Chaos at the Caucus

A malfunctioning app left Democrats fumbling the official 2020 primary-season kickoff.

Tom Brenner / Getty

Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET on February 4, 2020.

Could it have gone much worse?

The much-anticipated start to the 2020 presidential-election season was plagued by delays, as the Iowa Democratic Party struggled to incorporate a new reporting system aimed at increasing transparency in the complicated first-in-the-nation voting tradition. The morning after the caucus began, the party had yet to release a single official result.

“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” the party spokesperson Mandy McClure said in a statement released at about 11:40 p.m. eastern time. She insisted that the party’s election data were secure and that the app it used to report results had not been hacked. “This is simply a reporting issue,” McClure said, adding that “it will simply take time to further report the results.”

The delay frustrated campaigns and cable networks alike, disrupting an event whose singular importance to the nomination process relies on the momentum generated by media coverage as much as the actual delegates that Iowa will send to the Democratic National Convention this summer. With no victories to claim or defeats to concede, the candidates had no choice but to decamp to the next contest, and a state into which the Democratic field poured tens of millions of dollars and a year’s worth of campaigning was on the verge of seeing its outsize impact on the nomination fight suddenly muted.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who was running in fifth place in the polls, seized the opportunity to fly out of the data fog and on to New Hampshire: Why take the chance of waiting for a count that could show her defeat? She was the first of several candidates to speak after it became clear the results were a long way off.

“We know there’s delays, but we know one thing: We are punching above our weight,” she told a cheering crowd at her Iowa headquarters. “I cannot wait. Somehow, some way I am going to get on a plane to New Hampshire. We are bringing our ticket to New Hampshire.”

Within the hour, former Vice President Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren had followed suit with their own not-quite-victory speeches. Sanders and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, each released partial data their campaigns had collected across the state in a late bid to show they performed well.

As my colleague Elaine Godfrey reported yesterday, some Iowa Democrats were worried that new rules for counting and reporting results from individual caucus sites would lead to confusion and chaos. The caucus itself appeared to run smoothly enough; the trouble stemmed instead from problems with the new application that precinct chairs were asked to use for reporting the numbers. The app was intended to help caucus organizers tally results, apportion delegates, and send in final counts to the Iowa Democratic Party. Earlier in the day, Bloomberg reported that several caucus leaders across the state were unable to use the new app, and would have to send in their results via a party hotline.

But the backup phone system appeared to be overwhelmed as well. “The hotline has not been responsive,” Shawn Sebastian, a precinct secretary, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer at about 11 p.m., explaining that he had been on hold for more than an hour. While Sebastian was live on the air, he was taken off hold. But by the time he tried to report his results, the operator had hung up.

What began as a simple tallying delay had become something of a disaster for Iowa Democrats, who were already facing criticism that their antiquated, in-person system for choosing candidates was a poor match for a national party prioritizing diversity and greater access to the polls. Brad Parscale, President Donald Trump’s campaign manager, suggested that the results would be “rigged” in a barely veiled attempt to sow doubt among Democrats who believed that the party intervened to swing the nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

By the end of the night, however, Biden’s campaign was also furious. “The integrity of the process is critical, and there were flaws in the reporting systems tonight that should raise serious concerns for voters,” tweeted Biden’s spokesperson Kate Bedingfield. The campaign’s lawyers had already sent an angry letter to the state party, saying its systems had “failed.”

This is not the first time the Iowa caucus has gone awry. In 2012, Republicans never truly knew whether Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney had gained more support. And, four years later, confusion about the close gap between Clinton and Sanders led Iowa Democrats to reform their process with the hope of providing a more precise picture of which candidate had won the most votes and which candidate would receive the most delegates.

As Monday turned into Tuesday, that picture had yet to emerge, and Iowa Democrats will have to regroup yet again to figure out what went wrong. Whether they get another chance to get it right four years from now is another question entirely.

Elaine Godfrey contributed reporting from Iowa.