What happened in Iowa and what’s next after caucus mess


Boxes of voter registration forms are stacked at an unmanned auxiliary office of the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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The political universe has been turned upside down by the failure of the Iowa caucuses. Traditionally the event provides the first concrete tally after months of speculation about the presidential primary. But Monday night’s Democratic caucuses ended inconclusively as the state party blamed technological problems for preventing it from reporting results. Here are some questions and answers about what happened — and what might come next.


The Iowa Democratic Party says an app created to compile and report caucus results malfunctioned due to a “coding issue,” delaying the count. The party says there are no signs of hacking or other intrusion and that the underlying data is “sound.” The problem was that the app only reported partial data when the precinct chairs sent the information to party headquarters.


There were some concerns ahead of time. The caucuses were operating under new, complex rules that required the reporting of three different tiers of results and that appears to have complicated the counting.

The Iowa Democratic Party didn’t roll the app out to its 1,678 caucus locations until a few hours before the meetings began Monday night. Party officials had said they would not be sending the new mobile app to precinct chairs for downloading until just before the caucuses to narrow the window for any interference, and there wasn’t widespread pretesting by volunteers running the caucus sites.


The results of each caucus meeting must be tabulated on paper. Party officials are going door-to-door across the state to verify the written results of each caucus meeting and check them against what was reported on the app. This will take time.


Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said the party will release roughly half of the results from caucus sites by 5 p.m. Tuesday. That fractional result may not provide clarity in a race that saw a number of candidates bunched together in the polls. The plan already drew objections. On a conference call, a representative of former Vice President Joe Biden pushed back against the plan by party officials to release partial results.


Several campaigns jumped into the information void and announced, perhaps unsurprisingly, that according to their own data their candidate did great in Iowa. But in all of these cases the data is incomplete and may not be representative of what Iowa voters across the state decided — for example, it may under-represent rural areas, or college campuses. Plus, any campaign has an interest in releasing results that make its own candidate look good. These numbers are not reliable.


Attention has already shifted to New Hampshire, which votes in a traditional primary on Feb. 11. Another caucus state — Nevada — said it will not use the same app utilized in Iowa.

Once Nevada votes on Feb. 22, things move fast. South Carolina, the final early state, votes on Feb. 29. Then a mass of 14 states that account for about one-third of the delegates up for grabs in the contest votes on March 3, known as Super Tuesday.


There’s no way to know whether one specific candidate benefits from the Iowa mess. The entire primary process was already uncertain, and a new layer of uncertainty has been added without Iowa winnowing the field in its traditional way. It’s also sowed new doubts about the reliability of caucuses, which increases the pressure on Nevada, one of the only remaining caucus states. Republicans have been gleefully trying to fan Democratic division by stoking rumors online that the meltdown is a conspiracy to cripple Sanders’ insurgent campaign. In the end, though, one thing is clear — the biggest loser is probably Iowa itself, which may lose its first-in-the-nation slot over the debacle.


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