Iowa Caucus Mess: No Results, Just Delay and Frustration

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WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Nothing happened.

More specifically, nothing happened officially, and that is a huge problem for Iowa, the Iowa Democratic Party, and Democrats across the country who expected the Hawkeye State’s caucuses to offer the first answers of 2020. Initial reports indicate that the cellphone app used by caucus organizers to relay results malfunctioned Monday night and into Tuesday morning.

No one knows who won, and as the candidates left their victory parties without anyone declaring certain victory, the state party hosted a conference call for journalists around 1 a.m.

It was “not a hack or an intrusion,” insisted Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. It was just “a reporting issue” that would be sorted out and the results reported “later today.”

 “The system is taking longer than expected, but it's in place to ensure we are eventually able to report results with full confidence,” he added. “We’ve said all along we have the backups in place for exactly this reason. We are updating campaigns and we will continue to provide updates as they are available.”

Then he hung up the phone without taking questions, leaving the world with a single unsatisfying conclusion: Iowa was still buffering.

Rob Tully likened it to the 2013 Super Bowl glitch that left the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers temporarily in the dark in the third quarter. “Except this time,” the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and a current precinct captain for Joe Biden told RealClearPolitics, “they couldn’t turn the lights back on.”

When Tully ran the show, results were tabulated on paper, reported over the phone, and mistakes of this magnitude never happened, he noted. “All I can say is, I am incredibly disappointed in our leadership,” Tully concluded. “It’s unacceptable.”

Candidates came here to punch their proverbial tickets, to prove that they had a winning message and the requisite political machinery to turn out voters. They left, instead, with the score 0-0. All campaigns could do was project confidence without any official numbers. The senator from Minnesota, hoping to shed her long-shot status, moved first.

"You probably heard we don't know the results,” Amy Klobuchar quipped to supporters. “But I did not want to let another minute go by without thanking all of you. We know there's delays, but we know one thing: We are punching above our weight."

It was an immediate tactical success: As other campaigns waited for official word, Klobuchar captured the prime-time spotlight. All three major cable news networks carried her speech live, allowing her to speak to voters across the country, particularly in the Eastern Time Zone and especially in New Hampshire.

On CNN, an eight-person panel that included 2008 Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod and top Hillary Clinton adviser Terry McAuliffe passed the time reminiscing about how you tell a candidate they’ve lost an early primary. Both men noted that the 2020 Iowa candidates had private planes scheduled to fly to New Hampshire last night, flight plans stuck in limbo by the performance of Iowa Democratic Party officials – just as their Iowa remarks to supporters were put on hold. McAuliffe, who has since served a term as Virginia governor, was particularly disgusted. He said that if he were advising one of these candidates, he’d get put on stage without knowing results – and then get the hell out of Dodge.

As if on cue, the candidates began following suit. After Klobuchar came Biden. Elizabeth Warren began a few moments later.

Rhetoric, however eloquent, was not enough for some. As candidates boarded chartered flights to New Hampshire or back to Washington, campaigns began spinning. Though not authoritative, internal numbers became the only measuring stick for reporters to guess who was up and who was down.

This time it was Bernie Sanders who went first.

“We recognize that this does not replace the full data from the Iowa Democratic Party, but we believe firmly that our supporters worked too hard for too long to have the results of that work delayed,” said Campaign Manager Jeff Weaver.

Sanders, based on numbers gathered by his team from just 40% of precincts, declared himself victorious. In the absence of a competent referee, his campaign was free to keep score however it wanted. Sanders’ aides speculated that second place went to Pete Buttigieg, followed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in third, Joe Biden in fourth, and Klobuchar in fifth.

This did not track with what the former mayor of South Bend was hearing from his team. Buttigieg was getting reports of a different result from 77% of his precinct captains, volunteers charged with rallying caucus-goers and reporting unofficial results back to the campaign.

“Our projections prior to tonight had the race at a virtual tie,” a senior campaign official told RCP shortly after midnight. What’s more, the aide said, “we’re doing eight points better than our projections and believe we are on our way to winning the delegate count.”

“The results,” the aide concluded, “show that Pete is going to New Hampshire victorious.”

For the time being, candidates will continue to argue their cases with competing and conflicting data sets. Nothing is certain, except the fact that the Iowa Democratic Party has stunted the success of victorious candidates and blunted the failure of losing ones. Michael Bloomberg can congratulate himself on skipping this mess. And President Trump will deliver his State of the Union on Tuesday, thus consuming precious media oxygen.

“Everything seems to be out control,” longtime Democratic pollster John Zogby told RCP. “Candidates have lost bragging rights and the news cycle. Tuesday is all about the SOTU. Wednesday is the failure of impeachment. It will be difficult for them to say, ‘We can do things better.’”

As of press time, things that Democrats can do better than Republicans do not include announcing accurate caucus results. Trump won his mostly perfunctory Iowa caucus, and the results were announced without incident.

Iowa Democrats tried to stay positive as the late night turned into early morning, and voters insisted that their preferred candidate had all the momentum in the world, even if there were no numbers to back up their claims.

National observers were less optimistic. A headline that may be lost, progressive strategist Adam Green told RCP early Tuesday morning, was the “huge news that bold progressives showed great strength while the conservative establishment front-runner fell.”

In his estimation, “Elizabeth Warren exceeded expectations and is now in a spirited three-way race with Buttigieg and Sanders.” But no official spreadsheet from the Iowa Democratic Party exists to certify this analysis. The only thing certain is the muted anger of campaigns at the state party and the frustration of reporters and the exhaustion of voters who have waited four years to find a champion to take on Donald Trump.

The overall misery was an opportunity for Andrew Yang. “It might be helpful to have a President and government that understand technology,” the tech entrepreneur tweeted, “so this sort of thing doesn’t happen.”

Iowa, meanwhile, continues to buffer, and the country awaits the first results in what each Democratic candidate has dubbed “the most important election of our lifetime.”

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