Delays mar Iowa caucuses as Democrats begin nomination process ahead of US presidential primaries

Struggling to adopt a new byzantine process of tabulating results, Iowa Democrats offered little explanation for the problem for hours after the caucuses began

The New York Times February 04, 2020 12:21:38 IST
Delays mar Iowa caucuses as Democrats begin nomination process ahead of US presidential primaries

Des Moines, Iowa: A night that was supposed to bring clarity to the Democratic presidential contest turned into a long ordeal of confusion and delays Monday, as the Iowa Democratic Party failed to report results from more than a handful of precincts for hours after the state’s famed caucuses began.

Struggling to adopt a new byzantine process of tabulating results, Iowa Democrats offered little explanation for the problem for hours after the caucuses began. Eventually, not long before midnight on the East Coast, a spokeswoman for the state party said there was no issue with the integrity of the vote but it was taking longer than anticipated to collect and check the reported data for irregularities.

“This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion,” said Mandy McClure, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party. “The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”

In the absence of hard results, election watchers in Iowa and across the country who had eagerly been awaiting the start of the Democratic nominating process had to make do with televised snippets of scenes from caucus sites, many of them playing out in messy fashion on college campuses and local meeting halls and gymnasiums.

By 10.15 pm Central time (9.45 am IST), the Iowa Democratic Party acknowledged in an emergency conference call with representatives for the candidates that there had been difficulties with the tabulation, according to a senior official with one of the campaigns.

While precinct captains across the state struggled to report the results, first with the app and then after calling and waiting on hold, the campaigns vented quiet fury at the lack of clarity about the outcome in a contest most of them had spent hundreds of days and millions of dollars to win.

As the throng of candidates waited for the results, none ready to declare victory or concede defeat, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, an underdog in the caucuses, finally broke the silence before a crowd of supporters in downtown Des Moines.

Delays mar Iowa caucuses as Democrats begin nomination process ahead of US presidential primaries

Caucusgoers gather at the Johnston Middle School in Johnston, Iowa. By Pete Marovich © 2020 The New York Times

Briefly noting the delays, Klobuchar declared, “We do know one thing: We are punching above our weight.” With her actual standing in the caucuses unknown, she said she would be headed to New Hampshire soon to continue campaigning there.

This was not the first caucus — a process staffed by volunteers at more than 1,600 precincts across the state — that did not produce clear results on the night of the vote.

Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont was not clear until early the next morning after delays in reporting results. And in 2012, Republican state party officials declared a split decision only to reveal more than two weeks later that former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had narrowly won, a delay that robbed him of momentum he could have taken into New Hampshire.

But for the leading Democratic campaigns this year, Iowa remained a prize well worth winning: After a year of trying to differentiate themselves in what began as a sprawling field, each candidate hoped that finishing well here would encourage Democratic voters to see him or her as a strong general-election challenger for President Donald Trump.

Even as Democratic voters were united chiefly by a ravenous hunger to oust Trump, many Iowans went to register the first verdict of 2020 still undecided or convinced more of the risk of the candidate they opposed than of the promise of the one they ultimately backed.

Democrats here and beyond are deeply divided along generational lines, with Sanders building deep support among millennials, former vice-president Joe Biden appealing to those over 65 and each drawing sharp opposition from those voters in the opposite demographic.

As revealing was the chasm between Iowa progressives, who sided with Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and more moderate voters who backed Biden, Klobuchar and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.

Those five candidates, along with businessman Andrew Yang and California billionaire Tom Steyer, were putting forth competitive efforts in the state.

A pre-caucus survey conducted for The Associated Press found that a majority of voters participating in the Iowa contest were female, a slight majority had graduated from college and about two-thirds were over age 45. Notably, in a contest in which voters have been divided by age, 34 percent of caucusgoers were over 55.

And in a reflection of how little Iowa’s demographics resemble those of the nation, nine in 10 respondents in the survey were white.

The survey found the caucus-going electorate ideologically divided, with somewhat more moderates than liberals. But there was near unanimity that it was important to nominate someone who could defeat Trump.

The candidates made their final pitches throughout the day Monday, with an undercurrent of urgency that Iowa would be a critical test of their viability going forward. “Everything comes down to today,” said Buttigieg, 38, as he spoke to a crowd in West Des Moines. “All of the dates, all of the appearances, all of the conversations with friends and neighbours.”

Buttigieg, accustomed to speaking to large crowds during the final days of his Iowa effort, admitted that he was not quite sure what to say to his supporters, who included a few babies and dozens of people who had travelled from out of state to provide a last lift for his campaign.

