DES MOINES, Iowa — All the top Democrats are moving on to New Hampshire, because Iowa failed to do the one job it had.
A colossal caucus-night technological foul-up — straight out of a dystopian political novel — will make it harder for the state’s Democratic Party to justify its prized status as the first in the nation to hold a presidential election contest every four years. More immediately, it provided an opening for both Republicans and Democrats to question the eventual outcome of this round of caucuses, and it threw into doubt the validity of varying election systems in races for federal office.
Kurt Meyer, the chairman of the Tri-County Democratic Party, which includes three rural Iowa counties, said he’s “very worried” about the future of the caucuses.
“There were already enough pea shooters out there coming for Iowa. There were 49 other states saying, ‘Why does Iowa get to do this?’” he said. “And now we just poured a gallon of kerosene on what was a smoldering ember.”
David Plouffe, who ran Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, said on MSNBC Monday night that extinguishing calls for Iowa to lose its status will be difficult now.
“We may be witnessing the last Iowa caucus,” he said.
The campaigns of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — the winner of the Republican caucuses and the front-runner in national polling for the Democrats, respectively — both suggested that totals could be affected by the mishaps. Before the caucuses, Democratic insiders had begun furtive discussions about how to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., if Sanders won Iowa and Biden lost steam.
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The counting confusion became a kind of fog machine in which a few campaigns could hide what might have been poor performances in Iowa and sneak off to the next contests. Biden’s campaign counsel wrote a letter to Iowa Democratic officials Monday night enumerating the “acute failures” of reporting systems and requesting an opportunity to contest the results before they are announced.
“[W]e believe that the campaigns deserve full explanations and relevant information regarding the methods of quality control you are employing, and an opportunity to respond, before any official results are released,” Dana Remus wrote.
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Trump’s campaign reveled in pointing to the uncertainty on the Democratic side. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, tweeted, “Quality control = rigged?” and “They can’t even run a caucus and they want to run a government.”
The 2016 presidential election had already exposed the vulnerabilities of state and candidate computer systems. Some Democrats said Monday night that given those serious cybersecurity concerns, the technological difficulties in Iowa are likely to doom its future standing.
“Given the lingering questions about our election system’s legitimacy after 2016, I think this is probably the end of Iowa’s primacy in the process,” said Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator and onetime political science professor at Dartmouth.
The nominating process is more complex in a caucus state than it is in a primary state, where voters simply cast ballots. State parties have varying rules, technology and reporting mechanisms. That means presidential elections aren’t run the same way for the two parties. And there is always more attention paid to Iowa than any other state when there’s not an incumbent running for one party or both because candidates campaign here for a year or more.
Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball,” said on MSNBC Monday night that public confidence in elections would be improved if they were run in more similar fashion.
“The more consistent the machinery in this country, the better,” he said.
But as each of the candidates gave speeches Monday night, thanking Iowans for their support and promising to campaign hard in New Hampshire, they chose not to hammer the state publicly for the party’s failures.
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a co-chairman of Sanders’ campaign, told NBC News that Iowa should keep its place at the front of the Democratic presidential nominating process.
“The diversity of candidates succeeding in Iowa, in addition to the state’s important rural communities, suggests it’s a good place to start our presidential election,” Khanna said in a text message. “Iowa should be viewed in conjunction with the other early states as launching the presidential cycle.”
Sanders was one of a handful of candidates — along with former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Biden — who were viewed as possible winners in the days leading up to the caucuses.
Only Buttigieg went so far as to declare himself “victorious” on the way out of Iowa Monday night. But no one really knows if he had any basis for that claim. That’s because without winners, there were no official losers — except the Iowa Democratic Party.
Alex Seitz-Wald contributed.