Iowa GOP seeks to prevent repeat of botched 2012 caucuses

Greg Nash

Republicans in Iowa are working overtime to prevent a repeat of the botched 2012 caucuses, when scores of unaccounted ballots caused Mitt Romney to be wrongly declared the winner over Rick Santorum.

State party officials say they’ve moved aggressively to address the problems that plagued the ballot count in January 2012 and believe the new technologies they’ve adopted, as well as having more workers on staff and enhanced training programs, will pave the way for a smooth and accurate reckoning at the Feb. 1. caucuses.

“We’re extremely confident that we’ve addressed all of the issues,” said Iowa Republican Party spokesman Charlie Szold.

Several Iowa campaign staffers reached by The Hill echoed that sentiment. None seemed worried about a replay of the 2012 election.

“I can tell you with certainty that the state party does not want this happening again and will have their shit together this time,” said one seasoned Iowa operative for a Republican presidential contender, who requested anonymity.

“From conversations I’ve had, I’m 100 percent satisfied, confident and comfortable with the steps they’ve taken,” the operative continued. “I’ve not heard concerns from other candidates or the executives within the party who have the most to lose if things go badly.”

Still, questions remain. The state party will be using a new technological platform for the first time, and there is always an element of chaos in caucuses, which are largely carried out by volunteer activists. 

The stakes will be higher than ever as the huge and fractured field of GOP candidates will seek every conceivable advantage to stand out from the pack.

The number of votes separating second place from sixth place could be slim, and the order of how the candidates finish could be the difference between a campaign that carries on and one that calls it quits.

“At least last time we still knew coming out of it that there were two front-runners,” said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. “This time, there could be several campaigns dependent on their candidate edging out one or two others. They absolutely have to get this right.”

For John Brabender, a senior adviser to Santorum’s 2016 campaign who served in the same role in 2012, the memories of the ballot-counting errors — which he believes it cost his campaign — are as fresh as ever. 

“It is imperative that they get it right this time,” Brabender said. “It impacted us tremendously, although we didn’t realize how fully until several days later.”

According to the Election Day count, Romney edged Santorum by eight votes. But two weeks later, after the state party frantically moved to hunt down missing ballots and account for paperwork irregularities, it declared that Santorum had actually won by just more than 30 votes.

Brabender said the media narrative in the days after the contest focused on Romney’s victory and perceived inevitability instead of the storyline that Santorum had come out of nowhere to emerge as a viable grassroots challenger to the establishment candidate.

Brabender estimated that it cost the Santorum campaign “a couple million” dollars in donations and a huge amount of earned media attention at a critical juncture in the race.

He also said it had an impact on the results in other contests, such as in Michigan, Romney’s home state, where the eventual GOP nominee only narrowly defeated Santorum. 

Brabender argued that Santorum matched Romney on Election Day in the Wolverine State but that those who voted early in Michigan propelled Romney to victory. That might have been different, Brabender said, if early-voters had the full view of Santorum’s strength in the days after the Iowa caucuses.

“I hope nobody else has to go through that because it was totally unfair,” Brabender said.

The issues the Iowa Republican Party dealt with on Election Day in 2012 and in the days that followed were myriad and substantial.

“There are too many holes in the certified totals from the Iowa caucuses to know for certain who won, but Rick Santorum wound up with a 34-vote advantage,” the Des Moines Register reported on Jan. 19, 2012, sixteen days after the Jan. 3 caucuses.

The results from eight precincts went missing and were never recovered, according to the Register, and officials found paperwork irregularities in results submitted from 131 precincts.

The state party believes it has done enough to ensure that won’t happen again. 

Last time, precinct and county officials called their results in to an automated system, punching the numbers into their phones, with no immediate check on whether they’d typed the figures in correctly.

This time, the state party has modernized the process, partnering with Microsoft to develop a caucus reporting phone app with several levels of user authentication and data checks, as well as algorithms that provide an automated “smell test.”

The party is confident in the new technology and says it will certify the final results within 48 hours, instead of the two weeks it has needed in the past.

Still, Schmidt noted there are risks inherent in going live with a new technological platform, pointing to Romney’s 2012 get-out-the-vote system ORCA, which famously crashed on Election Day.

“That platform was billed as being slicker-than-shit, and it totally failed when it mattered most,” Schmidt said.

But in addition to the new technology, the state party says it has never been so strong operationally at this point in the cycle.

Szold says the Iowa GOP has the most staff it’s ever had on the ground, helping it to secure the caucusing locations — the laborious process of finding the schools, firehouses and other places where voters will gather — earlier than ever before.

The state party says it has conducted more training sessions than ever before – 83 so far – in most of the state’s counties, and plans to hold at least one training session with officials in all 99 of the state’s counties, which it has never done before.

Still, there are always variables within a caucus that cannot be accounted for.

“It’s a caucus, not a primary, so you’re dealing with trained volunteers that take time off to help run things,” Szold said. “It’s an incredible undertaking and one of the coolest Democratic features of our system, but it also means you sometimes have to do a little more to make sure it’s all running smoothly.”

The campaigns reached by The Hill said their concerns have been addressed.

“I have confidence the state party will handle the process,” said Ryan Rhodes, who is overseeing Ben Carson’s Iowa campaign.

Even Brabender says he’s confident there won’t be a 2012 repeat.

“I think the embarrassment was so great for them that they realized it would be an utter disaster for it to happen again,” he said. “Everything that I’ve seen, I truly believe it will be prevented, so that’s a good thing at least that’s been accomplished by their failure to get it right in 2012.”