by Stephen Loiaconi
Tuesday, February 4th 2020
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Democratic presidential candidates exuded confidence on the campaign trail in New Hampshire Tuesday as they awaited results from the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, but questions surrounding the technical disruption that caused the delay threatened to undermine the outcome and Iowa’s traditional place on the party’s primary calendar.
“Iowa Democrats badly screwed up,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University and co-author of “American Government and Politics Today.”
The Iowa Democratic Party planned to release at least half of its caucus results by 5 p.m. ET Tuesday. It is not yet clear if that will be enough to settle the question of who won Monday night’s contest.
Uncertainty about Iowa caucus results is not unprecedented. In 2012, Republicans wrongly declared Mitt Romney the winner on the night of the caucuses, only to conclude weeks later that Rick Santorum really won. In 2016, Hillary Clinton claimed victory in the Democratic caucuses before the official results were counted and ultimately won by only a fraction of a percentage point.
This year’s debacle is different, and it is seemingly entirely of Democrats’ own making. The Iowa Democratic Party released no official results Monday as precincts reported significant difficulties getting their vote counts to party headquarters. An app designed to transmit results faltered due to a “coding issue,” and phone lines were jammed as caucus workers tried to call in results instead.
Practically speaking, the upshot of all the chaos appeared to be a brief delay in releasing the results. However, the political consequences could prove much more far-reaching, dampening the impact of this year’s caucuses, sparking new anti-establishment conspiracy theories, and causing some Democrats to question whether the Iowa caucuses should continue to exist at all.
“I hear people saying is this the end of the Iowa caucuses,” said Dennis Goldford, co-author of “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: the Making of a Media Event” and a professor at Drake University in Des Moines. “Everybody should slow down.”
Moe Vela, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden in the White House, said some Democrats are overreacting. He has many questions about who was responsible for this app, who is paying for it, and whether other states are using it, but waiting until 5 p.m. the following day for accurate results is not unreasonable.
“A less than 24-hour delay is not the end of the world,” said Vela, a member of the board of directors of TransparentBusiness.
Leading campaigns had been banking on a flush of positive media coverage if they finished in a top slot or greatly exceeded expectations in Iowa. By Tuesday afternoon, though, it appeared the outcome of the caucuses would be promptly overshadowed by President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address that night and a historic Senate vote acquitting him in his impeachment trial Wednesday.
“The Iowa winner will never get his or her moment in the sun,” said Bob Mann, a former Senate press secretary and author of “Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon.”
If the benefits of success were blunted, so were the costs of underperforming. Although Iowa has often helped winnow a crowded field in past election cycles, all the remaining Democratic candidates were poised to carry on to next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary regardless of the outcome.
“Every Democrat running can still claim to be viable,” Schmidt said, adding, “That’s bad for them.”
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Further complicating what has been a straightforward political calculation in the past, the Iowa Democratic Party planned to release three different totals, potentially allowing multiple candidates to claim a win. One is the number of caucusgoers supporting each candidate on the first count, then the total after supporters of nonviable candidates realigned, and finally the number of delegates to the state convention awarded to each candidate.
In the absence of any official data Monday, most top candidates delivered rousing speeches to their supporters around midnight ET, spinning their performance as a success before jetting off to campaign in New Hampshire. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg went further, declaring himself “victorious,” though the campaign seemed to walk that claim back Tuesday.
“As they head off to New Hampshire today, to some extent, they’re flying blind,” Goldford said.
When it became clear no official numbers would be released overnight, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign rushed out its internal results from about 40% of caucus sites showing the Vermont senator leading the field. The Buttigieg campaign claimed its internal tally put him ahead.
Meanwhile, aides to former Vice President Biden sent a letter to the state party complaining about the process and urging officials to hold off on releasing results. A strategist for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign accused others of “contributing to the chaos and misinformation” with incomplete data.
“I’m guessing Biden and [Sen. Amy] Klobuchar are not saddened by this debacle,” Mann said. “If Biden had a bad night, this obscures it in a way that helps him. He needs to get to South Carolina with as few scars as possible and this may have helped him avoid that.”
Tonight was a great night for us. We are thrilled with our performance across the state. We believe we will emerge with the delegates we need to continue on our path to make Joe Biden the Democratic nominee.
The public chaos and infighting handed Republicans a ready-made talking point, as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and others questioned how a party that could not count its caucus results would be able to manage the nation’s health care system if it implemented a Medicare for All plan.
“It has a ricochet effect that, if Democrats can’t even run their caucuses, how can they run the country,” Schmidt said.
After releasing vague initial statements Monday night about “inconsistencies” in the results that triggered fears of hacking or miscounting, the Iowa Democratic Party sought to explain Tuesday what went wrong. Chairman Troy Price insisted the app had collected data properly, but he said there was a problem with how it reported the results.
