The problems started with the app. And picking up the phone didn’t help.
Chaos spread across Iowa as the reporting methods for the nearly 1,700 precincts failed, throwing the state’s Democratic caucuses into confusion and embarrassment, county party chairs, Iowa Democratic Party officials and precinct captains told CNN.
The heart of the problem stemmed from a new app the party had developed as a way – they hoped – to streamline reporting. The opposite happened.
Many then turned to the phones to directly report the results to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines. But as the app failed, the phone lines backed up, with precinct chairs reporting a wait of more than an hour on Monday night and Tuesday morning.
“I couldn’t use the app, couldn’t get on the dang phone. The phone was the problem for the most part,” said Linda Nelson, a precinct chair in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Bill Brauch, caucus chair for precinct 59 in Des Moines at Des Moines University, said the app “glitched” on Monday night after working before. When the Iowa Democratic Party told him to un-install and re-install the app minutes before the caucus began, Brauch was unable to because he forgot his Apple password.
“At that point, the app wasn’t on my iPad,” he said.
The breakdown left campaigns and news organizations without official results and largely in the dark on when and how the outcome of the year-long caucus campaign would be reported. This led some candidates to spin using their own internal data, as campaign war rooms across Des Moines demanded results and clarity – at one point in a tense private conference call with Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price.
The chaos called into question Iowa’s treasured first in the nominating calendar status and, to a large degree, undermined the countless days, millions of dollars and hours of door knocking and organizing that campaigns invested in Iowa over the last year.
Precinct captains from across Iowa began realizing days before the caucuses that the app was not working properly. Some complained to their county party leadership, others said nothing and hoped it would work at the needed moment and some just planned to call in their results, as has been done in the past. And most county party chairs openly worried about the lack of training on the reporting system.
Some precinct chairs ended their caucuses without reporting results. In some cases, the precinct leaders called local officials to unofficially report, while others took pictures of their caucus math sheet and texted them to Price and other senior Iowa Democrats.
But those weren’t official ways to report, so when the Iowa Democratic Party began looking to precincts that failed to report their results, it often meant waking up already exhausted caucus workers.
“The Iowa Democratic Party called at 1:23 a.m., I was fast asleep,” said Linda Nelson, the former Democratic chairwoman in Pottawattamie County and the caucus chair of her precinct in Council Bluffs. “I had to go out to my car, retrieve my materials and shared with them totals after both alignments and delegate distribution.”
Nelson added: “They are probably still making calls.”
Indeed, they are. A senior Democratic official tells CNN they estimate that about 250 precincts were still outstanding Tuesday morning.
But even hours after the process started, no results have been reported, leading campaigns that may have performed well in Iowa without the momentum they hoped and campaigns that may have performed poorly already attacking the process as undercutting the results whenever they come out.
Democratic presidential campaigns remained out of the loop on Tuesday morning over when – and how many – results of the Iowa caucuses will be released today, two officials say.
“We haven’t heard a word from them overnight,” a senior adviser to a Democratic campaign told CNN. “They are in bunker mentality.”
The Iowa Democratic Party released a statement Tuesday morning, hoping to ease some of the backlash filling the national airwaves.
“While our plan is to release results as soon as possible today, our ultimate goal is to ensure that the integrity and accuracy of the process continues to be upheld,” Price said on Tuesday morning.
A senior Iowa Democrat described a chaotic and tense scene inside the Iowa Democratic Party’s boiler room at the Iowa Events Center on Monday night as senior party leadership began to realize the app had failed and the call line was overrun.
“There was not going to be a good choice here,” said a senior Iowa Democrat, “and to buckle under the pressure to kick something out last night that was wrong would have been much worse.”
The Democrat added: “The focus was on understanding the challenge, doing everything we could to maintain the integrity of the results.”
Arguably the sharpest moments were when Price held an intense, heated conference call with the different campaigns.
Price sought to defend the Iowa caucus process, arguing that the delay in reporting results stemmed from the party’s desire to “ensure the integrity of the process” but that the party was working to keep “campaigns in the loop throughout this entire process.”
That failed to quell concerns from a host of campaigns, which raised questions about the integrity of the process, when the numbers would be reported and if the party was sure certain aspects of the process were maintained.
The most direct criticism of process came from Jeff Weaver, senior adviser to Bernie Sanders’ campaign, who said claims that the delay stemmed from the need to report three numbers – the number of first alignment, the number of second alignment and the number state delegate equivalents – was “bogus.”
“We are hearing some chatter that (the party is) blaming this delay on you having to report three numbers, not one,” Weaver said.
When Price began to said the delay was caused by a “reporting issue,” Weaver called the excuse “bogus” and said, if true, “the whole process has been a fraud for 100 years.”
“We want to make sure (this) is accurate and that preserves the integrity of those results as well,” Price said. “We have not had those numbers reported before, so we want to make sure those results are accurate, just like all information we put out.”
Weaver told Price that his answer was “disappointing.”
A key issue, according to Iowa Democrats, was the fact that training on the app was not required for precinct chairs. In some case, this was because the app was not ready to be tested in time to training.
“Please test the app today,” read directions provided to precinct leaders on the eve of the caucus. “Play around with it, get comfortable with it.”
The chairs were instructed to email the party – at an email specific to the app – with concerns and questions.
According to people like Polk County Democratic Chairman Sean Bagniewski, the training and preparation for the app was wholly inadequate.
“When you have 1,700 precincts in one state, it should be a couple month long process of training folks, testing out the app, making sure it is downloaded, and that wasn’t happening here,” Bagniewski said.
Little of that happened, Bagniewski added, so days before the caucus, the Polk County chair told those who couldn’t get the app to work to call in their results to the Iowa Democratic Party as they had in previous years.
When that failed, some precinct chairs in Polk County – the largest county in Iowa – just failed to report their numbers officially to the Democratic Party, and instead they took photos of their caucus math sheets and delivered all their documents to the Polk County headquarters.
Over two hours after the caucuses began, Judy Downs, the executive director of the Polk County Democrats, decided to get into her car and take all the photos she had to the Iowa Democratic Party boiler-room in Downtown Des Moines
She arrived at about 9:15 p.m., but was turned away, and told that precinct chairs should call their results in as usual.
“There’s no way to report them,” Bagniewski said after his party tried to report in-person. “We’ve got them.”
Once the Iowa Democratic Party began demanding precinct chairs call in the standard way, representatives from the Polk County Democratic Party began going to the doors of those precinct chairs, Bagniewski said, in some cases waking people up well past midnight.
“We don’t know which precincts they haven’t received by app or phone,” Bagniewski said. “We’re asking them to tell us so we can give them their results.”