders did get through, some were hung up upon. Shawn Sebastian, a Story County precinct leader, was live on CNN with Wolf Blitzer as he waited on hold with the call center. He was still live when someone from the call center connected to him and, apparently impatient while waiting for him to transfer over, hung up.
Others reported results with numbers that didn’t add up properly, volunteers said. The non-working app was designed to ensure the caucus math was correct and awarded the correct number of delegates.
Just before 10 p.m., McClure, the Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman, issued the party’s first public statement of the night.
“The integrity of the results is paramount,” she said. “We have experienced a delay in the results due to quality checks and the fact that the IDP is reporting out three data sets for the first time. What we know right now is that around 25% of precincts have reported, and early data indicates turnout is on pace for 2016.”
The statement did not indicate how severe the delay was likely to be. But about 20 minutes later, a call went out to Iowa Democrats frantically seeking extra volunteers for the boiler room, said one volunteer who got the call.
As the incoming calls began to slow, volunteers were put to work making outgoing calls to try to track down missing data from precincts that had not yet reported their results.
Though the process was chaotic, it mirrored what happens in most presidential caucus years, those involved said. An Iowa Democratic Party statement early Thursday also confirmed that practice.
Democrats in the room divvied up assignments based on where they had personal connections and began calling local elected officials, friends and county chairs, asking for the results data. Other times, they asked those friends to knock on the doors of precinct leaders who still owed the party data.
Meanwhile, McClure had issued a second public statement about 10:30 p.m. acknowledging a depth of problems that had not yet been conveyed to those in the boiler room.
“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” she said in a statement. “In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report. This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”
“Nobody was communicating there’s this massive math issue from the other room that will take days to resolve,” said one volunteer.
For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party released not only state delegate results but also the number of supporters each candidate had in first and second alignments. The three figures meant more reporting required from volunteer precinct officials — and more ways for the public to check the calculations.
Inside the strategy room, data entry continued as the hour grew later.
“At that point, we’re already tired and miserable,” said a person in the room. “I am certain that between the 15 people that were entering results between 11 p.m. caucus night and noon the next day when we did not go to bed that there are human errors that happened in the reporting of those results. Because of course there were. … Do I think that (the results) are greatly affected? No. But I don’t think they are 100% accurate, and they will never be.”
1 a.m. Tuesday
Multiple Iowa Democrats inside and outside the boiler room complained the party did not disseminate talking points or respond to offers of assistance on a communications front.
“They let the national media say for 12 hours straight that this is the end of the Iowa caucuses,” said one Iowa Democratic operative. “…They didn’t allow us to even have a response.”
Price, the Iowa party chair, had yet to weigh in on the unfolding situation.
A news release was issued at 12:52 a.m. that Price would address the media on a phone call eight minutes later.
“At this point, the IDP is manually verifying all precinct results,” he said. “We expect to have numbers to report later today. … 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.”
The statement took Price fewer than two minutes to read.
“We’ll be in touch soon,” he said, quickly hanging up the phone without taking questions.
“Soon” would translate into 15 hours. Price did not address the public again until just after 4 p.m. Tuesday, when he said the first batch of results would flow shortly. It took until late Thursday for the party to declare it had released a full tally from Monday’s caucuses.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a two-delegate lead over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a finish the Associated Press declared too close to call.