This is the third installment of a three-part story. Read from the beginning here.
11 p.m., caucus night 2020: ‘Riggggged’
Deep inside the Iowa Events Center, representatives for the presidential campaigns are sequestered away in private rooms, each of them growing more and more desperate for information as news reports of the caucuses’ collapse start to spread.
They had spent months, in some cases years, preparing their candidates for caucus night — a moment that, now, doesn’t seem to be coming.
These private rooms began as a courtesy to keep the campaigns in the loop and close to the action. But now they feel more like a way to keep them out of sight.
As results continue to be delayed and descriptions of issues with a new reporting app reach a fever pitch, details are scant and speculation is abundant. Nobody from the Iowa Democratic Party or the Democratic National Committee comes to brief them or deliver answers.
“We literally were on a conference call with them whenever they wanted to talk, even though they were only a football field away,” says Pete D’Alessandro, a top Iowa adviser for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“So now there’s a point where we’re kind of like, Stockholm syndrome. It’s like, wait a second, we’re all competing but we’re all kind of together on this. So somebody said, ‘We should just all run up there. We should all go up the stairs, knock on the door and just say we want in here and we want answers!’”
Each campaign needs to come up with a strategy.
Polling showed that former Vice President Joe Biden, who entered the race as a clear favorite, could suffer a devastating fourth-place caucus finish. His team knows they have to hold on through Iowa and New Hampshire — just long enough to deliver a strong victory in South Carolina that can right his flailing campaign.
The confusion in Iowa, then, works to his advantage. His campaign sends a letter about 10:30 p.m. to the Iowa Democratic Party expressing concern over the “considerable flaws” in the reporting system.
About the same time, he takes the stage at a caucus night rally for supporters at Drake University’s Olmsted Center, where he’s greeted with chants of “We want Joe! We want Joe!”
“Folks, well, it looks like it’s going to be a long night,” he tells the crowd of supporters. “But I’m feeling good.”
With nothing to gain — or lose — in Iowa, he’s quickly on the road to New Hampshire.
But Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg are both expecting to do well. Entrance polling and data coming back from the campaign teams on the ground show both candidates are hitting their marks.
Team Buttigieg believes it will be a photo finish — a soaring validation after investing months of time in the state and meeting thousands of Iowans at small gatherings that gradually grew larger and larger and larger. Competing “the Iowa way.” The Jimmy Carter way.
And then word comes.
The results are incomplete, and they won’t be released tonight.
“That was our holy s–t moment,” says Lis Smith, a senior adviser to Buttigieg’s campaign. “Because up to this point, you know, we had sort of put a lot of our eggs in the Iowa basket.”
Still, the data they do have looks good. And there is no question what Buttigieg must accomplish in Iowa. He must claim some sort of victory tonight — in time to make it on national cable news, in time to be absorbed before looming newspaper deadlines and in time to make the rounds on morning talk shows.
In time to claim the only prize Iowa has to offer: the media bounce.
“The number of delegates you get out of (Iowa) are probably not going to be determinative in the broader presidential primary system,” Smith says. “But what you get out of it is just unquantifiable: millions of dollars in earned media — in Iowa, in the other early states, nationally, and internationally as well.”
“You also get a massive fundraising bounce.”
So Buttigieg takes the stage at his watch party at Drake University in Des Moines.
“By all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious,” he says.
Buttigieg, a 37-year-old openly gay former mayor of a midsize town, has taken the Jimmy Carter playbook and driven it to a top-two finish.
He is not, technically, declaring victory, though he is doing his all to capitalize on the moment. But without official results, nearly every candidate claims some measure of the victory he needed in Iowa.
The news accounts all note that this is not a done deal.
“There is no moment from that campaign that haunts me more than … the things that were robbed of us on Iowa caucus night,” Smith says.
Across town, Sanders is in a similar predicament.
“I imagine, I have a strong feeling, that at some point the results will be announced,” he tells his supporters at a Holiday Inn conference center near the Des Moines airport. “And when those results are announced, I have a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa.”
On a livestream, amid the notes of support and excitement, comes a steady flow of commenters expressing distrust and confusion at the process.
“What’s going on with the results??? They’re definitely trying something fishy.”
“Lesson for tonight… no more election apps please.”
“Iowa is not allowed to do anything important again.”
Back at headquarters, volunteers are tired and miserable. Any adrenaline they had is gone. A post-mortem review would later show that out of the 5,816 incoming calls placed to the boiler room on caucus night, only 1,126 were answered.
