Des Moines — Attention was riveted on the caucus results, not that anyone would know Monday night what they were for sure, given the technical snafus that turned Iowa's coveted political gatherings into chaos.

But for the candidates — and voters in other states — the most important lessons may have come hours before. In almost 1,700 caucus sites around the state, Iowans held frenzied conversations in neighborhood precincts. Supporters provided personal pitches for their favorite candidates. Undecided voters listened and publicly aired their hesitations, worries and calculations as if they were participating in a mass airing of Democratic angst.

The process was often chaotic, raw and emotional — and occasionally even joyful — the residue of a long campaign spent worrying which of their many choices would make the best opponent for the man who provided their only unifying force: President Trump.

Caucus-goers had two potential votes: one to assess initial strength and the second that included solely those candidates who reached the required 15 percent threshold of viability. A key moment of the night was the realignment process, during which supporters of vanquished candidates were hastily recruited by supporters in other camps. They had only minutes to make their decisions.

At six precincts scattered across the state — a rural VFW hall, a college town theater, an urban YMCA and schools located in a fast-growing suburban city and two counties that voted both for Barack Obama and Trump — Democrats who have spent a year studying the candidates had those precious minutes to debate which direction their party should aim, what it would take to beat Trump in November and how much change their divided country could tolerate.

It was a preview of the conversations that will soon unspool across the nation as Democrats pick their 2020 nominee.

A blowout for Biden and Warren

In a cramped elementary school gymnasium in Muscatine, supporters of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were stunned when both candidates failed to receive enough votes to remain viable.

This was the sort of place where both had hoped to do well. The economy of this Mississippi River town has long revolved around manufacturing. The neighborhoods near the school are a mix of one-story homes with “Proud Union Home” signs in their front yards and grander multistory houses that overlook a country club golf course.

In 2016, voters in this precinct were mostly split between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). During the general election, Trump narrowly defeated Clinton here — and went on to win Muscatine County, making him the first Republican to do so since 1984.

Of the roughly 170 caucus-goers in the gym, only 17 initially voted for Biden and 16 for Warren.

For an agonizing 25 minutes, supporters for both campaigns strategized about whether they should form an alliance — but with many Warren supporters skeptical of Biden, and vice versa, the effort collapsed. The two camps watched their members scatter, sometimes slapping on the stickers of rivals — most often former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who ended the night there with 73 votes, but also Sanders and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who came in second and third.

“I’ve been doing this a long time and this is absolutely crazy that neither Biden nor Warren were viable here,” said Esther Dean, 83, a Biden supporter and attorney. “We usually can call it better than this, but I am just stumped.”

'Is anyone even considering going for Bernie?'

In the fast-growing Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, local Democrats expected Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren to do well, as both had made repeated trips to the area and had large organizing operations.

They were surprised when dozens of Sanders supporters showed up and became the largest faction in the precinct. Biden did not have enough support, and his supporters were quickly surrounded, as if by poachers.

Jacob Middleton, the precinct captain for Sanders, approached the Biden supporters and asked: “Is anyone even considering going for Bernie over here?”

“No,” the disillusioned Biden supporters answered in unison.

“None?” he repeated.

“No,” they said.

Other campaigns tried.

Matthew Langbecker, the precinct captain for Buttigieg, attempted to win over Biden supporters by arguing that the party needs a candidates who doesn’t have the “stench” of government. He asked if any of them had policy questions, and they did not.

The precinct captain for Klobuchar, Ira Naiditch, pitched them on an alliance, saying together they could make a centrist with considerable government experience viable. That pitch failed.

One caucus-goer backing Warren told the Biden group that Sanders would “take over the government and do whatever he wants with it.”

In the end, a handful of Biden supporters, shocked the former vice president didn’t have enough support to move ahead, refused to pick a second choice.

In the second round of voting, Sanders only attracted six additional caucus-goers, mostly drawing from the supporters of entrepreneur Andrew Yang — and lost his lead in the room. Meanwhile, Warren drew 12 more supporters, and Buttigieg drew a hefty 27, allowing him to ultimately win the second round.

Sanders's Latino outreach pays off

On the cavernous basketball courts at the South Suburban YMCA — a brutalist style building that usually hosts Zumba and swimming classes on the city’s working-class south side — 187 Iowans, mostly Latino, gathered to participate in an arcane political process that doesn’t clearly translate into Spanish.

Organizers weren’t even sure what to call this. Some suggested “asambleas electorales” (electoral assemblies). A magazine in Mexico called them “asambleas de partidos” (party assemblies). They finally landed on their own Spanglish title: “El Caucus,” pronounced “KAOcoos.”

The caucus was quick, and the initial winner was clear: Sanders, whose campaign spent months organizing in Latino communities. Biden, Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg each received a smattering of support.

After the first round of voting, supporters of all of the candidates had a chance to try to win people over.

A Warren supporter didn’t bother to try and congratulated the Sanders supporters, saying in Spanish, “Many thanks to everyone.” A Biden supporter started speaking about uniting around his candidate and then trailed off, with a smile, as Sanders’s supporters playfully wagged their fingers “no” and laughed.

Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, Sanders’s precinct captain, didn’t even need to give her speech for Sanders.

“We crushed it,” said Marcano-Kelly, a 34-year-old interpreter who became a citizen in March 2019. “I’m so proud.”

