Iowa meltdown threatens future of state's caucuses

DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa political experts and observers are worried their state’s first-in-the-nation status in presidential nominating contests is in jeopardy after technical issues marred Democratic caucuses on Monday.

Monday’s disastrous meltdown was the third consecutive presidential election cycle during which there have been problems with the Iowa caucuses, raising anew serious questions about their results and integrity.

The quadrennial calls for a shakeup in the presidential nominating calendar are now louder than at any time since the modern system began in 1972.

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“It’s hard to see how Iowa keeps this after last night,” David Yepsen, the longtime Iowa political observer who hosts a Sunday public affairs show, said Tuesday.

The state Democratic Party eventually released early and incomplete results from the caucuses late on Tuesday afternoon. They showed former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a 'liar' and a 'clown' at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: 'I've got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready' MORE (I-Vt.) leading with 62 percent of the state's precincts reporting.

Earlier, frustration had mounted even among the state’s most ardent defenders.

“It’s important to get the numbers right. It’s more important than kicking something out too soon,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist who is unaligned in the presidential race. “The clock is ticking, though.”

Democratic political leaders, some of whom have previously questioned whether a more diverse state should host the cycle’s first presidential contest, were also criticizing the caucuses.

“The Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition which should come to an end,” Senate Minority Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting Warren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' Conservative group unveils ad accusing liberals of attacking Barrett's faith MORE (D-Ill.) said Tuesday on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe." “As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face in voting.”

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Even before Monday’s meltdown, calls to reform the presidential nominating calendar had echoed more loudly.

Supporters of presidential candidates like Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Memo: Debate or debacle? Biden will keep debating Trump, campaign says Joe Scarborough urges Biden: 'Do not do anymore debates' MORE (D-Calif.), Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' Schumer won't meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick This week: Senate kicks off Supreme Court fight MORE (D-N.J.) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro questioned why a state that is overwhelmingly white deserved such outsize influence in the nominating process of a Democratic Party that is increasingly reliant on black and brown faces that make up a growing share of the electorate.

“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” Castro said in November. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”

Iowa’s prominence in the Democratic contest came into place after the party ushered in reforms following the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the riots that shook the streets of Chicago.

The Iowa caucuses have their defenders, chief among them the state’s top political leaders.

“You see [the conversation about removing Iowa] every four years, and when they start trying to figure out how you break this up and create something different, they go, 'Well maybe this isn’t too bad a system after all,”' former Iowa Gov. Tom VilsackThomas James VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE (D), who served as secretary of Agriculture under President Obama, told The Hill on Monday, before the caucuses kicked off.

Party leaders in other states have tried for years to loosen the grip Iowa — and New Hampshire — have held over the early nominating process. But none of the alternative solutions have proved workable.

“We’ve talked about the Iowa caucuses, and New Hampshire for that matter, for years now. What’s the answer? No one has that,” said Doug Heye, who worked as a consultant to the Iowa Republican Party in 2012. “If the rest of the states go through a smooth process, it’s hard for [Iowa] to make the case.”

But this year is different. At a pre-caucus event held earlier Monday, one veteran reporter who has covered politics for more than 50 years chuckled when he said he and the other scribes present were covering the final Iowa caucuses of any consequence.

Iowa’s status gives the state an outsized political power on the national scene and the ability to bend senators and governors to its will far beyond its relatively small size. It makes kings of county party officials and ordinary activists, many of whom collect presidential candidates’ personal cellphone numbers. And it brings millions of dollars in economic benefits as candidates, campaigns and media flex their expense accounts around the state.

But in recent years the caucuses have been marred by controversy, and both Democrats and Republicans have found themselves on the wrong side of errors that have cost them the reputation for integrity they have so carefully built up.

In 2012, Iowa Republicans declared Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyBiden's debate game plan? Keep cool and win President Trump faces Herculean task in first debate HBO's Oliver laments 'dark week' after Barrett nomination: 'Hopeless' MORE the winner of its party’s caucuses, in an unexpectedly tight battle with former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). Days later, the party reversed course and declared Santorum the winner — by just 34 votes. But even after the correction, the final results remain unknown, as half a dozen precincts went uncounted.

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Four years later, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton after debate: 'Everyone better vote' Hillary Clinton: 'Black Lives Matter' is 'very profoundly a theological statement' House in near-unanimous vote affirms peaceful transfer of power MORE held off a stronger-than-expected challenge from Sanders to win the Democratic caucuses by just two-tenths of a percentage point. Slow counts and several precincts that awarded Clinton delegates after ties were broken by coin flip enraged Sanders backers, who claimed their candidate had been robbed.

Anxious to maintain their position on the calendar, and under pressure from both Sanders supporters and the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 2020 caucuses, Iowa Democrats agreed to a series of reforms meant to ease voting, improve transparency and encourage participation. 

The reforms included measures to create a paper trail that would record voter preferences for the first time and pledges to release results from voters’ initial preferences, their second preferences after minor candidates dropped away and the delegate equivalents that will eventually lead to a winner being declared.

“After what happened in 2016 and the challenges we had in 2016, a lot of that happened because of the close result, and that close result really shined a lot of light on the shortcomings of our system,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told The Hill in November. “We are very focused on making sure our caucuses go off without a hitch.”

But those hitches came and overwhelmed a system that critics say was bound to fail. The party relied on an app that precinct officials were supposed to use to communicate results to a central hub in Des Moines. As a backup, precinct captains were told to call results into a hotline in a war room at the state Democratic Party headquarters.

As caucuses wrapped up around the state, some precinct officials scrapped the app altogether, opting for the old-fashioned method of just calling in results.

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One precinct captain was hung up on while giving a live interview on CNN. Peter Leo, chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, said most of his precinct captains waited on hold between 35 minutes and 45 minutes to report results.

At party headquarters, an apparent coding error meant the app delivered incomplete data on the back end.

“This doesn’t help our case” for keeping the caucuses, Link said on KCCI-TV as a panel of political experts tried to find something to talk about after hours of no results.

Ironically, it appeared that the very reforms that Sanders had insisted upon — the multiple results and the paper trail — may have conspired to cost him a jubilant victory celebration. With no data to point to, Sanders reiterated much of his stump speech before boarding a plane.

For hours, the state Democratic Party said it was making “quality control” checks on data that came in via the app. The party then went silent, before organizing a hasty conference call with top campaign officials that almost instantly turned contentious. After midnight, Price arranged a conference call with the media, in which he read a statement for just over a minute and did not take questions.

“This is a total mess. I respect the people of Iowa, they’ve been great — but it’s become very clear that our democracy has been misserved by a broken system,” Castro, now backing Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments MORE (D-Mass.), said on Twitter late Monday.

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By Tuesday, the full results of the caucuses themselves remained unknown. But the result of a third consecutive high-profile debacle is in far less doubt: A major push to reform the presidential nominating calendar, and to strip Iowa of its coveted role at the head of the pack, seems almost inevitable.

Late Monday, Yepsen captured the anxious feelings of many activists and strategists: “RIP caucuses,” he wrote on Twitter.

Updated at 5:25 p.m.