“I am certain that between the 15 people that were entering results between 11 p.m. caucus night and noon the next day when we did not go to bed that there are human errors that happened in the reporting of those results. Because of course there were,” one person in the room recalls shortly after. “… Do I think that (the results) are greatly affected? No.”
“But I don’t think they are 100% accurate,” the person says. “And they will never be.”
‘A whole new smoke’: Lack of diversity, stumping on social media threaten first-in-the-nation status
The app’s flaws — and the discord between the local and national parties — weren’t fully apparent until caucus night went haywire.
But other problems with the caucus process had festered for months, even years. Perhaps the most obvious in 2020 was that by the time Caucus Day rolled around, what had begun as the most diverse field of presidential contenders in American history had been slowly winnowed.
One by one, candidates of color exited the race. First was Kamala Harris, the California prosecutor and U.S. senator who entered the race to excitement and fanfare but dropped out just after Thanksgiving. A month before the caucuses, Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, announced “it simply isn’t our time.” Two weeks later Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator known for his soaring oratory and easy style of retail politics, called it quits.
For various reasons, they had been unable to break out of the pack — a problem exacerbated by the Democratic National Committee’s new rules around debate qualifications. Candidates needed to meet certain thresholds around fundraising and polling to be allowed on stage; failing to do so was a fatal blow for several candidacies.
Andrew Yang, the unconventional California entrepreneur, was the last person of color to remain in the race, though he struggled to gain traction beyond a core group of hyper-dedicated supporters.
Now, the field had boiled down, essentially, to four white candidates who consistently led in the polls: Biden, Buttigieg, Sanders and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
For Democrats across the country who yearned for a nominee of color, it stung. And it was caustic to Iowa Democrats who have long defended against complaints that the state’s overwhelmingly white population should disqualify it from leading off the presidential nominating calendar.
They have argued for years that, despite their demographics, they’ve provided an open and fair playing field for candidates of every persuasion, pointing most frequently to their support for Barack Obama in 2008. That year, they gave him a caucus win that would help catapult him into the presidency.
Republicans and Democrats alike wear Obama’s victory like an amulet to ward off accusations that they’re too white to reflect the diversity of the party or the nation.
But as national Democrats embraced a message of diversity and inclusivity, the Iowa caucuses increasingly felt anathema to the very foundations of the party — and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status felt increasingly under threat.
“Iowa and New Hampshire are wonderful states with wonderful people,” Castro, the only Latino in the race, said while campaigning in Iowa as his polling numbers sagged. “But they’re also not reflective of the diversity of our country, and certainly not reflective of the diversity of the Democratic Party.”
Caucus critics believe the caucuses’ cumbersome process and arcane rules have kept out diverse groups that might otherwise be likely to participate — particularly people of color, people with lower incomes and people with disabilities.
Though candidates knew they needed to do well in Iowa, it was often with an eye toward the more diverse states that follow. After Iowa and New Hampshire is Nevada, which is 30% Latino, and South Carolina, where roughly 26% of the population is Black. South Carolina is the final state to have its say before the rest of the country begins weighing in en masse on Super Tuesday.
“We knew from the jump that African American voters were going to decide, ultimately, who the nominee was,” Addisu Demissie, Booker’s 2020 campaign manager, said in an interview with the Register. “And we just wanted to be one of the choices that was there, that was seen as credible,” once the race reached South Carolina.
Booker ended his campaign the day before the presidential debate in Des Moines, after failing for a second time to meet the DNC’s minimum requirements to participate.
He had staked everything on securing a surprisingly strong Iowa win.
Yet Demissie did not blame Iowa’s racial demographics for bringing down the Booker campaign.
“Iowa caucusgoers are a different breed,” he said. “Iowa caucusgoers — that universe of 200,000, 250,000 people — are good judges of character and, I think, progressive in their views on race in a way that probably would be surprising.”
The Republican Party, nationally and in Iowa, has had far fewer qualms about Iowa’s racial demographics, and has thus had fewer concerns about continuing to hold Iowa’s caucuses first. Republicans are on track to do so again in 2024.
Iowa’s homogeneity aside, social media virality and media-anointed celebrity had begun to hijack the caucuses’ retail politics away from candidates and everyday Iowans.
