Delayed Iowa Caucus Results Linked to Reporting App Glitch

After Iowa Democrats gathered across the state to start winnowing the 2020 presidential field, results were nowhere to be found, with party officials there attributing the delay to issues with technology.

by Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News / February 4, 2020
People wait for results at a caucus night campaign rally for democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday, Feb. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/John Locher) AP

(TNS) — Iowa Democrats gathered across the state Monday night to winnow the 2020 presidential field, but a glitch with a mobile reporting app kept the state party from releasing any caucus results, leaving the top contenders each to declare victory even as they seethed.

The delay, which officials attributed to the glitch in a mobile app, prompted gut-churning frustration for supporters packed into hotel ballrooms ready to cheer or commiserate.

“When those results are announced I have a good feeling that we’re going to be doing very, very well,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told cheering supporters at a Holiday Inn. “Today was the beginning of the end for Donald Trump.”

In the final week, Iowa looked like a competitive race, with Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren bunched tightly, with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar showing life, too.

“Well it looks like it’s going to be a long night, but I’m feeling good,” Biden declared to a crowd at Drake University. “We’re going to walk out of here with our share of delegates... So it’s on to New Hampshire.”

Officials said a new mobile app was supposed to help Democratic officials quickly gather information from some 1,700 caucus sites, The Associated Press reported. Instead, it’s being blamed for the delays.

Some caucus organizers had to call in results to be recorded manually. The glitch was not the result of a hack, caucus officials told AP.

Among the problems -- precinct chairs couldn’t test the app in advance and weren’t even allowed to download it until after the caucuses had started, AP reported.

Warren told her supporters that “it is too close to call,” which wasn’t quite true, with no results yet released when her and her rivals finally went before the cameras. Either way, she added, “Tonight as a party we are one step closer to defeating the most corrupt president in American history.”

The caucuses kick off the 2020 presidential nomination contest and also, this year, one of the most extraordinary weeks in political history: a president under impeachment delivering a State of the Union on Tuesday night and then, almost certainly, winning an acquittal vote the next day.

Without results, pundits and candidates were left to speculate when they otherwise would have spent the evening spinning the implications. The campaigns had some inkling informally through their networks of precinct captains, and with no one to dispute them, each declared some measure of success.

“What a night. Because tonight an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” Buttigieg declared at another venue on the Drake campus. “Iowa, you have shocked the nation. Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”

He had a morning town hall event scheduled for Manchester, as candidates hopped chartered planes for an overnight flight to the next battleground. New Hampshire hosts a debate Friday night, and the first in the nation primary next Tuesday.

President Donald Trump, who breezed to victory in the Iowa GOP caucuses, cast an enormous shadow over the scramble.

Dismay with the president prompted Democratic voters to prioritize electability over any other attribute or policy. In Iowa, the candidates all pitched themselves as the one best equipped to stand up to Trump, make inroads with the disaffected voters who sent him to the White House, and restore the political norms he has shattered as president.

In a very direct way, his impeachment trial added remarkable uncertainty. Jury duty in the Senate waylaid three of the top contenders for most of the final two weeks before the caucuses.

Warren’s vaunted ground game and Sanders’ residual affection from his 2016 bid mitigated the damage for them.

But Klobuchar, from neighboring Minnesota, was still playing catch-up, steadily gaining ground and clawing her way into a respectable fifth place. She had hoped to complete a second tour of Iowa’s 99 counties. Time ran out.

Their absence left Iowa to Biden, entrepreneur Andrew Yang and investor Tom Steyer. Yang and Steyer each have modest national support but nowhere near the critical mass needed across Iowa to thrive under the caucus system.

“We are bringing this ticket to New Hampshire. Even in a crowded field of candidates, even during the well-earned impeachment hearing of Donald J. Trump which kept me bolted to my Senate desk for the last two weeks, we kept fighting,” Klobuchar told supporters in downtown Des Moines on Monday night.

Iowa’s impact

Iowa’s importance can vary from one election cycle to the next.

As the first contest, it’s a critical testing ground with a tradition not of picking winners so much as winnowing the field, hobbling front-runners who fall short of expectations, and giving a boost to those who exceed expectations.

Those expectations, however, are fluid, subjective and even somewhat arbitrary, which means campaigns go to great lengths to manage them.

Biden’s team tried hard to deflate expectations in the run-up to caucus night.

