Iowa caucus: How an American tradition became a national laughingstock – Des Moines Register

The bank of phones rings relentlessly as 40 volunteers fight with rising desperation to keep pace with the deluge.  
On the other end are well-intentioned Iowans with earnest questions, news stations demanding updates, pranksters clogging the lines and, most critically, precinct captains from across the state trying in vain to report the results of their local caucuses. 
The 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses have so far sidestepped the previous cycle’s problems — long waits, overcrowded precinct sites — but now, behind the scenes, the system is falling apart. And fast. 
At a brief training a few days earlier, the call center volunteers at the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus night headquarters — the so-called “boiler room” — were told to bring books, puzzles and games. Party leaders didn’t anticipate they’d be busy for hours.  
Now, bathed in the glare of a cold conference room’s fluorescent lights, they grapple with waves of panic and frustration over their immediate task: gathering Iowa caucus results and relaying them to the waiting world.   
Sheets of poster paper tallying the types of problems callers are registering hang on the wall — “chairperson not present,” “delegate misallocation,” and “where is my caucus location?”  
But the effort is abandoned in the frenzy — the cascade of tick marks next to “app problems” dwarfing all others. Volunteers had never seen the app — designed in haste to allow supposedly easy tabulation and transmission of caucus night results — nor been trained to use it.     
When precinct captains are able to get through the congested phone lines, volunteers begin an on-the-fly paper-and-pen filing system for the complicated and arcane caucus math that has baffled even some of the biggest caucus aficionados for decades.  
If the results don’t make sense or the numbers don’t add up, volunteers deposit the records into a cardboard box with the words “still f—ed” scrawled across the side in Sharpie.   
The “still f—ed” box is filling quickly.   
“The people in that room know what the f–k they’re doing. They’re smart people,” one volunteer says at the time. “But none of them had been trained. So they’re all just making s–t up on the fly.” 
The party had gone through tabletop exercises to prepare for a range of disaster scenarios. There are response plans if the city of Des Moines suddenly loses power, say, or if the Russians hack into their computers.  
But if the new app fails and everyone with a stake in the future of the American presidency suddenly floods the backup phone lines instead?  
There is no plan for this.   
Through a combination of luck, grit and political inertia, Iowa has held the leadoff role in the presidential nominating process for five decades — a role that has come to define the very identity of the state and many of its inhabitants. As a result, the small, mostly white state otherwise known for its corn and hog production has wielded unparalleled influence in electing the leader of the free world.   
And in 2020, the free world itself seemed to hang in the balance for Iowa Democrats who were determined to unseat Republican President Donald Trump — a pseudo-populist leader who had spent the first years of his presidency undermining every idea Democrats held dear. The urgency of the task — finding a nominee up to the challenge of beating him — seemed to hang like a weight around their necks as they spent months wading through the massive field of Democratic contenders, desperately looking for a winner.  
A botched caucus night could put all their efforts in jeopardy.  
But the 2020 Democratic caucuses had been threatened from the start.  
For years, a growing chorus of voices had said Iowa was no longer up to this herculean task of leading off presidential voting: that not only did the state fail to represent the increasingly diverse face of the Democratic Party, but that the caucus framework itself — a series of town meetings that require people to physically gather to debate for hours in the hope of finding consensus — actively undermined the party’s highest ideals of inclusion.   
Over time, the national party sought to move away from the esoteric and antiquated caucus system in favor of simpler, more democratic primary elections, which can deliver a vote count quickly and with relative precision. And Iowa’s leaders, bound by law to hold caucuses rather than primaries, had obliged as much as possible, slowly contorting an inherently casual and volunteer-driven system into an amalgamation that often fell short.  
Still, national leaders in the 2020 cycle pushed even harder for Iowa to adopt new rules aimed at fostering transparency, inclusivity and real-time results. And again, Iowa’s Democratic Party leaders sought to tweak the process to meet those demands as best they could.  
But years of new addition after new addition had made the Democrats’ whole caucus structure feel off-kilter. By the time 2020 candidates started stumping, even one more request threatened to trigger its collapse.  
On caucus night, as volunteers struggle against the phones, it’s clear the roof is starting to cave in.   
Nearby, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price sits in his green room, feeling similarly helpless. His team is supposed to oversee the whole operation, supposed to ensure a polished event. But as the chaos turns from a rumble to a roar, the Democratic National Committee steps in to help manage the ballooning crisis.   
DNC representatives begin appearing every 10 minutes to tell Price they hope to have an answer in just 10 more minutes.   
Now, he waits for news — just like everyone else.    
Chain-puffing on an e-cigarette, he removes his Apple Watch to stop the incessant buzzing of notifications. Angry campaigns are “blowing us up seven ways till Sunday,” he says later, while hordes of journalists from around the world are demanding results — or at least some explanation of the delay. 
