As Iowans prepared to engage in the latest iteration of their decades-long stranglehold on America’s presidential nominating contests Monday, there was reason for optimism. A halfway-formidable field of Democratic candidates had debated at length on everything from the merits of sweeping policy changes like junking private health insurance to who had the best shot at unseating Donald Trump. A bitter impeachment fight was still raging in Washington, but for one night, at least, the sweet, sweet stuff of grassroots activism might win out at union halls and gyms in corn country.
Instead, it was an objective disaster.
The Iowa caucuses on Monday were marked by chaos, with an apparent deluge of technical problems and the patently absurd mechanics on display throughout the evening. By night’s end, candidates had spoken to their supporters without barely any results having been announced—prompting a flood of credible prognostications suggesting the extremely white state might finally lose its first-in-the-nation mantle.
“I think we are witnessing the end of the Iowa caucus for real this time,” one campaign official told The Daily Beast.
Shawn Sebastian, the caucus secretary for a Story County precinct, live-tweeted his predicament: trying to call in results for six delegates and being put on hold for well over an hour.
“I don’t think this is a way to do democracy,” he wrote. “I was just following the rules and this is the outcome the rules got us. If I can ever get the results reported… still on hold.”
The rules for the caucuses changed this year to dangle not one or two but three sets of results: not just initial preference for president, but final vote alignments and official delegate counts as well.
The basic setup of the caucus has long drawn alternating expressions of joyous wonder and eye rolling—driven by questions over how lower-case-d democratic a process can be when it relies on people lobbying each other on a crowded high school basketball court. But reports of pettiness and frustration were especially acute Monday—and that was before the technical problems started.
As the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein reported around 10 p.m., one precinct where Iowa frontrunner Bernie Sanders cleaned up in overall support nonetheless somehow produced equal numbers of delegates for him and a handful of the other candidates.
This year’s caucus appeared to be especially egregious when it came to straight-up Uncut Gems-style nonsense helping determine the next president of the United States, as various political reporters noted. A coin was literally tossed in the air to determine the next candidate for president of the United States.
The coin-toss solution might be more appealing except that it often seemed to rest on an initial display of spite from the participants in question.
To reiterate: Yes, the delegates from the state that has long provided momentum to presidential candidates were, over and over again, being awarded based on coin tosses and names being pulled from hats.
The only thing more glaring than the absurdities of the caucus process itself was the extremely long delay in actual results being produced to news outlets and the general public.
Various reports suggested this was a product of software powering the results-reporting app going rogue. The state Democratic party denied a hack and insisted it was just being extremely diligent and trying to reconcile what it vaguely referred to as “inconsistencies.”
But caucus officials still were left waiting on a backup hold line from hell as campaigns tried to figure out what was going on. As Sebastian, the Story County caucus secretary, waited patiently, he took a second to chat with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, and lost his spot in the queue. Des Moines County party chair Tom Courtney declared the app “a mess.”
It was perhaps fitting that, around 11:30 p.m., when some candidates began delivering speeches and calling it a night, caucus secretaries showed signs of doing the same thing.
And as it became clear that there would be no victor announced by night’s end, elected Democrats began letting their frustrations show.
Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale predictably took advantage of the chaos to dunk on the Democrats and suggest, with no substantiation, that the problems meant the vote had been “rigged.”
“They can’t even run a caucus and they want to run the government,” he tweeted.
With reporting by Sam Stein