Iowa Caucus:New Details on the Problems Emerge

Iowa caucuses

On a private conference call, Iowa Democratic leaders revealed more about how the reporting process on Monday night went calamitously awry.

By Trip Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein

Iowa Democratic officials said on a private conference call on Wednesday night that nearly all the much-delayed results of Monday’s caucuses would be released by Thursday, although a few precincts might remain outstanding.

The reason?

Tally sheets had been dropped into snail mail.

Party leaders revealed new details of how the reporting process went calamitously awry, marring the kickoff of the Democratic presidential primary and threatening Iowa’s future as the first-in-the-nation contest.

Besides an untested, buggy smartphone app that was used for the first time, a backup hotline number for caucus organizers to call in results was flooded with nuisance calls after the number was disseminated on social media, party leaders said.

“All the Trump people from around the country started calling and tearing everybody a new one,” Ken Sager, the Iowa Democratic Party treasurer, told members of the party’s central committee on the 1 hour 20 minute call.

There were 85 phone lines to take calls at the party headquarters in Des Moines, said Kevin Geiken, the party’s executive director. But caucus chairs faced long wait times “because of the excessive calls we were getting” and because the legitimate calls to report results each took about five minutes, twice as long as in a dry run.

Troy Price, the party chairman, who has been clipped in public remarks in recent days, sounded humbled and apologetic on the call. “I want to say I am sorry, I am deeply sorry for the challenges we had on Monday evening,” he said.

Late Wednesday night, the party was still releasing results

Late Wednesday night, the party was still releasing results, bringing the total to 97 percent of statewide precincts reporting. The results showed a narrowing race between Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., who had 26.2 percent of state delegates, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who had 26.1. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was in third with 18.2 percent and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was in fourth with 15.8 percent.

In an email to supporters, Mr. Sanders’s Iowa state director, Misty Rebik, noted that the Vermont senator was leading in the popular vote and was tied with Mr. Buttigieg in projected national pledged delegates. “What we didn’t get was our victory party,” she wrote. “That is deeply frustrating and heartbreaking.”

As he did on Monday before any results had been announced, Mr. Buttigieg again declared himself the Iowa winner during a call with supporters Wednesday night.

Pete Buttigieg at a town hall event in Concord, N.H., on Wednesday. He declared victory early, and reiterated that message during a call with supporters on Wednesday night.
Pete Buttigieg at a town hall event in Concord, N.H., on Wednesday. He declared victory early, and reiterated that message during a call with supporters on Wednesday night.Credit…Elizabeth Frantz for The New York Times

“Now, because of what we were able to do there, we’re in position to arrive in New Hampshire as the momentum candidate in this race,” he said.

Mr. Buttigieg, whose campaign spent much of its money in a final Iowa push, made several pleas to supporters to contribute more cash before New Hampshire’s Tuesday primary.

“We need a surge in financial support right now in order to bring us to that finish line in New Hampshire,” he said.

Mr. Buttigieg pronounced himself pleased

Later in the call, Mr. Buttigieg pronounced himself pleased with how Iowa had gone. “We are thrilled with the position we’re in,” he said. “There is no campaign I’d trade places with.”

Although the reporting of multiple results in Iowa — popular support and delegates — always opened the possibility that more than one candidate would claim victory, the meltdown in reporting sullied the waters further, with both Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. Sanders claiming the mantle of momentum that Iowa traditionally bestows.

Mr. Price was peppered with sharp questions from committee members about the failure of the smartphone app, including from two members who implied there was an improper connection between the app’s developer, Shadow Inc., and the Buttigieg campaign.

“We have seen the pictures of you, Troy, with app developers and people with the Buttigieg campaign, and that’s concerning,” said Holly Brown, a committee member.

Mr. Price insisted he had remained steadfastly neutral

Mr. Price insisted he had remained steadfastly neutral in the Democratic race. The Buttigieg campaign paid Shadow Inc. for text messaging software but was not involved in the Iowa caucus app, the campaign told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

There were other sharp moments on the call. “We were told the app would be made available by Jan. 14 or Jan. 17 and on multiple occasions we would test it, make sure it would withstand the volumes, and that didn’t happen,” Ruth Thompson said.

Mr. Geiken, the executive director, said the app had been rolled out as planned to precinct leaders.

“I’m sorry to interrupt — I was a precinct chair and the app wasn’t made available to me,” Ms. Thompson replied.

As he has said publicly, Mr. Price repeated that Monday night’s problems began when a coding error was discovered in a back-end computer that received the results sent in by volunteer leaders of each caucus via the app.

“We moved to Plan B, which was to ask precinct captains to call us with their results,” he said.

What was plan C

After the phone lines became swamped, with some precinct leaders giving up and going to bed without reporting results, the party moved essentially to Plan C, a manual examination of the worksheets from each caucus.

“We’re using the caucus math worksheets to report the results, and that takes time,” Mr. Price said.

Because a few precinct chairs dropped their worksheets into traditional mailboxes, they would not be counted until they were delivered. “We are in the process of waiting for the mail to arrive,” Mr. Price said. “Those final precincts may take a little bit for us to get those sheets.”

A vacant temporary office of the Iowa Democratic Party in Des Moines the day after the caucuses. Caucus math worksheets were being used to report the results after Monday night’s problems.
A vacant temporary office of the Iowa Democratic Party in Des Moines the day after the caucuses. Caucus math worksheets were being used to report the results after Monday night’s problems.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

One caucus chairman not on the call, Tom Courtney, said on Wednesday that he had been taken aback by what happened. After hours of being unable to get through to party headquarters on Monday night, Mr. Courtney gave up and went to bed. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “At 3 in the morning, I emailed everything to the guy I was trying to call, then I texted it.”

The next day, he said, he received a call from state headquarters that it hadn’t seen his results. “I gave them to him over the phone, again,” Mr. Courtney said.

Then someone from the state party drove the 2 hours 40 minutes from Des Moines to Burlington, where Mr. Courtney lives, to pick up the paper worksheets from his county.

Committee members emphasized that the caucus gatherings had gone smoothly

Committee members emphasized that the caucus gatherings themselves had gone smoothly, despite added complexity this year to meet a demand for more transparency and more data. Members said they were saddened to see their prized caucuses getting a black eye in the news media, and there were multiple calls not to speak directly with reporters.

“I’m as heartbroken as the rest of us,” said Mary Jane Cobb, a committee member.

Trip Gabriel is a national correspondent. He covered the past two presidential campaigns and has served as the Mid-Atlantic bureau chief and a national education reporter. He formerly edited the Styles sections. He joined The Times in 1994. @tripgabrielFacebook

Reid Epstein covers campaigns and elections from Washington. Before joining the Times in 2019, he worked at The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Newsday and The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

New York Times

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