- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2020

DES MOINES, Iowa — The political circus in the Hawkeye State inched closer to a belated conclusion Tuesday when Iowa Democrats released an initial round of caucus results that showed former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg leading, followed by Sens. Bernard Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was running fourth, signaling that voters didn’t buy his message that he is the best bet to defeat President Trump.

The first wave of results — 62% of precincts from all 99 counties — came a day after the Iowa caucuses ended in chaos when the app the Iowa Democratic Party relied on to collect and transmit results crashed.

Iowa Democrat Chair Troy Price blamed the mess on a coding error.

“The bottom line is we hit a stumbling block on the back end of reporting the data,” Mr. Price said at a press conference in Des Moines.

He apologized and called the situation “unacceptable,” while also standing up for the accuracy of the results.

Mr. Buttigieg received 26.9% of the “state delegate equivalents,” Mr. Sanders 25.1%, Ms. Warren, 18.3% and Mr. Biden, 15.6%.

The ugly ending is a nightmare scenario for the Iowa Democratic Party, prompting criticism from major party figures that could jeopardize the lead-off role that overwhelmingly white Iowa traditionally plays in presidential nominations.

Stacey Abrams, a rising liberal star, said it was time to reexamine the primary calendar, arguing “traditions can and do change” and the “first contests must be representative of the American people as a whole.”

“People of color have been loyal to the Democratic Party and deserve more of a voice in our primaries from the start,” she said on Twitter. “We can accomplish this by multiple states holding primaries the first day of voting.”

Ironically, the app at the center of the mess was commissioned as part of a broader effort to bring more transparency to the process.

For the first time, the state Democratic Party planned to share the raw vote totals for the candidates along with traditional release of the delegate counts.

The change grew out of the nasty 2016 primary race between Mr. Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Sanders camp felt it could have spun the results in a more favorable fashion if the raw vote totals were made public.

Four years later, Mr. Sanders is leading on that front.

The first set of results found him with 28,220 total votes. Mr. Buttigieg was second with 27,030, followed by Ms. Warren at 22,254, and Mr. Biden with 14,176.

Mr. Buttigieg had the biggest bump in support between the two rounds of realignment on caucus night, winning over voters like Connie Heffner, who backed him after her preferred pick — Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — was declared not viable in the local caucus.

The 66-year-old teacher said Mr. Buttigieg reminds her of former President Barack Obama.

“I watched what unfolded with President Obama in two terms and what the possibilities can be with Pete,” she said.

Another caucus-night convert from Ms. Klobuchar, Becky Soffa, said a Buttigieg victory would show the country is “ready for something new.”

Mrs. Clinton’s shadow, meanwhile, hung over the voting debacle.

The company commissioned to build the app, Shadow Inc., was co-founded by a pair of alums from her 2016 presidential campaign.

“We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night’s Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers,” the tech company said on Twitter. “As the Iowa Democratic Party has confirmed, the underlying data and collection process via Shadow’s mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the [Iowa Democratic Party] was not.”

On Tuesday, local officials said the horror show could have been avoided if the state party had done more to test the system.

Bret Nilles, chair of the Linn County Iowa Democrats, told The Washington Times he felt as though things were going smoothly Monday night after reporting out the results from his precinct without any issues about 90 minutes after it began.

But he started to realize something was wrong when precinct chairs started trickling into the county’s election night headquarters from more than 80 caucus sites across the sprawling county with their cell phones on speaker-phone mode.

“As people were coming in, I could hear people on their phones with the music playing and they were saying they were trying to get through to the state party for an hour, hour and a half, in some places,” Mr. Nilles said. “It was the first time I have heard [call-waiting] music going on 10 different phones at the same time.”

The backup plan was to phone in the results.

Other precinct chairs across Iowa were doing the same, flooding the state party with phone calls and overwhelming the system.

“People had trouble logging in on the app, or they got hung up on submitting results,” Mr. Nilles said.

From a crisis management standpoint, David Axelrod, a former senior advisor to former President Obama, said Iowa Democrats made a bad situation worse.

“However bad the handling the count has been, the Iowa’s Democratic Party’s handling of the messaging around it has been an abject disaster,” Mr. Axelrod said on Twitter. “It should be taught in classrooms as an example of what not to do in a crisis.”

Another Democrat strategist quipped that Mr. Price, whose future as state party chairman is now in doubt, likely “had a bottle of bourbon last night” after things melted down.

JoAnn Hardy, chair of the Cerro Gordo County Democratic Party, said the debacle is a disappointing ending to what was otherwise an exciting campaign cycle in Iowa.

“It was very frustrating — very embarrassing, very embarrassing,” Ms. Hardy said. “We are the center of attention and we couldn’t perform.”

She said that she wasn’t certain why the party had switched the reporting systems, and agreed more testing should have been done.

Mr. Nilles said he thinks the state party rolled out the app “too late in terms of giving people the opportunity to use it and test it.”

“In an effort to make it perfect, we made some improvements, but we made it overly complicated as well,” he said.

And that’s a shame, Mr. Nilles said, because several of the changes to the caucuses — including the introduction of presidential preference cards and the collecting of raw data from the precincts — had worked “better than I anticipated.”

“My initial thoughts are I could see where it is disappointing to the campaigns not to know the results, disappointing to all the staff and all of our volunteers in trying to get the caucuses right,” Mr. Nilles said. “We were really working hard with more training than we had ever done before to get the caucuses to go well, and the results tripped us up, and I see that is going to be a black mark against Iowa having the caucuses and going first.”

Ms. Hardy said she has never been a big fan of the caucuses because it disenfranchises voters and said there could be a silver lining to the chaotic ending to the fabled event.

“They have been tinkering around the edges of it and I think all they have done is make it more complicated,” she said. “We have to simplify it, and it will require major change.”

Asked whether he would like to see the tradition continue in future presidential election cycles, Mr. Nilles paused and then said, “You’ve got to give me a couple of hours of sleep before I make that decision.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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