Beto O’Rourke wanted to follow the Jimmy Carter playbook — meeting Iowans in small diners and coffee shops and talking to them directly about the ways the next president might be able to improve their lives. He flew to Iowa from his home state of Texas immediately after announcing his intention to run, rented a red Dodge minivan and started driving across the southeastern swath of the state.
But O’Rourke, who had been the subject of endless media fascination for weeks, quickly found that his celebrity precluded the possibility of small events.
At a Washington, Iowa, coffee shop, Iowans and journalists spilled out the doors and onto the street. And at a Muscatine house party, a slew of reporters and their bulky cameras nearly filled the small home, boxing out potential caucusgoers, who instead set up camp on the front lawn and tried to catch glimpses of the candidate through the front windows.
As the year wore on, O’Rourke’s sparkle dimmed as the media and Iowa Democrats turned to the next big thing, and he never again generated the national buzz of that first swing across Iowa. In November 2019, three months before the caucuses, he was set to take the stage at the party’s massive Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, now rebranded as the Liberty and Justice Celebration. Instead, in dramatic fashion, he announced he was dropping out of the race.
“I don’t know how to make a judgment on it, but it is entirely a whole new smoke,” Tim Kraft, who ran Carter’s 1976 Iowa campaign, said of the modern caucus process. “I mean, there’s just no doubt about it.”
Another persistent knock against Iowa: Even after the chance to judge all these candidates’ mettle, to shake their hands and look them in the eye, the caucuses rarely pick the next president. Caucus defenders say that is unfair, that the role of the leadoff state is to slice the field from a dozen or more to a handful, not select the nominee.
But the fact remains: Removing incumbents, Democratic caucusgoers have picked the man who would go on to the White House only twice ― Carter in 1976, and Obama in 2008.
2:30 a.m.: As caucus night draws on, a weary staff faces a new problem — an impossibly close outcome
With only a sliver of results in and the app problems unabating, leaders and volunteers still at the headquarters decide to go home for a few hours of rest.
Price, who is staying at a nearby hotel, jumps in a staffer’s car. They drive a few blocks out of their way to grab a pack of cigarettes. Price smokes a few before the bitter wind forces him back inside.
“When I left that night, I did not know whether we would ever get these results out,” Price says.
“It was incredibly frustrating because the results were sitting, literally, at least, you know, 60% of them were sitting in bags right there,” he said. “But we couldn’t get them out.”
This was supposed to be a moment of celebration after two years of running at full sprint, for party leaders hungry to showcase a field of candidates they believed could take down Trump; for journalists who had traveled to every corner of the state and dedicated every waking minute to covering this circus; and for Americans and politics watchers around the world eager to dissect results for signs of who might occupy the White House in 2021.
But suddenly the finish line is nowhere in sight.
Price lies in bed for a few hours, staring at the ceiling.
“I tried to will myself to sleep,” he says. “But it wasn’t happening.”
He gets dressed again and makes his way back to the party’s headquarters at about 5 a.m. Iowa party workers are soon dispatched all over the state to pick up physical materials from every precinct so the digital results can be cross-checked painstakingly by hand.
For now, all the double-checks are showing that when users could sign in, the Iowa app seems to be working as planned and its results are accurate.
As the numbers spit out agonizingly slowly, Price holds a news conference about 4 p.m. apologizing deeply on behalf of the party and calling what had happened “unacceptable.”
Reporters don’t hold back in their questioning.
“How can anyone trust you now?” someone shouts.
Price speaks for about six minutes before exiting the stage.
“I mean, that was just such a weird thing to have to do,” he says later. “For it to be like that, you know, hundreds of people screaming, f—ing chasing me off the stage like I was some sort of f—-ing criminal.”
“My husband met me after the press conference, and I just started crying to him.”
But getting the results out to the public isn’t the only problem. For the third caucus cycle in a row, Iowa confronts impossibly close outcomes.
In the 2012 Republican caucuses, the preliminary Jan. 3 caucus night count put Mitt Romney up by 8 votes. But a recanvass found irregularities in eight precincts, flipping Rick Santorum into the lead by 34 votes. On Jan. 18, the state party announced it could not declare a winner, then two days later reversed course, declaring Santorum the victor.
But, by then, Santorum had been denied the Iowa bump.
Such a muddled result and response threatened the already-contested legitimacy of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, the Register reported at the time.
“The caucuses have lots of critics, and for this to happen really jeopardizes the future of the event,” longtime Iowa political reporter David Yepsen told the Register.
