DES MOINES, Iowa — Sean Bagniewski had seen the problems coming.
It wasn’t so much that the new app that the Iowa Democratic Party had planned to use to report its caucus results didn’t work. It was that people were struggling to even log in or download it in the first place. After all, there had never been any app-specific training for his many precinct chairs.
So last Thursday Bagniewski, chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous, decided to scrap the app entirely, instructing his precinct chairs to simply call in the caucus results as they had always done.
The only problem was, when the time came during Monday’s caucuses, those precinct chairs could not connect with party leaders via phone. Bagniewski instructed his executive director to take pictures of the results with her smartphone and drive over to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters to deliver them in person. She was turned away without explanation, he said.
“I don’t even know if they know what they don’t know,” Bagniewski said of the state party shortly before 2 a.m. Tuesday.
It was a surreal opening act for the 2020 campaign that included unexplained “inconsistencies” in results that were not released to the public, heated conference calls with campaigns that were hung up on by the state party, firm denials of any kind of hacking and a presidential primary left in a strange state of almost suspended animation.
“A systemwide disaster,” said Derek Eadon, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman.
Amid the chaos and confusion, there were conflicting candidate speeches declaring various degrees of victory, as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign released its own set of favorable partial results, and multiple campaigns hoped that the mess would not lessen the eventual impact of what they said appeared to be a disappointing first test for former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Any campaign saying they won or putting out incomplete numbers is contributing to the chaos and misinformation,” Joe Rospars, the chief strategist for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, scolded on Twitter. Two tweets and one minute earlier, he had written, “It’s a very close race among the top three candidates (Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg) and Biden came a distant fourth.”
With no actual results, the only clear loser was Iowa and its increasingly precarious caucuses. For the third consecutive presidential cycle, the results here are riddled with questions, if not doubt. First it was the Republicans, when Mitt Romney was initially declared the winner in 2008 before that was later reversed, and then the Democrats suffered when a virtual tie between Hillary Clinton and Sanders in 2016 set off a number of rule changes that culminated in the 2020 debacle.
The evening had begun well enough. Iowa Democrats said turnout was strong and the caucuses themselves — held across more than 1,600 precincts from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River — had mostly proceeded smoothly. For the first time, there would be not just one result recorded but three: the initial alignment of caucusgoers, the realignment of those who were with candidates below 15% support, and then the final delegates won at each site.
The added detail was the result of complaints from four years ago about the opaqueness of Sanders’ narrow loss in the Iowa delegate chase to Clinton.
Some precinct leaders said they had filed their results Monday with little struggle. Jerry Depew, the county chair in rural Pocahontas, said he had called in his results after a five-minute hold, at 8:05 p.m.
But soon the party phone lines were completely jammed.
“The app wasn’t included in the chair training that everyone was required to take,” said Zach Simonson, the Democratic Party chair in Wapello County.
“When you have an app that you’re sending out to 1,700 people and many of them might be newer to apps and that kind of stuff, it might have been worth doing a couple months’ worth of testing,” said Bagniewski, the Polk County chairman.
Unlike a primary run by the state government, caucuses are party affairs and they are powered by the dedication of a small army of volunteers in every city, town and hamlet of a state.
Simonson said that he had spent nearly three hours trying to report results Monday. At one point, he received one call from a state party official who was “in a very loud room and screamed at me about wanting a precinct ID number but couldn’t hear my reply over the din in the room.”
“While I was talking to him,” Simonson said in an email, “my call on the other line, holding for 90 minutes, was answered and hung up.”
Depew, who had filed shortly after 8 p.m., said he had received a call from the state party almost three hours later asking for the results he had long since filed. “I said, ‘I already reported nearly three hours ago.’ She took my word for it and moved on without explaining the apparent snafus,” he said.
But those delays and confusion did not explain why the state party had released zero results — including from the precincts that had successfully filed their results either via phone or the app. The party said at first that it was conducting “quality control” efforts.
At 10:26 p.m., the Iowa Democratic Party issued a longer statement.
“We found inconsistencies in the reporting of three sets of results,” it 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.”
Around that time, the state party tried to brief the campaigns in a phone call. It did not go well. Party officials mostly reiterated their public statements: that the delays were related to issuing three numbers per precinct for the first time. Party officials hung up after being pressed for more by the campaigns, according to two people on the call.
Soon after, the Biden campaign sent a sharply worded letter to the state party that said “acute failures are occurring statewide.”
“The app that was intended to relay caucus results to the party failed; the party’s backup telephonic reporting system likewise has failed,” wrote Biden’s general counsel, Dana Remus. “Now, we understand that caucus chairs are attempting to — and, in many cases, failing to — report results telephonically to the party.”
The campaign asked to see the “methods of quality control” being used by the party and requested “an opportunity to respond, before any official results are released.”
Even before Monday, there were other concerns with the app itself, which was developed by a private firm called Shadow. Cybersecurity experts worried that it had not been vetted, tested at scale, or even shown to independent experts before being introduced in Iowa.
Christopher C. Krebs, the director of the Homeland Security Department’s cybersecurity agency, said late Monday that the mobile app had not been vetted or evaluated by the agency.
The candidates decided not to wait for any results, one by one giving variations of a victory speech, beginning with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, though none were quite as bold in their proclamations of success as Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“Tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality,” Buttigieg declared, as a campaign spokesman spent the evening posting screen shots of precincts where the candidate had won.
The Sanders campaign was then even bolder, releasing shortly after midnight a set of “internal caucus numbers” that it said accounted for 40% of the state’s precincts.
“We believe firmly that our supporters worked too hard for too long to have the results of that work delayed,” wrote Jeff Weaver, a senior Sanders adviser.
At 1 a.m., the chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Troy Price, arranged a call with the news media, though he took no questions. Price issued a statement saying that he planned to release the results later Tuesday and that the delay was because “the integrity of our process and the results have and always will be our top priority.”
He spoke for less than a minute.
“We are validating every piece of data we have against our paper trail. That system is taking longer than expected,” he said, “but it’s in place to ensure we are eventually able to report results with full confidence.”
By then, most of the candidates were wheels up and on the way to New Hampshire.