What the Hell Is Going on in Iowa?
It’s Thursday afternoon, the Iowa caucuses ended Monday night, and we still do not know who won. Here’s the precious little that we do know:
Like I said, we don’t know. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is leading in the popular vote, banking 45,826 votes to former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s 43,195. Sanders and Buttigieg are tied in pledged delegates, 11 apiece. But Buttigieg is narrowly leading Sanders in state delegate equivalents — 564 to Sanders’ 562 — the metric that has historically gauged success in the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders was expecting to eclipse Buttigieg in SDEs, thanks to his strong performance in satellite caucuses. Satellite sites are designed to accommodate voters who can’t make it to regular caucus sites. Satellite voting took place in 87 locations this year, both inside of Iowa, at nursing homes and rehab centers, and outside: in far-flung locations where permanent residents of the state happen to be — from freelance journalists and skiers in Tbilisi, Georgia, to snowbirds who have escaped Iowa’s punishing winters for balmy Palm Springs, California. The Intercept reports that a big bet on satellite caucuses, which are new this year, was always part of the Sanders campaign’s plan to win Iowa.
Sanders went ahead and declared victory in Iowa from New Hampshire on Thursday. “That screw-up has been extremely unfair to the people of Iowa, it has been unfair to the candidate, all of the candidates, and all of their supporters. So, what I want to do today, three days late, is to thank the people of Iowa for the very strong victory they gave us in the Iowa caucuses,” he said. Buttigieg has also declared victory. He did it first on Monday night, telling a crowd of supporters in Des Moines, “Iowa, you have shocked the nation — because by all indications, we are going on to New Hampshire victorious.” He hedged in an interview the following morning, saying it was “a clear victory” simply to “reach the position that we did.”
Why the holdup?
In the interest of transparency, Iowa Democrats for the first time this year decided to release three figures instead of one — the number of people who voted for each candidate in each precinct on both alignments, and the number of SDEs and pledged delegates those candidates earned.
It’s great that Iowa Democrats decided to open up the process, because, as it turns out, the process is a total mess. The New York Times examined the data from 1,681 precincts and found errors in more than 100 of them: from simple math mistakes to evidence that voters didn’t follow the hyperspecific rules (you can’t enter the caucus after a certain time, you can’t switch candidates if your candidate is viable on the first alignment, etc.).
When will all of the results be in?
That’s unclear. On Thursday afternoon, DNC Chair Tom Perez muddied the waters further by announcing on Twitter that he wants a recanvass “in order to assure public confidence in the results.” It’s unclear how broad of a scope such an audit would have — according to the rules, “Requests for recanvass must include the scope of the desired recanvass, a thorough description of the challenge, and an explanation about how the national delegation could be altered as a result of the problem or its correction.”
It is also unclear who would pay for it — the rules say that the campaign requesting it pays, and so far, there isn’t one. There’s just Tom Perez and the DNC. There’s still time, though — the deadline to request a re-canvass is noon on Friday — a few hours before the Democratic debate begins.
What does seem abundantly clear is that there might not be an official winner declared in Iowa until after New Hampshire’s primary next Tuesday, February 11th.
Enough is enough. In light of the problems that have emerged in the implementation of the delegate selection plan and in order to assure public confidence in the results, I am calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass.
— Tom Perez (@TomPerez) February 6, 2020
How can the candidate who got fewer votes be winning?
Great question: Buttigieg himself has railed against such systems. But that’s the way Iowa does it. On a freezing night every leap year, the voters across Iowa gather in middle school gyms and community centers, churches, and long-term-care facilities, and stand in the approximate vicinity of other people who share their political beliefs. Voters who hold unpopular opinions are given the chance to be peer-pressured into supporting a more “viable” candidate during a period known as the “final alignment.” The number of people in each group is then run through a formula that produces a figure that is rounded up or down to determine how many SDEs each candidate gets. And just to inject a little uncertainty into the mix, if two candidates tie, the winner is decided by a coin toss.
I’ve heard there was an app involved — is this the app’s fault?
The Iowa Democratic Party hired a company called Shadow Inc. to create an app that would tally all of the various results and send them directly to party headquarters.
The party didn’t train precinct captains to use the app, and some didn’t download it at all. (To install the app on your personal phone, as precinct captains were expected to do, “You had to fill out a survey, which then got you a link, and then you had to download a different app and enter in a code from your email, and then you would get the real app,” one precinct captain reported.)
But making it through that gauntlet didn’t guarantee success — the app just didn’t work. A data-formatting error prevented the results that were entered at the caucus site from being transmitted to party headquarters. According to experts who examined it for Vice, it appeared “hastily thrown together” by “someone following a tutorial.”
Luckily, Iowa Democrats had a backup plan in case something went wrong with the app: the hotline.
Why did the hotline fail?
Plan B — if the app failed, or if election officials failed to download it — was to report the numbers by phone, via a hotline set up for this specific purpose. But on caucus night, the hotline was a mess. On CNN Monday, Story County precinct secretary Shaw Sebastian was explaining that he’d been on hold with the party for more than an hour waiting to report his results, only to have the Democratic Party finally take him off hold and hang up on him live on the air.
It appears the long waits were not just a result of the app. The Iowa Democratic Party confirmed Thursday the caucus hotline “experienced an unusually high volume of inbound phone calls,” including calls from “supporters of President Trump who called to express their displeasure with the Democratic Party.”
“The unexplained, and at times hostile, calls contributed to the delay in the Iowa Democratic Party’s collection of results, but in no way affected the integrity of information gathered or the accuracy of data sets reported,“ the party said in a statement.
That’s it! That’s all we’ve got. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
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