The Iowa caucuses took place on February 3, 2020. Two days later, we still don’t have 100% of the results, and the Associated Press says the race is too early to call.
So, what went wrong?
The Shadow app
Historically, precinct chairs have phoned in their results. In 2020, however, the Iowa Democratic Party decided to try a new system: an app that would allow chairs to enter in their results electronically. The app was produced by a private company called Shadow, Inc., which is owned by another company called Acronym. Shadow was started by people who had previously worked on Secretary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
Even though the entire state of Iowa was supposed to rely on this app to report results, the app was apparently “hastily developed” within the past few months, and there was no statewide testing of the app. Party chairs did not send out the app to precinct chairs until right before the caucuses, out of a fear of being hacked. Many precinct captains knew days before the caucus that the app was not working, but some stayed silent about the issue.
Due to a “coding issue,” many precinct chairs were not able to log in to the app or download it. (It’s also worth noting that they were never trained to use the app). If they had a question or concern, they were supposed to email the Iowa Democratic Party through an email specific to the app, which many couldn’t do.
After the app failed, precinct chairs tried to phone in the results to party headquarters, resulting in jammed phone lines and chairs being put permanently on hold. Some chairs took pictures of their results and texted them to Democratic officials, which also didn’t work, as texting was not an official means of reporting results. With the app failed and the phone lines jammed, officials resorted to counting individual votes with paper throughout Iowa’s 1678 precincts.
Nevada, a caucus state that was also planning on using Shadow’s app, has announced that the app will not be used in its caucuses.
The new caucus rules
The Iowa Democratic Party issued a set of new rules for the caucuses following complaints about the 2016 caucus results. In 2016, precinct chairs were not required to report the popular vote. They only reported the amount of state delegate equivalents (S.D.E.’s) that each candidate would receive. The S.D.E.’s are an estimate of how many delegates each candidate will receive from Iowa in the Democratic National Convention. In order to calculate the actual amount of delegates, S.D.E.’s from each county are weighted based on how much the county voted in the previous Democratic presidential and gubernatorial elections.
In 2016, former Secretary Hillary Clinton won 49.9% of S.D.E.’s, and Sen. Bernie Sanders won 49.6%. Clinton won Iowa as a result. Some Sanders supporters complained of a lack of transparency in the caucuses because there was no way to prove that Sanders hadn’t won the popular vote.
New rules were instated for the 2020 caucuses. Now, precinct chairs not only had to report S.D.E.’s, but they had to report popular vote totals as well, both before and after realignment. (Realignment is when caucus-goers supporting a candidate who has less than 15% of the vote move to other candidates with more support). The realignment rules were also slightly changed: this year, unlike previous years, those who supported a candidate with 15% of the vote or more could not move during realignment. The added complications only exacerbated the problems caused by the app.
Ironically, soon after the app breakdown became public, the Sanders Campaign released a statement criticizing the lack of transparency in the Iowa caucuses.
Results and the projected winner
As of February 5, results from 96% of precincts are in, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg is the projected winner. He holds a very narrow lead over Sanders — 26.4% of S.D.E.’s to Sanders’s 25.7%.
Buttigieg declared victory on the night of February 3, before any results were officially released by the Iowa Democratic Party.
The Sanders Campaign appears to remain optimistic, pointing out that although Sanders may not gain enough state delegate equivalents to win Iowa, he still won the popular vote. It is true that Sanders is winning raw vote totals both before and after realignment.
Bernie speaks for the first time in New Hampshire after early returns show him winning the popular vote in Iowa caucus: https://t.co/zyFTvtL3a8
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 5, 2020
Sen. Elizabeth Warren is currently in third place, with 18.3% of state delegate equivalents.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is currently in fourth place, with 15.8% of state delegate equivalents. That may be the biggest surprise of the Iowa caucus results, considering how Biden has historically done well in the polls.
The significance of the Iowa caucuses
Whoever wins the Iowa caucuses gets a significant popularity boost, both from the results themselves and from an increased amount of media coverage. As a result, in every presidential election since 2000, the Democratic candidate that won the Iowa caucuses went on to become the party’s nominee. Those caucuses were run much more smoothly than this one, though, and it’s a possibility that the app drama and sluggishness of reporting will have dampened whatever momentum the winning candidate receives.
The next primary is on Tuesday, February 11, in New Hampshire.
Image credit to Wikimedia Commons.