Supporters wait for results at a caucus night watch party for Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Monday in Des Moines, Iowa. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO
DES MOINES, Iowa — A technical meltdown in Iowa Monday night set off bedlam in the critical first contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, triggering competing claims of victory and stoking doubts about the legitimacy of the eventual outcome.
No results had been reported by midnight Eastern, and two campaigns told POLITICO that after a conference call with the Iowa Democratic Party, they didn’t expect any returns until Tuesday morning at the earliest.
Candidates stepped into the void. Pete Buttigieg went first by claiming victory — misleadingly, in the view of Bernie Sanders, whose campaign responded by releasing unofficial figures showing his strength. Amy Klobuchar also joined in by citing unverified results she said demonstrated a robust performance.
The biggest "winner" might have been Joe Biden. According to the Iowa entrance poll, he was hovering close to the viability threshold of 15 percent statewide. But the questions surrounding the vote-counting served to obscure a potentially poor performance. The former vice president, facing potentially ugly headlines going into New Hampshire and beyond, couldn't get out of Iowa fast enough.
“We’re going to walk out of here with our share of delegates,” Biden declared to a packed room on the Drake University campus. “It’s on to New Hampshire!”
Conversely, it might have delivered a blow to Sanders and Buttigieg, who appeared on track to do well in the state. Whether the victor turns out to be Sanders or Buttigieg or someone else, that candidate was denied the chance to give an election night victory speech to a nationwide audience — a springboard heading into New Hampshire.
The disarray dealt a huge black eye to Iowa, which was already struggling to defend its coveted first position on the primary calendar. Democratic campaigns grew more furious as the night wore on with no word.
During the first call between officials from the campaigns and the state party, the party “hung up on campaigns” when pressed for a release time, an aide to one of the candidates said.
“They are matching the paper worksheets by hand,” an adviser to one of the top tier campaigns said. The party said only 35 percent of the results were in and none of it was yet verified. “They literally have no verified results right now so we won’t know anything until sometime Tuesday.”
“We have no sense when results might come in," said Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to Biden. "We are, as other campaigns are, very concerned with what they might release: the alignment numbers are not adding up."
“It’s a total meltdown,” she added.
Tempers also flared during a second call between Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price and the campaigns early Tuesday morning.
Biden chief counsel Dana Remus repeatedly insisted that the campaigns be allowed into the “auditing process to give us confidence so we can then be your advocates in restoring confidence.”
Brendan Summers, director of state and delegate strategy with the Warren campaign, asked how many precincts the party had partial or full results for. Price replied that he’d “get back to you on that information.”
After some more back and forth, Summers snapped: “I have no idea what that means.” Asked when the campaigns might have that information, Price said they are continuing their “process.” Over and over, Price declined to provide details and simply pledged to keep campaigns “in the loop.”
In a call later with reporters, Price read a statement indicating there was no hack or intrusion, but the verification was taking longer than expected. Iowa Democrats for the first time enacted a new "preference card" system in which caucus-goers wrote down their choice for president. This created an unprecedented paper trail.
"We have these backups in place for exactly this reason," Price said.
At least some of the confusion stemmed from a reporting app that began failing early Monday. Precinct captains were supposed to use the app to assist them in calculating which candidates were viable in their precincts, and the app was to serve as a reporting tool. POLITICO first reported Monday that precinct captains were having difficulties, with the app crashing.
“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results. 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,” Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Mandy McClure said. “This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion. The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results."
The campaigns of the top-tier candidates were consumed with frustration over the utter lack of clarity.
“We want to know if we beat a former vice president,” said an adviser to one of those candidates.
Biden's campaign sent the Iowa Democratic Party a letter complaining about “considerable flaws” in the caucus reporting system. It called for “full explanations and relevant information regarding the methods of quality control you are employing, and an opportunity to respond, before any official results are released.”
Sanders' supporters were already crying foul. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who campaigned for Sanders in Iowa this weekend, tweeted, "Democracy dies in the darkness!”
Elizabeth Warren's campaign and its allies barely contained their fury at the state party’s bungling of the caucuses. “It’s a mess,” campaign manager Roger Lau told reporters. "I think that every single second that passes where we don't get a final result is concerning."
The campaign claimed their internal numbers showed a close three-way race between Warren, Sanders, and Buttiegieg, with Biden in a “distant fourth,” according to Lau. The numbers could not be independently verified.
There were also concerns that turnout appeared not to reach the record levels that some had predicted, a worrisome sign for Democrats in a presidential election year.
The party said that early data suggest turnout "on pace" with the 2016 caucuses. That characterization will, if accurate, send a shiver down the spines of many Iowa Democrats who hoped to challenge the record turnout of 2008, when roughly 240,000 Democrats took part in the caucuses. In 2016, that number declined to around 170,000 — and it was later seen as a harbinger of the dramatic swing Iowa would take toward the GOP that fall.
If one thing was certain from Monday's debacle, Iowa had just signed its death warrant as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, the legendary Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen said.
“This fiasco means the end of the caucuses as a significant American political event. The rest of the country was already losing patience with Iowa anyway and this cooks Iowa's goose. Frankly, it should,” Yepsen said. “The real winner tonight was Donald Trump, who got to watch his opponents wallow in a mess. A lot of good Democratic candidates and people who fought their hearts out here for ... nothing.
“I expect Iowans will move themselves to kill it off by holding a primary, and let the state move to someplace behind New Hampshire along with other states.”
Polk County precinct chairs were being advised to take pictures of caucus results and text them to the Polk County executive director who is driving them to the party headquarters, according to a Democratic operative familiar with the situation.
The candidates addressed supporters late Monday, not waiting for results. Despite the delay in reporting, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said her campaign knew it was “punching above our weight.”
"You probably heard we don't know the results. But I did not want to let another minute go by without thanking all of you," she said. "We know there's delays but we know one thing: We are punching above our weight."
The results delay came after anecdotal reports from precinct caucus chairs early Monday, who said they were having issues with their caucus night reporting apps. The app, developed by the Democratic Party, helps the chairs do the math to help figure out which candidates will meet the viability thresholds Monday night. And it’s a tool to feed the ultimate results to the party in real-time.
Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor who ran a caucus in Monroe County, was unable to figure out how to use hers. Judge flagged an issue with the app to the party early in the day.
Then, on Monday night, she tried to log in to the app. "I got stuck immediately,” Judge said.
By midday the party sent out an email telling precinct captains to call a hotline if they couldn’t resolve the issue. But according to other precinct captains, there was an extended wait on that line.
Linda Nelson, in Pottawattamie County, said the same on Monday: “I’m still struggling.” In Polk County, county Democratic Party chair Sean Bagniewski said only about 20 percent of the chairs would actually be able to use it.
“We’re telling everyone to phone it in at this point," Bagniewski said earlier in the day.
But that may have set off the next snafu: the phone lines then jammed up. Bagniewski said precinct chairs reported wait times of 90 minutes to two hours.
"Or some times," he said, "it would hang up on them."
Elena Schneider and Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.