‘A Systemwide Disaster’: How the Iowa Caucuses Melted Down

The Four Percent


DES MOINES — Sean Bagniewski had seen the problems coming.

It wasn’t so much that the new app that the Iowa Democratic Party had planned to use to report its caucus results didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place. After all, there had never been any app-specific training for the many precinct chairs.

So last Thursday Mr. Bagniewski, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Iowa’s most populous county, Polk, instructed his precinct chairs to simply call in the caucus results as they had always done. But during Monday night’s caucuses, those precinct chairs could not connect with party leaders via phone. Hold times stretched past 90 minutes. And when Mr. Bagniewski had his executive director to take pictures of the results with her smartphone and drive over to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters to deliver them in person she was turned away without explanation.

“I don’t even know if they know what they don’t know,” Mr. Bagniewski said of the state party shortly before 2 a.m. on Tuesday.

Inside the party’s boiler room, the warning signs flashed almost as soon as results came in from the new app — as early as 8:15 p.m. The error rate was high, even as raw data seemed fine. Somehow it was mangled in the process of transmitting it for display. No one could figure out why.

The added detail was the result of complaints from four years ago about the opaqueness of Mr. Sanders’s narrow loss in the Iowa delegate chase to Mrs. Clinton.

Some precinct leaders said they had filed their results on Monday with little struggle. Jerry Depew, the county chair in rural Pocahontas, said he had called in his results after a five-minute hold, at 8:05 p.m.

But soon the party phone lines were completely jammed. Operators were overwhelmed. Only a quarter of nearly 1,700 precinct chairs even successfully downloaded the app, according to a Democrat familiar with the matter.

“I couldn’t get it to work,” said Jane Podgorniak, the Worth County party chair. “I tried and tried.”

“When you have an app that you’re sending out to 1,700 people and many of them might be newer to apps and that kind of stuff, it might have been worth doing a couple months’ worth of testing to make sure it is working correctly,” said Mr. Bagniewski, the Polk County chairman.

Or, as Dan Callahan, the chair in Buchanan County, put it, “Some of our chairs use flip phones.”

Unlike a primary run by the state government, caucuses are party affairs and they are powered by the dedication of a small army of volunteers.

Zach Simonson, the Democratic Party chair in Wapello County, said that he had spent nearly three hours trying to report results on Monday. At one point, he received one call from a state party official who was “in a very loud room and screamed at me about wanting a precinct ID number but couldn’t hear my reply over the din in the room.”

“While I was talking to him,” Mr. Simonson said in an email, “my call on the other line, holding for 90 minutes, was answered and hung up.”

Mr. Depew, who had filed shortly after 8 p.m., said he had received a call from the state party almost three hours later asking for the results he had long since filed. “I said, ‘I already reported nearly three hours ago.’ She took my word for it and moved on without explaining the apparent snafus,” he said.

But those delays and confusion did not explain why the state party waited until Tuesday afternoon to release any results — including from the precincts that had successfully filed their results either via phone or the app.

The party said at first that it was conducting “quality control” efforts.

Much of the chaos unfolded off the main room at the Iowa Events Center, where campaigns struggled to figure out what was going on as party officials worked upstairs but refused to actually come down to discuss the unfolding madness, according to a person in the room.

At 10:26 p.m., the Iowa Democratic Party issued a longer statement.

“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” it said. “This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound.”

Around that time, the state party tried to brief the campaigns in a phone call. It did not go well. Party officials mostly reiterated their public statements: that the delays were related to issuing three metrics per precinct for the first time. Party officials hung up after being pressed for more by the campaigns, according to two people on the call.

Soon after, the Biden campaign sent a sharply worded letter to the state party that said “acute failures are occurring statewide.”

On Monday night, the candidates decided not to wait for any results, one by one giving variations of a victory speech. None were quite as bold in their proclamations of success as Mr. Buttigieg.

“Tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” he declared. “Because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.”

He was giving a speech in New Hampshire when the actual first results arrived a day later.


Reporting was contributed by Sydney Ember and Reid J. Epstein from Des Moines, Sheera Frenkel from San Francisco, and Nicole Perlroth from Austin, Texas.


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