MANCHESTER, N.H. — The head of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday demanded a recanvass of the results in the troubled Iowa caucuses, plunging the party’s presidential race into further disarray and raising the possibility that the outcome won’t be known until after Democrats vote in the New Hampshire primary next week.
The committee chairman, Tom Perez, declared that “enough is enough” as he responded to growing frustration with a caucus system that has been mired in confusion for three days. On Thursday night, Iowa officials reported that 99% of the results had been tabulated and that Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were locked in a virtual tie in the delegate count. But no winner has been declared.
Adding to the sense of alarm among Democrats was a growing rift between Sanders and the Democratic National Committee, reviving memories of the acrimony that marred the party’s 2016 primary. In addition to declaring he had won in Iowa — following the lead of Buttigieg, who made the same claim on Monday — Sanders denounced the Iowa Democratic Party and called the national committee’s decision to change its debate rules to include Michael Bloomberg “an absolute outrage.”
Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic chairman, said later Thursday that the state party was prepared to initiate a recanvass if a campaign requested one. He made no mention of Perez, and no campaign had yet requested a recanvass.
The discord enveloping the first days of the nominating process marked an early setback for a party that was already ideologically fractured between left and center and staring at a nomination fight that may last into the summer.
“I’m sitting in the middle like a child whose parents are going through a divorce, wondering how do we fix this in the next few months,” said Laura Hubka, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Iowa’s Howard County. “I’m not sure we can.”
For all the confusion, there was no indication that the contours of the primary would change significantly as the candidates campaigned in New Hampshire, where a new poll Thursday reflected the reordered race, with Sanders leading but Buttigieg close behind.
Yet as Democrats bickered and sowed doubts about their own voting system, President Donald Trump basked in his acquittal of impeachment charges by the Senate, addressing Republican colleagues on Thursday with an aura of triumph and vindication — and with his approval ratings at a personal high.
Republicans also taunted Democrats about the mediocre turnout in Iowa, which was similar to the 2016 caucuses, well below the record numbers of Democrats who participated in the historic 2008 race and far from the optimistic projections of the campaigns.
In a sign of just how tumultuous the situation had become, The Associated Press, which typically declares the outcomes of elections large and small, said Thursday night it was unable to determine a winner.
For many in the party, however, it was what has taken place in the days since the vote — and not the vote itself — that was equally troubling, as infighting and conspiracy theories overshadowed the messages that candidates were pitching to voters in New Hampshire.
After an agonizing count of the Iowa votes showed Sanders rapidly closing the gap on Buttigieg, some of Sanders’ most fervent backers said they suspected an establishment-backed conspiracy to slow his momentum. The other contenders expressed irritation about the uncertainty of the Iowa outcome, even as they tried to prepare for a high-stakes debate here Friday and the primary four days later.
The confusion that began in the early hours of Tuesday, as Iowa Democrats proved unable to tabulate their precinct returns, reached a new level at midday Thursday when Perez called for a recanvass. Minutes later, Sanders appeared before reporters at his New Hampshire headquarters to thank Iowans “for the very strong victory they gave us.”
Citing his 6,000-vote popular vote advantage in Iowa, the sweater-clad Vermont senator said, “We here in northern New England call that a victory.”
Buttigieg, however, still enjoyed a slight lead according to the Iowa Democrats’ complex formula for allocating delegates, the traditional metric for determining a winner. At a veterans-themed event in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on Thursday, he ignored the tightening results, citing the “extraordinary validation of this campaign’s vision that we had in Iowa on Monday.”
But even as the two candidates trumpeted their performance, analyses by political scientists and The New York Times’ Upshot section indicated inconsistencies in the results Iowa has provided. The Times’ analysis found the Iowa returns riddled with problems, with over 100 precincts reporting results that were internally inconsistent, missing data or not possible under the complex rules of the Iowa caucuses.
There was no indication that the inconsistencies affected the order of the race or were a result of an intentional effort to rig the outcome, but they added to the questions raised about results that have been mired in chaos for three days.