He said he had no regrets about how his Iowa campaign had gone. “I’m looking at you and counting on you to put us over the top,” he said, “and I can tell that you’re ready to make it happen.”

This state helped catapult Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination in 2008, but it has not always been so prescient. Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri triumphed in the Democratic caucuses in 1988 but did not capture the nomination, and the past three Republican standard-bearers failed to win here but went on to win the nomination.

Still, the caucuses offered a first indication of Democratic voters’ preferences after an unusually unsettled primary season, defined mainly by voters’ angst and indecision about finding a strong challenger for Trump. The diffuse nature of the Democratic field has already given rise to temporary surges by several candidates — including Warren, Buttigieg and Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who dropped out of the race in December — and drew two late entrants from the party’s moderate wing, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts.

At the heart of the party’s schism is a debate over whether Democrats are more likely to defeat Trump by appealing to the electoral middle, nominating a pragmatist of the sort who helped them prevail in the 2018 elections, or by elevating a progressive who can galvanise some of the young and nonwhite voters who sat out the 2016 General Election.

Even before the caucuses got underway Monday evening, Buttigieg offered a warning about deviating from the party’s midterm formula.

Pointing to the largely moderate class of freshman Democrats in Congress, Buttigieg said there was “a lot of concern” in their ranks about running with Sanders. “Look at how we actually took the House,” he said of 2018.

Jill Biden, the former second lady, pressed that case in a television interview Monday morning, warning that voters “don’t want somebody too far Left, too far Right.” She did not attack Sanders but made plain her skepticism about the wisdom of nominating a candidate like him.

“I think that people who may have voted for Trump or are on the fence, they’re going to go for Biden,” she said on CNN.

Yet Sanders, in his final appeals to Iowa Democrats, said that the party would tempt another presidential defeat if it did not nominate a candidate who could excite the party’s base. “If it is a low turnout election, Trump will win,” he warned over the weekend.

Iowa voters have always liked to carefully weigh their choices and decide whom to support only near the end of the campaign. But the party’s all-consuming angst over which candidate represented the best chance to defeat Trump made for an even more agonising decision this year.

Just two weeks before the caucuses, a New York Times-Siena College poll indicated that nearly 40 percent of Democratic voters here were undecided or willing to change their minds.

And while all of the leading candidates had their ardent supporters, many Iowa voters seemed even more passionate when discussing those contenders they were most opposed to the party putting forward this fall.

As he has since he was sworn in three years ago, Trump could ultimately prove to be the most powerful force for Democratic unity.

But that prospect seems elusive now and may grow only more difficult over a long primary race. After New Hampshire, a larger and more diverse array of states will cast ballots that may further highlight the party’s generational, ideological and racial divisions.

The Democrats’ left flank has been emboldened by the demagogy of Trump and all but assures Sanders a small-dollar fundraising well he can return to across a 50-state race. To many of Sanders’ younger supporters, the idea of surrendering to an establishment figure eager to find consensus, like Biden, is barely more appealing than reelecting Trump.

Of all the candidates, none may have a more fraught relationship with Iowa than Biden, whose last attempt at the presidency in 2008 disintegrated after a dismal finish here. In the 2020 race, Biden for months took an ambivalent approach to the state, seeming wary of an all-out push that would raise expectations for him to win outright. But he took a more decisive stance by late fall, deploying senior aides to the state and approving the creation of a super PAC that has devoted millions of dollars to television advertising here.

Over the last weekend of the race, Biden kept pace with his rivals’ television advertising only as a result of super PAC spending. His campaign was far outspent on the airwaves by every major rival and a few lower-profile ones, including Yang and Steyer.

The former vice-president has been a far from commanding presence on the stump, often drawing modest crowds and several times losing his temper with voters and reporters in outbursts that drew wide notice. In the final weeks of the Iowa race, his allies in the state conceded that his operation on the ground fell far short the machinery his leading opponents had put in place.

With Biden unable to take control — and Sanders showing few signs of momentum for most of past year — there was ample open space for other Democrats to make their cases to Iowans.

Warren has appeared to be a resilient force in Iowa, even amid her shifting fortunes at the national level. But her strength has been sorely tested by Sanders’ recovery here, given their overlapping bases on the populist left.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Warren shifted her political strategy, taking a more direct approach to talking about the subjects of electability and gender, and branding herself in television ads as the candidate best positioned to unite the party.

“Women win,” Warren told supporters on a conference call Monday morning, in a refrain she has used frequently over the past month.

Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin c.2020 The New York Times Company

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