After a monthslong review, the state party adopted reforms to better ensure accurate, timely results.
In the 2016 Democratic caucuses, Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders by 0.3%. Sanders supporters decried the process as rigged and threatened to defect from the party in the general election. The dissension prompted a state party review and new rules from the national party to ensure, they hoped, accurate, timely results in 2020.
And now, as results come in for the 2020 caucuses, Buttigieg and Sanders appear to be neck and neck.
The root problem, though, is that the caucuses simply aren’t built to sustain close races. They’re designed to help reach a general consensus, to narrow the field to a handful.
As a result, the rules are quaint, bordering on caricature — particularly for the Democrats. Republicans gather to cast simple, blind ballots. They count them up and declare a winner. But the Democrats require attendees to physically move around the room to show their support, be counted by volunteers, and shift again. The process can take hours. Only in 2020 did the Iowa Democratic Party create a written paper trail to allow for recounts.
Like something out of a “Saturday Night Live” skit, ties at individual precincts can be decided by coin flips.
And precinct leaders are average Iowans, not trained for the harsh spotlight of cable news — a fact exemplified in Iowa’s 2012 Republican caucuses, when a local county chair famously went to bed before calling in her precinct’s results in the narrow race. CNN tracked her down, woke her up and asked her to read the numbers live on air to Wolf Blitzer.
“In the current reality of press attention, you really need to follow the rules exactly,” said Richard Bender, a longtime Iowa Democrat who helped craft the caucus system. “That’s a fault. But that doesn’t mean the system’s wrong or bad.”
“It just means that, you know, I don’t know if I want to expose this secret to you, but there are humans involved in this process.”
National media love to photograph candidates as they chat with overall-clad farmers in front of cornfields or eat a pork chop on a stick at the Iowa State Fair. But their fascination with quaintness extends only so far. When it comes to results, the nation demands a precision that the caucuses are not designed to produce.
In 2020, Iowa had 41 pledged delegates up for grabs — a tiny sliver of the 1,991 a candidate would need to claim the nomination at a national convention.
So if the state can’t deliver a timely result on caucus night and provide that media bounce — as it had for McGovern, as it had for Carter, as it had for Obama — why would candidates continue to stake their entire campaigns on winning in Iowa?
What America has lost
A few days after the 2020 caucuses, Des Moines is a ghost town.
Most candidates, campaigns and reporters have all packed up their belongings and flown to New Hampshire, leaving Iowans behind to sort through the detritus. They move on to Nevada and South Carolina and Super Tuesday and they don’t look back.
Iowa is the butt of jokes on late night television and in the stump speeches presidential candidates begin delivering to new crowds in new cities.
Everyone is exhausted.
Finally, on Feb. 6, full results from every precinct in the state are tallied and posted. But they remain riddled with errors and inconsistencies that the internet spins into wild conspiracy theories.
Buttigieg leads Sanders by the slimmest of margins — 0.07% of state delegate equivalents, 26.2% to 26.13%.
Both seek recounts, drawing out the conclusion even further.
Eventually, those recounts show that Buttigieg has upset all of his more experienced rivals in eking out a caucus night victory, becoming the first openly gay candidate to win the Iowa caucuses.
He’s staked his entire candidacy on winning Iowa as proof to voters in later states that he’s a viable contender. But he gets no Iowa bounce. He comes in second to Sanders in New Hampshire, sinks to a distant fourth in South Carolina and ends his campaign the next day.
To this day, the Associated Press has refused to call a winner, saying it cannot be sure of the data’s integrity. Instead of numbers and checkmarks, there’s just a void — almost like the Iowa caucuses hadn’t happened at all.
Everyone is left wondering: What was the point of it all?
The “inconsistencies” in the data that had caused the delays on caucus night would ultimately be tracked to the DNC’s conversion tool, according to a review undertaken by the Iowa Democratic Party months later. The same audit would also fault the state party for other operational and organizational failures.
But in the immediate wake of a truly disastrous Caucus Day, most headlines blame the failure on Iowa Democrats — if not Iowans in general. On Feb. 12, little more than a week since his world upended, Price resigns, a move he hopes will “begin the process of healing our party.”
In the more than two years since, national Democrats have wrestled over how to revamp the nomination process. Party bosses and bigwigs gathered in D.C. hotel boardrooms and on conference calls to alter procedures and systems. And the foundation that many hope wouldn’t be lost is the lesson that kicked off the modern caucuses way back in 1972: the lesson that everyday people shouldn’t be abstractions to the candidates running for the nation’s highest office.
