DES MOINES — Pete Buttigieg had a narrow lead over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Iowa caucuses in partial results released Tuesday afternoon by the state Democratic Party after a chaotic night that put the presidential race in a frustrating limbo while endangering the future of the first-in-the-nation contest.
With data released from 62 percent of the state’s precincts, Buttigieg had 26.9 percent of the state delegates awarded by the caucuses. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., led Sanders, who won 25.1 percent. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was third with 18.3 percent and former vice president Joe Biden next at 15.6 percent.
A second batch of results released late Tuesday solidified Buttigieg’s lead. With 71 percent of precincts reporting, Sanders was a close second.
The release of only partial figures about 18 hours after the full results had been expected led Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price to “apologize deeply” even as he defended the delay as necessary to make sure that “unacceptable” reporting problems didn’t mar the data.
“My number one priority has been on ensuring the accuracy and the integrity of the results and we have been working all night to be in the best position to report results,” he told reporters. “The bottom line is we hit a stumbling block on the back end of the reporting of the data but . . . we know this data is accurate.”
Party leaders blamed Monday night’s problems on glitches with a mobile app developed to make it easier to report results from the nearly 1,700 caucus precincts. People running those caucuses in school gyms, community centers, and places of worship across Iowa said the app failed or forced them to repeatedly log back in.
Calls made to a state Democratic Party caucus hot line Monday night wouldn’t go through, with some put on hold for an hour or more.
“Anybody could have foreseen logistical problems in the execution of running the caucuses [this year],” said Chris Liebig, a precinct secretary in Iowa City who has been advocating against the byzantine caucus system since 2004.
He said his experience Monday night proved his point. The app failed before he even had a chance to submit the results from his caucus, which was attended by 875 people. The precinct chair tried calling in the results and was placed on hold for at least 30 minutes before deciding to try again later.
By the time Liebig went home, after 11 p.m., the results still couldn’t be submitted.
The app is called Shadow and its website says it was designed by a group of “campaign and technology veterans" who have developed tech for Hillary for America, Obama for America, and Google. It was hastily assembled over the past two months, The New York Times reported, citing people who were briefed on the technology by the state party.
State party officials engaged in heated calls with campaign representatives late into Monday night to explain the delay as some candidates declared success even though official results hadn’t been released. The candidates then headed to New Hampshire to campaign for that state’s primary on Feb. 11.
Unlike primaries, which are run by state government elections officials, the Iowa caucuses are a private affair run by the state’s Democratic and Republican parties.
On Tuesday morning, the Iowa Democratic Party released a statement saying officials had determined the underlying data collected through the app “was sound” and recorded accurately but that the app “was reporting out only partial data” because of a coding error that had been fixed. State party officials said they had the paper-trail to fully corroborate and release partial results later in the day.
Monday night had started out so hopeful as Iowans took their quadrennial turn in the political spotlight. A large field of Democratic candidates had trekked to Iowa for months to stump for votes at such time-honored rituals as the Polk County Steak Fry and the Iowa State Fair, and Democrats around the country were eager for the caucus to deliver the first stamp of “electability” in the search for a nominee to take on President Trump.
Precinct leaders and caucusgoers described an exciting night of the usual one-on-one politicking and debate at caucus sites as voters aligned themselves into groups in support of candidates. Some caucus chairs said Tuesday that caucusgoers had praised them for running well-organized operations. And this year, the party had made serious attempts to open up the process to new and underserved voters, hosting festive caucuses at bilingual sites and mosques in historic firsts.
But the problems started soon after the tallies were counted and many participants had gone home. Precinct leaders said they had trouble toggling through the app and were encountering errors when they tried to upload their results. Several said they could not tell whether a photo of their caucus math sheet had been accepted and believed the issues stemmed mostly from the large volume of submissions, not a flaw in the app.
Others didn’t think twice about the issues — until, as Des Moines County Democratic Chair Tom Courtney and other caucus leaders put it — “the mess” unfolded into delays and confusion.
“I thought it was not a big deal, and later I found out it was a very big deal,” said Steve Drahozal, a Democratic Party chairman in Dubuque County who met with several precinct leaders Monday night and swapped stories of trying to report their troubles to the state party hot line. “The main thing I was hearing was that people were on the phone anywhere from 30 minutes to 40 to 45 to 50, and at an hour the call would drop."
Precinct leaders on Tuesday marveled at the irony of how an app meant to make their life easier did just the opposite.
Danielle Benford, a precinct captain in Coralville, said she was able to submit her precinct’s results on the app but not without some technical difficulties. The app also made her log back in every time she toggled out of it to use her phone timer or access a different app, which slowed the process.
“It made it a little more difficult, but I understand the reason for it, just trying to be extra secure,” said Benford, who oversaw a caucus of 228 people. “I think when you’re trying to be more transparent in your process, it’s going to take more time to go through things as well."
This year’s process might have taken longer than in years past because precincts were required to keep more detailed paper trails under new rules that were meant to speed up the caucusing, increase its transparency, and make it more inclusive. Iowa’s Democratic Party implemented the changes this year after complaints by supporters of Sanders of irregularities in the 2016 caucuses, which he narrowly lost.
Iowans are defensive about their first-in-the-nation caucuses and take the responsibility seriously, so seriously that this year Democrats felt anxious over their weighty decision in a volatile contest with so many candidates and no clear front-runner, as well as an urgency to beat Trump.
But Monday’s problems once more ignited debate about whether the state should hold such a coveted slot on the election calendar. Even before the problems, the Iowa caucuses had been heavily criticized as too rural, too white, and too long for many to participate.
“Voting should not be a three-hour-long ordeal for people,” Liebig, the precinct chair in Iowa City. “They wanted to report the actual vote counts, which is nice, but as a result, the system basically required a couple thousand precinct chairs to follow very detailed instructions while they’re trying to herd dozens or hundreds of people.”
Greg Shill, a first-time caucusgoer and law professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, didn’t personally witness any problems, but he said he was disappointed in how the night seemed to devolve into chaos.
“If [the results] end up being 24 hours later than expected, I don’t think it’s the end of the world, and I don’t think it should shake up the race,” said Shill, who joined a caucus of more than 500 people at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “But there has been a lot of valid criticism of the caucus for some time, and I don’t think this is helping Iowa’s case for going first in the future.”