And the special tech team brought in to deal with the swelling app problems still hasn’t ruled out a hack.  
Price’s watch reads 9 p.m. The long night has barely begun.    
With precinct captains still turning off lights in the high school gyms, churches and community centers where neighbors had just caucused, cable news pundits are already declaring the entire process completely and irreparably screwed.    
“I just think the idea of the caucus has failed to reach the viability threshold,” Van Jones says on CNN. “This is starting to feel like a real debacle.”  
Across the state, Iowans begin asking themselves in flurries of text messages and barroom conversations, “Is this the end?”   
More than two years later, in a subdued vote in a swanky D.C. hotel’s conference room, members of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee have decided that the spectacular crash of the 2020 caucus was indeed the end, voting to replace Iowa with South Carolina at the front of the nominating calendar.
But Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses — the result of a happy accident that has, nonetheless, created and shaped presidential candidacies for 50 years — were doomed long before a few lines of code failed on Feb. 3, 2020.
In Ottumwa, a blue-collar Iowa town buoyed by an influx of immigrants, just over a dozen Ethiopian pork plant workers gather in the corner of a union hall, among the very first Americans in 2020 to weigh in on the nation’s next president.  
In this moment at least, the Iowa Democratic Party’s efforts to reach new participants who might otherwise be excluded seem successful. 
Sporting signs and smiles, these newly minted Iowans are dedicated to U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. 
Sanders’ staffers had set up outside the JBS pork plant at shift change — between midnight and 2 a.m. — hoping to persuade workers that not only was Sanders’ vision the right one for the country, but that their voices were important enough to be heard.  
Convinced, they show up to the state Democratic Party’s first Iowa satellite caucus of the day, and they net Sanders his first, tiny victory — a perfect microcosm of what organizers say the caucuses, at their most basic level, are about.  
This is one of more than 80 “satellite caucuses” held across the world at times and places not usually accounted for in Iowa’s traditional 7 p.m. meetings — all part of the national party’s demand for change after the 2016 election.  
Iowa’s caucuses are exclusive by design, requiring participants to gather in person at a set time and place to show their public support for a candidate. Shift workers, single parents, those with disabilities or without transportation have faced significant barriers to participation.  
The new satellite caucuses seemed, at this early stage, to be a welcome opening for an expanded electorate. But they accounted for a small fraction of Caucus Day precincts.  
To further increase inclusivity, local leaders had pitched hosting virtual caucuses — where participants would caucus by phone rather than show up at a location — but the DNC rejected that plan, citing cyber security concerns.     
The DNC also demanded that, in an effort toward transparency, Iowa report out three separate sets of data: Iowans’ first choice, their second choice and the “state delegate equivalent,” the figure that is traditionally used to determine the evening’s victor. With a dozen possible candidate choices at about 1,700 sites, Iowa leaders could expect more than 60,000 data points.  
This change would lift the curtain for those skeptical of Iowa’s process, but it would also give the public more ways to check the numbers and calculations for themselves. 
The results had to be right.  
To help manage the new reporting requirements, the state and national parties collaborated on an app that allowed precinct leaders to report results and streamlined how the public could access them. 
But confusion and infighting between the state and national parties pushed the app’s development back significantly, leaving just over three months to create and test it — instead of the seven months that Shadow, the developer, had requested. The delays meant that instructions on using the app were not included in the more than 180 virtual and in-person trainings held in the run-up to the caucuses.  
Instead, when the app launched on Jan. 18, just two weeks before Caucus Day, precinct chairs were expected to decipher an elaborate login process by reading a 34-page “user manual.” 
The app is already beginning to show signs of distress as reporters in Ottumwa happily snap photos of the diverse first 2020 caucus on U.S. soil.
The app has been layered with security precautions at the insistence of the DNC, which wanted to double-check the results in its own systems before any numbers were released — despite the Iowa party already instituting its own quality controls before posting the data. The national party’s request required that coders create a last-minute conversion tool so the app and the DNC’s system, which used different formats, could share data.  
As Caucus Day kicks off, app developers and DNC party engineers are still correcting errors. And all those patches mean that Chairman Price and other local leaders haven’t even had a chance to use the app themselves.    
At the Democratic Party’s Caucus Day headquarters, volunteers begin to arrive. There, they are met with calls from confused precinct leaders trying to download the new technology.   
Armed with only an FAQ page, they try to answer the barrage of questions, but precinct leader after precinct leader gives up on the app, saying they will instead plan to call in results later that night, after their caucus.  
Volunteers answering phones receive no official directive for how to adjust their plans as a result of the app’s meltdown. 
Frankly, they aren’t sure anyone outside the boiler room is even aware of the problems. 
Armed with just two telephone lines and a memory-enabled calculator, Richard Bender tallied the results for the 1972 Democratic caucuses as about a dozen journalists tried to stay warm against frigid wind chills while waiting for results.  
