Updated Feb 4, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The 2020 Iowa debacle

An Iowa caucus volunteer fills out paperwork with Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar's names on it

A caucus volunteer fills out paperwork in Carpenter, Iowa. Photo: Steve Pope/Getty Images

The Iowa Democratic Party announced Tuesday that it plans to release "a majority" of its caucus results by 5pm ET, though it gave no indication when full results might be available.

The state of play: It blamed Monday night's caucus meltdown on an app "coding issue," but it made clear that it did not "impact the ability of precinct chairs to report data accurately."

The big picture: The debacle overshadowed the winners-losers story of the night, opened Democrats to accusations of incompetence by the Trump campaign and reignited the debate about how long this small, predominately white state should keep its lock on first-in-the-nation status.

  • The lack of results allowed all of the leading candidates declare some measure of victory on their own terms, make no concessions and head to New Hampshire.
  • "Democrats are stewing in a caucus mess of their own creation with the sloppiest train wreck in history," President Trump's campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement. "And these are the people who want to run our entire health care system?"
  • The State of the Union address is tonight. The final impeachment vote is expected on Wednesday. The next Democratic primary debate, in New Hampshire, is Friday, with the primaries taking place in one week. 

What went down: The Iowa Democratic Party enacted new rules this year to address concerns over transparency after the 2016 election results were razor thin. (Hillary Clinton earned 49.9% of delegates to Bernie Sanders' 49.6%.)

  • Those new rules — plus the introduction of an unregulated app through which votes could be reported from each caucus — only created chaos. 
  • There were reports that some caucus leaders couldn't get the app to work; they were left on hold anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours with the hotline they were supposed to use to report issues with it, or report via telephone rather than the app. 
  • "We found inconsistencies in the reporting," a party statement said. "In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail."
  • The statement said the snafu, which left cable anchors with hours to fill and nothing to say, was "not a hack or intrusion."

The big picture: Iowa was already on the mat.

  • Julián Castro has been saying that it shouldn't be the first state in the primary process. 
  • Clinton has called the caucuses “a very undemocratic way of picking a nominee" that "just makes no sense.”
  • Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who's endorsed Elizabeth Warren, said the primary calendar/order in which the states vote in the primary should "absolutely" change in the future.
  • "If you want it first, do it right," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews last night. 

Reactions from caucus volunteers showed how deeply emotions ran.

  • Melissa Hedden, who traveled to Iowa from Ohio to help as a precinct captain, said the mess-up "might shine a light" on the question of whether Iowa should keep its unique status. "Let's mix it up a little," she said.
  • Rick Neal, who also traveled from out of state, said: "It's clear why everyone is frustrated; this is the election where we're facing down the apocalypse and we want results. So the frustration's understandable."
  • Ernad Muratovic, an Iowan, said the distraction might have helped Biden by taking attention away from the likelihood he was eclipsed by rivals. Still, Muratovic said, "We don't want Iowa to lose the credibility it has."
  • Iowan Amra Klempic said her overarching feeling was one of uneasiness. Even if the results ultimately can be trusted, she said, the delays are a reminder of how vulnerable election systems everywhere — and public trust in elections — may be.

The big question: How much will the results out of Iowa matter if their legitimacy will be questioned by campaigns and voters alike? “I think that every single second that passes where we don't get a final result, it’s concerning," said Warren's campaign manager Roger Lau.

Go deeper: Software disaster sinks Iowa caucus

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