iowa caucus

What the Heck Is Going on in Iowa?

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If you tried watching the results of the Iowa caucus roll in Monday night — which, as of this morning, have yet to fully materialize — then you’ll know that the first Democratic primary has taken a chaotic turn. Though in theory, the Iowa caucuses are only the first indication of how the candidates are doing in one especially white midwestern state, in every presidential election since 2000, the Democrat who wins has gone on to become the party’s nominee. Depending on how you look at it, it’s a quirky machination of our political process, or a confusing mess that resembles picking teams for dodgeball in a high-school gym, but the winner has a significantly enhanced shot at becoming president of the United States. As such, the caucuses have been criticized as wildly undemocratic.

And now the whole process has been thrown into disarray, with multiple, confusing reports scrambling to explain why the results were not announced Monday night as planned. Instead of a winner in Iowa, what we have so far are accounts of long wait times to submit results and a potentially malfunctioning app made by a mysterious tech company. With 97 percent of the vote in, Pete Buttigieg is now narrowly leading Bernie Sanders — but it’s unclear when we’ll see the rest of the results. It’s all very messy. Here’s what we know so far.

What’s causing the delays?

The official explanation is “reporting issues,” a vague term that alludes to widespread chaos in the state. Among the factors contributing to these issues: an app that the Democratic Party had commissioned two months ago to tabulate results, which had not been tested on the statewide level and apparently experienced technical difficulties; a byzantine new process for calculating results; and long wait times for those who attempted to phone in their results.

Iowa Democratic Party communications director Mandy McClure said on Monday night, “We have experienced a delay in the results due to quality checks and the fact that the IDP is reporting out three data sets for the first time.” The “three data sets” refers to a change in this year’s Iowa caucus reporting process. Rather than just reporting the final delegate totals for each candidate, caucus leaders this year are required to send in three sets of numbers, including voters’ first and final choices (in caucusing, voters gather in person and have the opportunity to switch sides). The Democratic National Committee says the rule change is an attempt to increase transparency, but it seems to have added to the confusion.

At around midnight on Monday, the IDP said in a statement that it had “found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results.” McClure further noted that there’d been a “reporting issue” with the app they were using to tabulate votes. McClure maintained that “the underlying data and paper trail is sound,” insisting that the results were not compromised, merely delayed. At the same time, the New York Times has reported that several Iowa Democratic county chairs said they’d experienced difficulty using the app, as well as hold times of up to an hour on a phone hotline the party has used to report results for decades.

Tell me more about this app …

So how are the Iowa caucus results being reported again? Are they using Tinder? Hinge? Jellicle choice? In fact, the IDP is relying on an app built by Shadow Inc., a for-profit tech company whose involvement Democratic officials did not disclose during the caucusing process, the Times reports. According to Shadow’s website, the company builds “political power for the progressive movement by developing affordable and easy-to-use tools for teams and budgets of any size.” The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to state records, the IDP paid Shadow a little more than $63,000 in two installments in November and December.

David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and board member at Verified Voting, told the Times, “This app has never been used in any real election or tested at a statewide scale and it’s only been contemplated for use for two months now.”

What have the candidates been saying?

Though on Monday night, results had yet to be reported, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seemed to claim that he was victorious in Iowa. “Iowa, you have shocked the nation,” read a tweet from his official account. “Because by all indications we are going to New Hampshire victorious.” Buttigieg has been adamantly smiling ever since, as in this video where he ignores a CNN reporter’s question about why he prematurely declared victory in Iowa.

Bernie Sanders’s campaign also released internal caucus-result data from 40 percent of Iowa precincts showing him in first place, with 30 percent of the vote. His senior adviser Jeff Weaver cautioned in a statement, “We recognize that this does not replace the full data from the Iowa Democratic Party, but we believe firmly that our supporters worked too hard for too long to have the results of that work delayed.” In Des Moines on Monday night, Sanders said, “I imagine, I have a strong feeling, that at some point the results will be announced. And when those results are announced, I have a good feeling we’re going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa.”

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign manager Roger Lau told reporters, “I think that every second goes by, every single second that passes where we don’t get a final result is concerning.”

Joe Biden said on stage in Des Moines Monday night, “We’re gonna walk out of here with our share of delegates — we don’t know exactly what it is yet.” His campaign also sent a letter to the IDP on Monday night from Biden’s general counsel Dana Remus criticizing “acute failures” in the state’s reporting process.

When will the results be released?

By Thursday morning, the IDP had still only released a portion of its results, which it began releasing Tuesday afternoon; now, 97 percent of Iowa’s 97 counties are reporting. The New York Times reports that Buttigieg narrowly leads with 26.2 percent of the vote (measured by number of state-delegate equivalents, or SDEs), with Sanders in a close second (26.1 percent), followed by Warren (18.2 percent), and Biden (15.8 percent). The number of SDEs officially determines who has won the Iowa caucuses. Still, Sanders is ahead in the popular vote, leading by 2,500 in the final alignment of caucusgoers.

This post has been updated.

What the Heck Is Going on in Iowa?