Worst in the Nation

What the Iowa caucus debacle means for the Democratic Party.

A poster explains the allocation of delegate count at a caucus at Roosevelt High School February 03, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
The complex and intricate Democratic system. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week, ahead of Monday’s critical first-in-the-nation Iowa Democratic caucus, I was discussing the reliability of the party’s new caucus-night results reporting app with Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price. “We have backups on backups on backups,” Price told me. “So, if something does go wrong, we do have systems in place to back that up, to make sure we get the accurate results recorded quickly. So, this just allows us to get the results quicker from the precinct caucus.”

Something went gravely wrong with the quick recording of the results of the caucuses on Monday night. There were widespread reports that the app itself was not functioning properly. Phone lines to the party that precinct chairs used to call in results, one of the backup options, were jammed. There were “inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” a spokeswoman for the party said in a statement, referring to the additional strands of data the party was releasing this year in an effort to be more transparent, which was its own source of confusion in individual precincts. As of just before midnight, the five leading Iowa Democratic contenders—Amy Klobuchar, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg—had all spoken, in that order. It was three hours after the first results were supposed to be released. None of them had come in.

Monday night was an extraordinary failure for the Iowa Democratic Party. As they do every open election cycle, candidates spent a full year of their time invested in the state in the hope that, on one night, if everything went right, they might be standing onstage in Iowa declaring victory and riding that momentum through the primary calendar. Instead, in the immediate term, the results will (should?) come out on Tuesday just in time to be buried as a president under impeachment delivers the State of the Union in the chamber where he was impeached.

Well … at least some may be happy about this turn of events. As the caucuses were taking place, anecdotal information from reporters and officials in various precincts was not great for Biden, who had been near the top in Iowa polling averages along with Sanders. And though no data had been released, the Biden campaign—for one reason or another—felt it was necessary to send a sharply worded letter from its general counsel to Price complaining about “considerable flaws in tonight’s Iowa Caucus reporting system,” as though it had a prevailing interest in discrediting the results altogether.

Klobuchar’s campaign manager, meanwhile, tweeted that “with the numbers we’ve seen internally and publicly, we’re running even or ahead of Vice President Biden.” Warren’s campaign manager said that “it’s close between Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg. I believe the Vice President is a distant fourth.” Sanders, himself, told his crowd that “when the results are announced, I have a good feeling we’ll be doing very, very well in Iowa.”

It was only Buttigieg who had the audacity to say the following before his supporters when 0 percent of results had been released: “By all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”

You could game out a logic to this— Buttigieg bet his whole campaign on Iowa, so why not just say it and if it’s wrong, who cares?—but it’s better to just call it irresponsible. The move prompted the Sanders campaign, then, to release its own internal figures, from nearly 40 percent of precincts in Iowa, in which Sanders was leading Buttigieg by a few percentage points. Buttigieg’s team responded with less complete numbers of their own but suggested that they had surpassed internal projections heading into the night, which showed a virtual tie. A good rule of thumb until results are released on Tuesday: Don’t believe any of these campaigns.

Aside from stirring confusion and competing narratives around the outcome, the lack of results offered an excellent trolling opportunity for President Donald Trump, who won the Iowa Republican caucuses (yes, they had them) by 96 percentage points over his nearest opponent. Trump’s campaign wasted no time in sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the outcome and ridiculing the Democratic Party for its incompetence. “It would be natural for people to doubt the fairness of the process,” Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. “And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?”

If you believe cable news pundits losing their minds incessantly for four hours as the results were delayed, Iowa should be stripped of its placement as first in the early-state nominating calendar first thing Tuesday morning. I had asked Price last week about whether Iowa was safe in its placement, given already brewing discontent in the party that the overwhelmingly white Iowa was no longer a suitable first caucus state given the party’s growing diversity. This was a concern among many even before a catastrophic caucus night passed without a single result being released.

“This conversation comes up every four years, and we’ll see what happens in the next few years,” Price said, “but I’m confident Iowa will remain first.”

We’ll see, indeed.