The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An epic breakdown in Iowa casts a spotlight on the caucus system

The delay in results from Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses Feb. 3 was due in part to problems with a mobile app used to report figures to the state party. (Video: The Washington Post)
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DES MOINES — Iowa Democrats spent a year evaluating a record-large field of presidential candidates, all in search of someone they believed could defeat President Trump in November. But on the night they were asked to deliver a definitive result, the precinct caucus system broke down, and Iowa's place in the nominating process became the story.

Hours passed as the Iowa Democratic Party struggled to reconcile conflicting numbers from the nearly 1,700 precincts. Partial numbers from selected caucus sites that were being covered by television networks painted a confusing and sometimes conflicting portrait of what was happening.

In the absence of results in real time, it was anybody's guess who was winning. By the time the results are reported, perhaps on Tuesday, they could be subject to challenge or questions from one or another of the campaigns, and the scene will have shifted to New Hampshire, whose primary will be held on Feb. 11.

The first-in-the-nation voting state was thrown into chaos on Feb. 3 after the Iowa Democratic Party delayed releasing results. (Video: The Washington Post)

The one conclusion from the numbers that were being collected by the media suggested that the eventual winner would receive a lower percentage of the vote than any previous winner since 1972, when the modern caucuses were born. But that could end up being the secondary story. On Monday night, it was all about Iowa and not the candidates.

Iowans have prided themselves on their first-in-the-nation caucuses. Voters in the state have taken their role seriously, and over the years, a culture has developed here of citizens who turn out to see and evaluate the candidates firsthand. Democrats often have ended up settling on a candidate who would go on to win the party's nomination.

But whatever the culture that exists in evaluating candidates, Iowa has also come under strong and recurring criticism for exercising outsize influence on the nominating process. This predominantly white state, where agriculture is a dominant industry, is far from representative of the nation. The absence of a larger minority population, especially for a Democratic Party that has become increasingly diverse in its makeup, rubs raw many non-Iowa Democrats.

Beyond that, the caucus system itself is a target of criticism. Unlike primary elections, in which voters can cast their ballots in secret at any time of the day when the polls are open, the caucus process is far more demanding. Participants must arrive by a fixed time in the evening and be prepared to stay for several hours as the process of alignment and realignment plays out.

The caucuses disenfranchise some voters who, because of working hours or other issues, are not able to be at their precinct sites at the appointed hour. This year, special provisions were made to make it possible for those people to attend satellite caucuses at different hours. Still, the caucuses are cumbersome and to critics unfair as a result.

The caucuses were designed originally as party-building mechanisms, generally used by smaller states. For presidential candidates, they are seen as a test of organizing capability.

Defenders of the caucuses and of Iowa have long said that this is one of the few places where candidates must meet voters face to face, where they must answer questions and listen and perhaps learn about real life.

But even in Iowa, there are questions about the prominence the state plays, given its demographics and small size. Now there is a bigger problem, and there is little doubt that it will bring more pressure than ever before on Iowa's leaders to justify the system they have built.

The irony Monday night's breakdown was that it was the second time in three days when the expected did not happen. On Saturday night, the Iowa Poll, long considered the most reliable pre-caucus indicator of the standing of the candidates, was pulled just before it was to be released after technical problems threw into doubt the reliability of the findings.

Now the results of the caucuses themselves are being called into question. The campaign of former vice president Joe Biden sent a letter to the Iowa Democratic Party demanding answers and putting the party on notice about the eventual results. People in two campaigns said state party leaders hung up on a conference call when the leaders were pressed about when results would be released.

Around 11:30 p.m., as everyone was still waiting for the first official results, Mandy McClure, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party issued a statement.

"We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results," she said. "In addition to the tech systems being used to tabulate results, we are also using photos of results and a paper trail to validate that all results match and ensure that we have confidence and accuracy in the numbers we report."

If Monday's problems were an isolated example, that would be one thing. But this is the third time in as many caucus nights when Iowa has struggled to determine the winner in real time.

Eight years ago, Mitt Romney was declared the narrow victor over Rick Santorum on the night of the Republican caucuses. But the absence of full results on caucus night left the outcome unresolved. Weeks later, Santorum was declared the official winner, but too late for it to give his campaign the boost he needed.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled throughout a long night of counting. Clinton's campaign claimed victory without knowing for certain that she had won. In the end, her margin was less than half a percentage point, and the Sanders campaign never truly believed that he had lost.

In the absence of results on Monday, cable television provided reports from individual caucus sites. What the television audience saw was not particularly reassuring, especially to those who have been skeptical of or simply do not understand the caucus process.

Iowans gather in their precincts, break into groups to show support for their candidates, and are counted. When that count is completed, candidates who do not meet a threshold of 15 percent support in the precinct are declared not viable. Supporters of a nonviable candidate are then free to move to support another candidate.

It sounds complicated and looked even more complicated on television.

Party officials had prepared what they believed was a system for reporting results that would be easy to use by precinct leaders and protected against possible cyberattack.

But this year also brought changes in reporting the numbers. Historically, the Democrats have reported a single number, something called "state delegate equivalents," a percentage based on a formula devised by the party. That number, however, doesn't truly reflect the number of people who show up for each candidate, only the order of finish among the candidates who are viable after realignment.

This year, the state party, in the interest of transparency and pressed by the Democratic National Committee, said it would report two other numbers, including the number of people who supported each candidate at the start of the caucuses. But as Monday turned to Tuesday, the party was left to tally the results with a backup system.

The absence of results created an odd ending to the evening — a series of speeches by the candidates all claiming in one way or another success or victory, and a promise to take the fight on to New Hampshire.

That wasn't supposed to be the way Monday ended. Iowans were hoping to show the rest of the country how they finally evaluated the candidates. Instead, even if the results are eventually reported, there will be a new and more challenging assessment of the caucus system.