“While the app was recording data accurately, it was reporting out only partial data. We have determined that this was due to a coding issue in the reporting system. This issue was identified and fixed,” Price said.
Precinct captains and caucus workers had been signaling concerns about the app ahead of the vote, warning that it was not sufficiently tested and workers had not received training to use it. According to The New York Times, it had been developed in the last two months and rushed into use without being thoroughly vetted.
The party had also maintained an air of secrecy around the app until the last minute claiming that revealing details would leave the system vulnerable to interference. The program was built by a company called Shadow Inc., which had also been contracted by the Nevada Democratic Party for its caucus later this month.
“We will not be employing the same app or vendor used in the Iowa caucus. We had already developed a series of backups and redundant reporting systems, and are currently evaluating the best path forward,” Nevada Democratic Party Chairman William McCurdy II said in a statement Tuesday, distancing the state party from Shadow and Iowa Democrats.
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Jeremy Bird, former national field director for President Barack Obama’s campaign, said the problem appeared to be less with the technology than with the party’s planning and organization. He did not expect those errors to affect the results, though.
“First, there was a paper trail. We should always have a paper trail,” Bird said on Twitter. “And, second, the IDP smartly did not release inaccurate or partial data. We are going to get accurate results. Patience is a virtue we can cultivate here.”
The Iowa Democratic Party’s assurances of the integrity of the caucus results did not satisfy everyone.
“If you have a process where you can’t be confident that the results that are being reported are reflective of the votes that people cast last night in the process, that’s a real concern,” Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s communications director, told CNN Tuesday.
According to Vela, a degree of suspicion of the results is understandable in the absence of a full accounting of the party’s failures.
“If I was the Iowa Democratic Party or I was working at the DNC, what I would advise them to do is an immediate investigation and assessment of every aspect of the process, and I would release the results of that in the most transparent manner possible,” he said.
“We should all be disappointed in the inability of the party to come up with timely results, but we are not casting dispersion on the votes that are being counted. There’s no excuse for not having results last night, that doesn’t mean the totals that come in will be inaccurate” https://twitter.com/ryanobles/status/1224761000357978112 …
NEW: I asked @BernieSanders if it was appropriate for the Biden campaign to raise questions about the results. He said that while it was disappointing that the results did not come in on time. Questioning their accuracy is “unfair”.
Republicans eagerly added fuel to the conspiracy theories spreading on social media, casting doubt on the official explanation for the delay and speculating that the party establishment was trying to undermine Sanders.
“By ‘Quality Control’ they mean fixing the results to get the candidate the Democrat Overlords in DC want,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr.
There is no evidence that the Iowa Democratic Party’s explanation for technical difficulties with the new app is untrue. Caucusgoers also filled out commitment cards, so the party has paper backups to ensure the accuracy of the vote count.
The confusion Democratic officials faced Tuesday was in part a result of their effort to avoid accusations that they were rigging the process against Sanders, as many of his supporters believe they did in 2016. After Sanders narrowly lost to Clinton in a somewhat nebulous counting process, they hoped to bring more transparency to the caucuses by releasing raw results of the first and second alignments in addition to the state delegate equivalents.
None of this drama bodes well for Iowa’s precarious hold on first-in-the-nation status in the Democratic Party. Many progressives were already grumbling that the state’s overwhelmingly white population does not reflect the party’s diverse demographic makeup, and the caucus format had been maligned as anti-democratic and outdated.
“I attended the first caucus of my career last night,” Vela said. “I’m literally leaving Iowa in a baffled state of mind because I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such an undemocratic process. I felt like I was back in middle school running for student council president.”
Yesterday we competed, but today we owe it to everyone who caucused in Iowa, and everyone who supports any of the candidates, to show that their voices and hard work count. Our party and our country need more people engaged in the critical mission of defeating Donald Trump. https://twitter.com/RogerLau/status/1224712792227401729 …
Our campaign collected photos and other raw documentation of the results at hundreds of caucus locations as part of our internal reporting process. Today we will provide what we have to the Iowa Democratic Party to help ensure the integrity of their process.
Mann said Iowa Democrats will need to be proactive in addressing their mistakes and promising changes if they want to salvage the caucuses.
“I would get out in front of this ASAP and propose some serious, bold, and extensive reforms to the caucuses that would give my party a fighting chance to preserve them,” he said.
While Democrats weighed pushing Iowa further back on the schedule in 2024 or shifting to a primary, some top Republicans stressed they would defend their caucuses.
“It is not the fault of Iowa, it is the Do Nothing Democrats fault,” President Trump tweeted. “As long as I am President, Iowa will stay where it is. Important tradition!”
According to Goldford, the state has weathered similar complaints in the past and retained its coveted spot at the start of primary season. He acknowledged, however, that opposition is growing on the left and the Iowa Democratic Party did not do caucus proponents any favors Monday.
“Iowa always has an uphill battle defending its position as first in the nation, and the results last night make the next battle even more uphill,” he said.