"Joe Biden is anything but doomed," former Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, a longtime Biden friend, insisted at a Bloomberg News reporter roundtable in Des Moines – raising a specter even more dire than journalists had raised.

Biden senior adviser Symone Sanders tried to inoculate the candidate against any outcome by arguing that he’d been written off from the outset.

"We have been taking incoming since before Vice President Biden got into this race. Since before April 25, people have been writing our campaign's obituary. Tuesday morning will be no different," she said.

Buttigieg, puzzlingly, declared Sunday that “We are just one day away from victory in the Iowa caucuses.”

A gang tackle of Biden would blow the race wide open, but Buttigieg was far more aggressive than rivals.

“The idea that we are going to take on someone like Donald Trump with the old playbook by saying I understand the ways of Washington, I hung out with Strom Thurmond 20 years ago -- that’s not going to happen,” said Buttigieg strategist Lis Smith.

Win, lose or spin

The caucus process has always been arcane. Rule changes this year only boosted the possibility of a muddle.

Voters gather in school gyms and church basements and sort into groups for each candidate. But anyone who fails to get 15% in that precinct isn’t deemed viable, and those voters have to pick another candidates, or declare themselves officially undecided – a designation that actually has led the field in some years.

The number of votes then translates into delegates for the national convention.

The wrinkle this year: For the first time, under orders from the national party, the Iowa Democratic Party will report raw numbers for that initial sort --not just the final numbers.

That meant laggards could claim more traction. In the old system, someone who got 10% of the vote statewide might end up with no delegates and the perception of being shut out. On Monday, a candidate in that position might look like a serious contender, or could at least claim to be.

Even so, state party chairman Troy Price insisted that there couldn’t be three winners.

“There’s someone who gets the most delegates out of the state of Iowa,” he said, and “at the end of the day, this comes down to a race for delegates. ... This is about who’s going to get 1,991 delegates on the first ballot in Milwaukee in July. … Campaigns are going to spin as campaign spin.”

Determined to beat Trump, conflicted on how

Democratic voters in Iowa were united by a determination to defeat Trump but often torn about how to translate that into a vote.

Would it be better to vote for a Warren or Sanders promising more transformational change, or a Biden with his decades in Washington, including eight years as vice president? Or perhaps Klobuchar or Buttigieg, as younger alternatives to Biden who likewise avoid alienating large blocs of voters with plans for costly health care overhauls and big tax hikes.

Sanders, the oldest of the three septuagenarian candidates, enjoyed the most enthusiasm by far among college students and other young voters. Biden was shut out Monday night at some campus precincts.

The fact that Republicans will hammer Sanders as a socialist didn’t faze voters like Annabel Higgin-Houser, 22, a fourth-year student at Grinnell College from suburban Minneapolis. Like many out of state students, she registered in Iowa in order to vote for the Vermont senator.

Socialism, she said, “is not a word that we should be scared of.”

Nick Nelson, 37, a graphic designer from New Sharon, also rejected fears that Sanders is too radical to go the distance.

“If we’re going to change this country the way I feel it needs to be changed, we need a candidate who’s not going to settle for the status quo,” he said.

But many Democrats did go to the caucuses with big qualms about Sanders.

“I am a Warren supporter. I like her passion. I like her principles. I believe in the big structural changes she wants to make,” said Holly Kilborn O’Neall, 46, a consumer strategist from Des Moines. “I would happily vote for any of them,” but “there are degrees of enthusiasm, for sure.”

Amy Burrell, 50, a marketing director from Urbandale, brought her 10-year-old son, Miles, to a Buttigieg rally.

Warren’s vow to fight, fight, fight turns her off. That was a central tension in the caucuses, as Democrats weighed whether to choose a pugilist to stand up to Trump or a conciliator compelling enough, perhaps, to ease America past the Trump era.

“I’m just so tired of conflict,” Burrell said.

As for Buttigieg, she said, “He’s intelligent, articulate, passionate. He embodies hope. Granted, he’s going to have to learn the ropes” having only risen to small-town mayor in elective politics.

And as she noted, the Iowa caucuses don’t even represent the entire viable set of candidates. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is sitting out the first four contests, and spending lavishly in Texas and around the country, aiming for a splash on Super Tuesday in March.

“Trump will be so intimidated to be on a stage with Bloomberg. Bloomberg is everything Trump pretends to be – a successful New York billionaire. Smart. Accomplished,” Burrell said.

©2020 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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