“I collected the data for the entire state on that calculator,” said Bender, a longtime Iowa Democrat who helped craft the caucus system.   
Iowa going first that year was a bit of a fluke, the fortunate result of a slow-printing mimeograph machine, the archaic-looking predecessor to a photocopier.  
The party planned to hold its state convention in May, and before that, there needed to be district conventions, county conventions and precinct caucuses. New sets of documents would need to be printed for each, and the mimeograph moved slowly, so they’d have to start early. Precinct caucuses had to be held in January to make the timeline work.  
“We wanted to be first, but there was no perception that being first would be that big a deal,” Bender said in a recent interview.  
Until that point, presidential primaries were nonbinding public shows of support. And no matter what that public support showed, party bosses were free to nominate their own preferred candidates at the national convention.  
“Generally, you didn’t get the nomination by running in primaries,” said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political science professor and caucus scholar. “Primaries were a way more of getting the attention of party elites who control the nomination, rather than accumulating delegates.”  
But frustration boiled over at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when party leaders ignored popular support for anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy and instead nominated Hubert Humphrey, who hadn’t won a single primary.  
Demand for change followed, and states were instructed to adopt reforms that opened the nominating process to more rank-and-file Democrats as well as women, minorities and young people.  
The early favorite for the 1972 nomination was Edmund Muskie, a senator from Maine and the preferred candidate of party bosses. 
“It was assumed by the political press that (Muskie) would win the New Hampshire primary almost automatically,” Gary Hart said in a recent interview with the Register. 
Hart would later run for president himself and serve two terms in the U.S. Senate. But at the time, he was a young political operative hired to help run a long-shot campaign for anti-war candidate U.S. Sen. George McGovern.  
Looking for a way to get a jump on Muskie before New Hampshire, he and another staffer, Rick Stearns, landed on Iowa’s caucuses — a contest that most other politicians, including Muskie, were ignoring. 
The dynamics of a caucus — with lower turnouts and cheaper costs than a primary — lent themselves well to grassroots, volunteer-driven organizing.  Shoe leather, not wallets, could make the difference, they believed. And tapping into anti-war sentiments in Iowa could build an army of dedicated caucusgoers who might deliver McGovern a victory.  
Or at least a headline.  
“We had very little money. But we had volunteers,” Hart said. “And volunteers knock on doors and recruit everyday Democrats to support their candidate. So, we decided to compete in the Iowa caucuses and try to make a showing that would demonstrate that George McGovern had grassroots support at the local level.” 
Muskie’s campaign relied on county chairs and establishment bosses, Hart said. “Older white males were, by and large, traditionalists and Muskie supporters, but not with a huge amount of conviction,” he said.  
McGovern on the other hand “had become the champion of opening the doors of the party to women, to minorities and to young people. So we had an awful lot of young people volunteers. It was a movement.”  
The long shot was drawing out a new kind of hyper-engaged caucusgoer — which was the point. 
On caucus night 1972, blizzard conditions swept across much of Iowa, and temperatures dipped below zero — circumstances so bad that the state party chairman postponed caucuses in 20 northwest Iowa counties, a fifth of the state’s 99 total. Only the most committed of the already committed were likely to leave their warm homes and brave the icy roads.  
Iowa Democratic Party leaders — intent on reporting “results” to help gin up media attention — did so by surveying sample districts from around the state and projecting a statewide result. 
Even if a full statewide tally had been taken, it didn’t actually hold any bearing on how many delegates each candidate could send to the national convention. The caucuses were just the first step in a long process, and the percentages would change through county, district and state conventions. 
As Bender slowly put together results from across the state’s hundreds of precincts, they showed something interesting. Not a McGovern win, but an unexpectedly strong showing. Strong enough for ABC News to declare the next day that “the Muskie bandwagon slid off an icy road in Iowa last night.”  
“We sweated blood for that one sentence,” Hart would later write in a book about the campaign. 
Upon a final tally, 35.5% of caucusgoers supported Muskie — roughly the same percentage who declared themselves “uncommitted.” McGovern wasn’t far behind with 22.6%. 
It turned out “exceeding expectations” was as good as winning. Almost overnight, the insurgent McGovern became a viable candidate and eventually the nominee, buoyed by his surprise showing in Iowa.  
“People had no clue that the main impact of the caucuses was the result that night,” Bender said in a recent interview.  
Despite being essentially meaningless, these caucus night “results” were immediately shared and contextualized by the awaiting media as a foreshadowing of the body politic. Their reports would change the trajectory of McGovern’s campaign — and set the expectation for hundreds of others to come. 
Although McGovern ultimately lost in a landslide to Republican Richard Nixon in November, the media would look back and mark Iowa as the beginning of the end for Muskie — a moment that exposed his weakness and presaged his downfall.  
They would not again overlook Iowa and what it might tell them.  


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