How Democrats Stalled Out at Their Starting Line Caucus

Iowa, Explained

Iowa Caucus
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February 5, 2020

In the wake of its tumultuous, violence-wracked 1968 convention, the Democratic Party promised a series of reforms to make its nominating process more open and inclusive. In 1972, Iowa became the first state to hold a Democratic caucus. The Republicans followed suit in 1976, and for the past half century, the Hawkeye state has every four years played home to the first-in-the-nation contest.

On Monday evening, all was thought to be normal with Iowa's 13th caucuses. But as the expected deadline for the release of initial results passed, it became apparent something was wrong. The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) announced that it had found "inconsistencies" in the reported results; by Tuesday afternoon, it had only released a little more than half of the results.

As of this writing, we still don't fully know who won. For some time, it appeared to be either Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) or former mayor Pete Buttigieg, depending on how you count. The discrepancy has provoked outrage from Sanders supporters, who have labeled Buttigieg "mayor cheat" for declaring victory when the results were still untallied.

Two things drove this catastrophic failure. One was a hastily assembled app built by a firm with deep connections to the Democratic establishment. The other was a set of rule changes meant to heal the wounds of 2016 that instead opened them anew. Both failures reveal a Democratic Party far less rejuvenated from its 2016 defeat than it claimed to be—and therefore far more likely to receive another clobbering come November.

How The Caucuses Were Supposed to Work...

The Iowa Democratic caucuses are unlike primaries in other states, or even their Republican counterpart, which is conducted by secret ballot. They work like this: Voters get together (e.g., in their local high school gym) and sort themselves into groups by which eligible candidate they support, expressing their "first preference." If a candidate's group commands less than 15 percent of the room, the voters in that group move to one of the still "viable" candidates, resulting in "final preference." A mathematical formula converts "final preference" into "state delegate equivalents" (SDEs)—roughly, that precinct's share of the delegates Iowa will send to the statewide nominating convention that will in turn pick the state's 41 delegates for the DNC.

That is how it works in theory, and what everyone expected Monday night. Drew McCoy, president of the election tracking firm Decision Desk HQ, told the Washington Free Beacon that his colleagues had expected results around 7 p.m. CST. But, after hours of waiting, nothing was coming through.

"One of the early signs that things might not have been going as planned was when the satellite caucus totals didn’t show up fairly early on," McCoy said. "Some of them had been conducted hours before and the numbers were floating around social media from reporters who had been in the room at the time."

McCoy said that although the caucuses were clearly closing down, no data was flowing. As the hours wore on, it became apparent that something had gone wrong.

"Unfortunately, as the night moved on," McCoy said, "it was clear the Iowa Democrats were dealing with a worst-case scenario."

The IDP eventually announced that it had found "inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results"—meaning that figures for first preference, final preference, and SDEs were not lining up. Party officials said they would therefore need to confirm the data to ascertain where the issue had been.

The party worked to confirm initial figures and on Tuesday afternoon finally released 62 percent of the tally. The results were to no one's liking: while Buttigieg led with 26.9 percent of state delegate equivalents, Sanders had a narrow lead on the final preference total, 28,220 votes to Buttigieg's 27,030.

… And How They Didn't

Monday evening's problems resulted from two changes the IDP made. First, in past years, the party only reported SDEs; this year it reported first preference, final preference, and SDE tallies. Importantly, because of the weighting of precincts, the SDE winner and final preference winner don't need to be the same, which is how Buttigieg was winning by one metric and Sanders by another. Second, the IDP opted to collect these data by telling precinct volunteers to submit results through an app.

That's where things went south. The IDP contracted with an outside firm—Shadow Inc.—to build the app in less than two months. The app was barely tested (the IDP rebuffed offers from the Department of Homeland Security to help with testing), hard to download, and confusing to use, with volunteers spending hours trying to file their results to the party. Eventually, the IDP concluded that a "coding issue" was causing the app to report the wrong results.

Shadow has since publicly apologized. But the error has attracted unwanted attention to the company's ties to national Democratic leaders.

Shadow bills itself as a Democrat-aligned tech firm, so named because "we see ourselves as building a long-term, side-by-side 'Shadow' of tech infrastructure to the Democratic Party and the progressive community at large." It proudly notes that its employees have worked for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's presidential campaigns, as well as the AFL-CIO and the DNC, a claim supported by LinkedIn pages.

Shadow's ties to the Democratic Party establishment do not stop there. The company was acquired in 2019 by ACRONYM, a nonprofit/PAC conglomerate run by Democratic ad maven Tara McGowan. ACRONYM previously made headlines for creating "local" news sites in key swing states that pushed pro-Democrat talking points in their articles.

ACRONYM has sought to distance itself from Shadow, claiming to have only "invested" in the firm and scrubbing its website of references. But Shadow and ACRONYM share a street address, as well as at least one high-level employee: Shadow CEO and former ACRONYM COO Gerard Niemira. (In the wake of the Iowa catastrophe, ACRONYM is seeking a new chief of staff.)

ACRONYM is tied up in the web of establishment Democratic dark money. As the Free Beacon reported, the group's nonprofit arm has received funding from PACs affiliated with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and 2020 presidential contender Tom Steyer. Its PAC also took in funds from director Steven Spielberg, liberal billionaire George Soros, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, who helped "rehab" deceased child molester Jeffrey Epstein's public image in 2015.

All of this may have nothing to do with Monday's meltdown. But the close ties between ACRONYM, Shadow, and establishment Democrats have further infuriated the party's left wing and contributed to discontent among Sanders supporters in particular. Multiple Sanders voters who were at caucuses on Monday claimed they saw evidence of bias against the Vermont senator. Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said Monday "the whole process has been a fraud for 100 years," while Sanders himself told supporters in New Hampshire on Tuesday, "this was not a good night for democracy."

The Democrats' Civil War Trudges On

Such objections mirror the 2016 Democratic caucus, when missing results and other irregularities caused Sanders's supporters to cry foul. While this year human error is a far more likely explanation than establishment interference, the Iowa catastrophe has mostly worked to further entrench the progressive-moderate feud that began in 2016. That's ironic, because the meltdown itself was largely a product of changes meant to bring the party together.

The 2016 Iowa caucus was one of the closest contests in a hard-fought Democratic primary. Hillary Clinton beat Sanders by just 0.3 percent—a percentage of state delegate equivalents, not of actual votes cast. Sanders at the time raised the question of whether he won the "popular vote," just as he appears to have done in 2020.

The sense that the primary was rigged against Sanders was part of what drove at least 10 percent of his supporters to President Donald Trump in the general election. Responding to this internal strife, the Democratic Party launched a Unity Reform Commission (URC) to recommend changes to the nominating process. One of the proposals in the URC's 30-page report? Release not just SDEs, but first and final preference votes.

In other words, reforms implemented to heal the Bernie-Clinton divide further embittered everyone involved. Without the URC, there is no reporting of all three figures; without reporting, there's no inconsistency in the precinct reports; without inconsistency, there's no delay on Monday, no accusations of fraud, and no additional anger at the final result.

The primary can only grow more acrimonious in the coming rush of primaries. Sanders is expected to win New Hampshire and Nevada, while Joe Biden is still holding out hope of clinching his first-ever primary win in South Carolina. With Buttigieg appearing more viable than expected, the contest could drag out into June and even to the convention—all of which is good news for Donald Trump.

As for the Iowa caucus, Monday night may have been its death knell. Democratic partisans have slammed the system in recent days, calling for it to end and labeling it "the perfect example of systemic racism." As Politico's Tim Alberta put it Tuesday: "Iowa’s reign is over."