“I know that the social media aspect has replaced some of the Athenian democracy components,” Tim Kraft, the Carter consultant, said of the modern caucuses. “But it’s still getting people together on a cold Monday night, which is an indication of commitment, participation.”
“If it’s all social media, and a godawful delusion of paid media on television, I think it’s just a detriment.”
In April, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee rescinded special waivers allowing the four early voting states to hold their nominating contests ahead of the rest of the nation and invited all states to apply for that initial window.
Members promised Iowa would have a fair shot alongside all the others, but their sentiment was clear from the outset: no more caucuses.
In a desperate bid to retain the coveted leadoff spot, Iowa Democrats unveiled a plan to dump the tradition of gathering on one particular night and instead planned to allow Iowans to vote weeks ahead of time by casting presidential preference cards through the mail or at drop-off locations. The results would then be announced on caucus night.
Iowa would, in effect, hold a party-run vote-by-mail primary — ditching many of the things that made the process unique. The new system, they hoped, would focus the committee on the strong political culture Iowa has created.
But it made no difference.
“Our party should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process,” President Joe Biden wrote in a letter to the committee, urging it to replace Iowa with South Carolina.
Biden gave his decision to the committee’s co-chairs, who shared it with the full body at a private dinner meeting on Dec. 1. Behind closed doors in the depths of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, members debated its merits. By the time they emerged, they had decided.
With no fanfare or pretense, they cemented the decision with an orderly vote in front of dozens of reporters and cameras the next afternoon. But for a pending procedural vote by the full DNC, Iowa’s formal reign is over.
While the Iowa caucuses were not built to withstand the scrutiny of 24-7 cable news and never-ending social media hot takes, what has made them quaint and wacky and sometimes ridiculous was also what made them powerful: an increasingly rare opportunity to connect as a community, one where even if neighbors disagree, they know they were included in this bedrock of American society.
On Feb. 3, 2020, all across the state, people gave up their time and their energy to abandon echo chambers and discuss topics and pick nominees in public. They didn’t just write a check or sign a petition or snark on social media — they spoke with their feet.
In the 50 years since their inception, the Iowa caucuses have shaped campaigns, presidents, democracy — even American culture itself.
Carter’s first big win in 1976. Pat Robertson’s surprise second-place 1988 finish, signaling the ascendancy of the Christian right. Obama’s 2008 victory, which vaulted him on his way to the White House. Santorum’s last-minute surge to relevance in 2012. The beginnings of Sanders’ political revolution and Trump’s emergence as a political force in 2016. Buttigieg’s rags to riches 2020 story.
All of those candidates have Iowa to thank, at least in part, for their rapid rise in the national consciousness — whatever they may have gone on to do with that notoriety afterward.
“Without the tradition, without the type of retail politics, without the type of vigorous examination that the people in Iowa would often give to these candidates, we would not have enjoyed the type of electoral success the party has,” said Donna Brazile, a DNC member who pushed to end Iowa’s dynasty, but credited Iowans for setting a high standard in vetting presidential contenders.
“It’s time that we see what South Carolina can do with that tradition.”
Iowa Democrats could choose to defy the DNC and hold an unsanctioned first-in-the-nation caucus regardless, and the committee has promised to revisit the calendar again in four years. But, for now, it will be up to voters in South Carolina to bear the leadoff honor — and that burden.
To meet the exigencies of this moment, whichever state goes first must erect an election system that can be both precise and fast — even as the eyes of the world are watching and criticizing, and even as news reporters are calling and calling and calling.
But to match what Iowa became, the leadoff state also must create a culture that values showing up and actively participating in politics — even in the snow and in the heat, and even when it seems easier to watch pundits talk about it on TV instead.
It must adopt the mindset that it’s worthwhile and valuable to meet every person who wants to become president — even when a candidate seems like a long shot, and even when it seems like no one else is interested.
It must build an infrastructure of voters and activists who will open their doors and their hearts to volunteers — even when they knock, call and otherwise interrupt life.
And it must do so because democracy is difficult and often messy, as the caucuses reinforced. But for half a century, Iowans proved it was worth showing up for.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR.
Courtney Crowder is the Iowa Columnist and a senior writer at the Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter at @courtneycare.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: How the 2020 Iowa democratic caucus triggered a magnificent failure