When the results failed to materialize on schedule — and then remained ever out of reach throughout the night, due to not-entirely-clear tabulating glitches — the normally unflappable Blitzer grew increasingly impatient, even slightly agitated, as if channeling the state of mind of a dozen campaign staffs and the millions watching at home.
Slowly but surely, as the veteran newsman threw from one correspondent in the field to the next with his signature cry of “Stand by!,” the barest notes of irritation began to creep into his narration of the historic nonevent.
Wolf, irritated? It was a sign of how much the Iowa meltdown disrupted the normal rhythms of cable-news election night — Blitzer’s domain since 2004, when he was tapped by CNN to restore order and faith after the cataclysmic election night of 2000, when the network was criticized for twice prematurely calling Florida and then withdrawing its projections.
By the end of caucus night, the extraordinary circumstances had forced him to resort to some highly non-Blitzerian language to describe what was, or actually wasn’t, happening: “It’s crazy,” he said toward midnight. “I mean this is a serious problem. They’ve got to fix this very soon.” He later called it, “A huge, huge embarrassment” for the Iowa Democratic Party.
Ultimately, his coverage climaxed with a compelling live demonstration of just how fouled up the process was.
At 9 p.m., Blitzer still sounded hopeful that the evening would unfold without complications. “More than 1,600 caucuses are underway in Iowa right now,” he said. “We’re expecting to get results very soon.”
At 9:20, no results. He took a moment to reassure viewers: “We’re awaiting the results, the first results from the Iowa caucuses, should be coming in very, very soon. Stand by for that.”
Ten minutes later, Blitzer sensed something was amiss.
Standing with correspondent John King at CNN’s election data display-screen — its “Magic Wall” — he noted, “It’s been more than an hour and a half. We’re getting snapshots from various caucuses out there, but still no official numbers coming in from — from the DNC, from the state.”
King agreed. “Nothing in the Wall, an hour and a half in. . . . That’s unusual.”
“Usually after a half an hour,” Blitzer mused, “or 45 minutes, you start getting some significant results.”
King wasn’t ready to panic. He reasoned that it might have something to do with the unusually large field of candidates and the complications of double and triple-checking results from hundreds of precincts.
But by 9:40 p.m., Blitzer was having none of it. That’s when he took the gloves off.
“All right,” he said firmly. “It’s getting close to 10 p.m. here on the East Coast. “Almost two hours, these caucuses have been underway, and so far, no official results yet. This is pretty unusual.”
By 10:20, Blitzer sounded like a man stuck in a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. “Waiting,” he said impatiently, “waiting and waiting.”
In this desperate, news-less hour, Blitzer summoned his command of caucus-night history (or the command of some fast-Googling producer in his ear) to satisfy the audience’s hunger for numbers. “Four years ago, I think about 70 percent of the official vote of the precincts, 70 percent of the precincts had already reported numbers — [but] now with zero percent of the precincts.” It may not have been the numbers we were waiting for, but it was something.
At 10:30 p.m., Blitzer brought on CNN political analyst David Chalian to confirm the dark fears the anchor had been telegraphing for nearly an hour. A debacle was truly unfolding. Chalian said Iowa Democratic Party officials were attributing the delay to “quality control” issues caused by a new digital app used by precinct officials.
“This was not the plan,” he told Blitzer. “Something is clearly off from the plan that the Iowa Democratic Party had at the start of the night.”
A dramatic demonstration soon followed. In the most tense and thrilling live-reported moment of the evening, Blitzer opened a window, or perhaps a metaphor, into the bleak heart of the problem. It came when he interviewed Shawn Sebastian, a precinct secretary in Story County, via phone just after 11 p.m.
Sebastian revealed that, at that very moment, he was waiting by another open phone line. “I have been on hold for over an hour with the Iowa Democratic Party,” he explained. “The app by all accounts just, like, doesn’t work, so we’ve been recommended to call into the hotline, and the hotline has not been responsive.”
Suddenly, viewers heard a third voice on the line — apparently, a party official had finally picked up Sebastian’s call as he was speaking to CNN.
“This is a real coincidence, Wolf,” Sebastian exclaimed. “I just got off hold, just now!”
“Can we listen in?” Blitzer asked.
Viewers then heard some muffled comments, followed by dead air from the party official’s end of the call.
Then Sebastian came back on.
“They hung up on me,” he groaned. “They hung up on me.”
“Oh!” Blitzer commiserated. “So frustrating indeed.”
A few minutes later, Blitzer looked on as CNN panelist Van Jones expressed what Blitzer had been signaling all night: “This is starting to feel like possibly a real debacle.” He questioned whether the Iowa caucuses deserved their first-in-the-nation status. “You only have one job, Iowa,” he scolded. Blitzer merely offered regrets.
The poignancy came with Blitzer’s farewell when he signed off before midnight. Standing in CNN’s studio in Washington, he turned again to John King. “You and I should be at the Magic Wall by now,” he said wistfully.
By Tuesday morning, the results still hadn’t come in.