'Bernie is great, but I don't see him winning'

As the night wore on and the formalities of the caucus taking place in Iowa City’s Englert Theatre took longer than expected, nearly two dozen Biden supporters gathered in the small lobby beneath an exit sign. They realized there was no way their candidate would make it past the first round of voting, and they tried to decide what to do next.

The theater was packed with large crowds for other candidates: 300 for Sanders, nearly 200 for Warren and nearly 100 for Buttigieg.

It was no surprise — after all, this is the so-called People’s Republic of Johnson County, home to the highest percentage of registered Democrats in the state. But these Biden supporters weren’t sure if either Sanders or Warren could beat the president.

Gene Murphy, 65, has liked Biden for about 40 years — and caucused for him because he thought he had the best shot of beating Trump. He decided that he would vote first for Biden, then for Buttigieg. From the lobby, he could hear the Sanders supporters in the theater chanting the senator’s slogan: “Not me! Us!”

“Bernie is great,” he said, “but I don’t see him winning.”

Dylan Sharkey, a 20-year-old Biden volunteer, came to the theater without a second choice — and now was trying to find one.

“In terms of compromise, I would rank Biden first, Pete second, and Bernie and Warren dead last,” Sharkey said.

Another student in the lobby nodded in agreement.

“We can’t do all the big crazy things until we get him out of the White House,” said Anna Sullivan, 20, who studies international relations at the University of Iowa, referring to Trump.

Jerri MacConnell, a retiree who lives in senior housing nearby, said Biden would be her first and only pick of the night. All of the other candidates are just “too far left” for her — although she promised to vote for the eventual nominee.

“I would never vote for Trump,” she said. “Oh, no, never.”

First-time political activists find heartbreak

In the brightly lit, wood-paneled VFW hall in the conservative farming community of Manning — population 1,443 — in northwestern Iowa, Ronald and Donna Irlmeier quickly realized that not enough of their neighbors liked Sanders as much as they do.

The couple had never been politically involved until this race, but they were inspired to make phone calls and organize for Sanders because of his support for Medicare-for-all.

Donna worked for decades at a nursing home and then at a Casey’s store, even when she had cancer and as she suffered painful knee problems. She is counting down until she can retire — two months and 13 days left.

Ronald spent 33 years working at a soybean processing plant before seizures forced him out of the job; now he works at Burger King so he can help his daughter pay for treatment for kidney failure.

Another one of their six children had leukemia at age 4, and it took them 16 years to pay off her medical bills.

On Monday night, 39 people showed up to the VFW hall, but only the Irlmeiers, their son and daughter-in-law stood in support of Sanders. Warren had the most support in the room, followed by Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Biden.

The couple, who were Sanders’s precinct captains, hoped they could get two people standing beneath the Tom Steyer sign and two uncommitted voters to join them — but in the meantime, their two children went elsewhere. The Irlmeiers found themselves alone, with no path to make Sanders viable. They had to vote for another candidate, or give up their vote altogether.

Peter Leo, the precinct captain for Warren, strolled over and pointed out that “in here, Elizabeth Warren is the most progressive viable candidate we have.”

“We’d love to have you guys,” he said. “We really would.”

“What does she say about climate change?” Donna asked warily. Leo rattled off facts and figures.

Leo’s persistence paid off, and he soon walked them from their lonely corner to the bustling Warren table, saying to the crowd, “Say hello to a couple new members.”

A faint cheer went up. But the Irlmeiers weren’t smiling.

With just three minutes left in the realignment period, the Biden precinct captain tried to lure Ronald, telling him that America needs “the most seasoned doctor, not a young resident.”

“If I’m already bleeding out, it makes no difference,” Irlmeier responded, walking decisively to the Warren table. Leo clapped him on the back.

“I think she’s smart. She’s got really good points. She could give Trump a run for his money,” Donna said about Warren, but she sounded dubious.

An hour later, Donna left the precinct still fuming. “That’s the last time I’m volunteering for a candidate,” she ranted, packing up the Sanders-stickered water bottles that she had prepared and never used.

She had a catch in her voice as she said: “That’s okay. It’s just politics.”

'If you're undecided, you're undecided'

Four years ago, the Democratic caucus in Dubuque’s 18th precinct ended badly. Supporters of Hillary Clinton were angry at their neighbors who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Longtime friendships were strained, and it took years for many to recover from the contentious night.

This year that emotional drama was absent — even though the field was so crowded, even though candidates have been lashing out at one another, even though the stakes of this election are even higher given the behemoth Trump reelection campaign lying in wait. Organizers had hoped for 300 to 400 caucus-goers, but only 217 showed up.

Greg Simpson, a former Dubuque County Democratic Party chairman, couldn’t decide which candidate to back, given that his first pick, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, had dropped out. Simpson pushed his neighbors in joining him in caucusing as “undecided.”

“If you’re undecided, you’re undecided,” he said. “But if they haven’t totally won over an Iowa voter yet, well, then maybe it needs to go on.”

“And by declaring yourself undecided, maybe it allows someone down the line in South Carolina or Super Tuesday or whoever else, those voters actually have a say. So it wouldn’t be the worst in the world.”

Craig reported from Muscatine, Iowa. Chason reported from Iowa City. Zauzmer reported from Manning, Iowa. Isaac Stanley-Becker in Ankeny, Iowa; Holly Bailey in Dubuque, Iowa; and Maria Sacchetti in Des Moines contributed to this report.