Iowa’s caucuses suffered from cascading calamities. Volunteer precinct leaders either refused to download a new smartphone app designed for reporting caucus results or found it too cumbersome to use. Those who tried to phone in results found the phone lines jammed. And when state party did receive results from its 1,758 precincts, the calculations to determine how many delegates each candidate won turned out to be incorrect in as many as 20% of precincts.
Sanders seized on the trouble to excoriate party officials.
“What has happened with the Iowa Democratic Party is an outrage,” he said at his news conference, “that they were that unprepared, that they put forth such a complicated process, relying on untested technology.”
The recanvass requested by Perez would involve examining work sheets from caucus precincts across the state and 87 satellite caucus precincts in Iowa, other states and overseas. But Perez has no authority to order Iowa Democrats to recanvass their results.
More troubling to Democratic strategists and elected officials was the growing strain between Perez, who has struggled to hold his divided party together, and Sanders’ campaign.
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The senator’s aides were angry about Perez’s sudden call for a difficult-to-execute recanvass at a moment when Sanders appeared poised to win about as many delegates — known as state delegate equivalents — as Buttigieg.
At the same time, Perez and his top advisers have become increasingly agitated over the attempt by some of Sanders’ supporters to claim without evidence that the state and national party are suppressing the returns to diminish the senator’s success in the caucuses.
Sanders, who still harbors suspicions that he was robbed of victory in Iowa in 2016, stoked the tensions with the DNC on Thursday when he was asked about the committee’s decision to drop the rule requiring candidates to meet a threshold for donors in order to appear in the party-sponsored debates; that provision had previously kept the self-funding Bloomberg off the stage.
“Now suddenly a guy comes in who does not campaign one bit in Iowa, New Hampshire, he’s not on the ballot I guess in Nevada or South Carolina, but he’s worth $55 billion,” Sanders said. “I guess if you’re worth $55 billion you can get the rules changed for a debate. So to answer your question: I think that is an absolute outrage and really unfair.”
Sanders’ populist rhetoric could be chalked up as fodder for his base in a close race when he needs volunteer hours and small-dollar contributions. But at a moment when some of his top supporters were already feuding with Hillary Clinton, who has criticized the senator in recent weeks, the turmoil highlighted the schism between the party’s pro-Sanders left and more traditional Democrats.
Asked if the muddled Iowa results made him question Clinton’s narrow win there four years ago, the senator said, “I don’t think anybody knows” before allowing that there is “some supposition that we won the popular vote” there in 2016.
The senator did not respond to questions about whether he still had confidence in Perez, but his top adviser sought to tamp down the discord while making clear that the Sanders campaign remained wary of the party establishment.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ adviser, said the campaign found the debate rule change to be “an outrage” but otherwise believed “the DNC has tried to be evenhanded.”
But Weaver added, “Of course, given our experience, we are ever vigilant.”
It’s not just Sanders supporters who are uneasy with Perez.
James Carville, who has said the chairman should resign, pointed to another controversy this week that has been overshadowed by the Iowa chaos: the ouster of the top aides who had been planning the party’s nominating convention in Milwaukee. He cited it as another sign of the party’s disarray. “We can’t count votes, put on a convention or deliver a winning message,” said Carville, the longtime Clinton strategist.
In Iowa, officials said that if a recanvass were requested, they would have to effectively start over in tabulating results from Monday’s caucuses
Though campaigns and The Times have found a number of errors across the state, the problem appears to be most acute in data from the 87 satellite caucuses, locations for Iowa Democrats who could not participate at one of the regular caucus locations. Those are locations at which the state party’s posted results show Sanders doing particularly well.
Across Iowa, Democrats formed a circular firing squad. DNC officials said the state party was in charge. State party officials said the app developer failed them. Young urban Democrats said rural septuagenarian volunteers should have been able to figure out how to use the app. Rural officials said urban caucuses had grown too large to function.
“Some of these bigger caucuses, there were lots of distractions going on, lots of people not listening, lots of people not knowing what they’re doing,” said Chris Petersen, a member of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee. Petersen caucused in rural Thornton, where 15 people participated at his precinct. “I liked the old way where you called in the result and were done.”