Botched or rigged? Iowa’s caucus disaster

Despite the confidence, the two systems meant to safeguard the caucuses from controversy failed spectacularly.

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Many of us settled in on Monday night to follow the results coming out of the Iowa caucuses expecting to have an idea of who was winning in the still somewhat crowded Democratic field sometime after 10 pm eastern time. This hour soon came and went, then another and another after that. In fact, it wasn’t until 5 pm the following day that partial results amounting to 62% of the vote, or 1099 of 1765 precincts, were made public by the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP).

This partial result, which favored South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg by a small margin over Bernie Sanders, raised eyebrows among the Vermont senator’s loyal followers, who must have wondered why the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t simply wait until all the numbers were in to report the clear results and avoid further confusion. Likely reinforcing this feeling for those paying close attention, Buttigieg’s lead narrowed as more results came in and it was reported that Sanders had been in first place in the first and second realignments of Iowa’s complicated process, meaning that supporters of other centrist candidates probably coalesced under the South Bend mayor’s banner, allowing him to snatch more delegates in the end.

Nonetheless, it now appears that Sanders won the popular vote overall, a fact that doesn’t seem to be of much interest to the cable news networks who were so desperate for a result late Monday night.

Buttigieg, 38, who began his campaign touting himself as a young progressive but soon shifted to more establishment positions and began courting big donors, took the opportunity on Monday night to announce his victory just after midnight, despite no results being in. Iowa was make or break for Mayor Pete, whose campaign spent 7 million dollars on ads there in the lead up to the caucuses and who needed a first or at least a close second place finish to create a narrative of momentum for a candidate in the single digits in national polls prior to the vote.

A clear victory, or at least close call, was even more important when one considers the South Bend Mayor’s lack of support in polling of the African American and Latinx voters crucial to the Democratic coalition in the larger, more diverse states that follow next Tuesday’s vote in New Hampshire, another state where his lack of traction with these communities is less important than it will be in Nevada, South Carolina and most of the states voting on Super Tuesday in early March.

The biggest winner out of the mess in Iowa was probably former Vice President Joe Biden, who went from presumed front runner to 4th place, well behind 3rd place finisher Elizabeth Warren. In a stroke of luck for his campaign, 2 news heavy days followed, with the disastrous caucuses overshadowed by a State of the Union Address from the current U.S. president and an impeachment acquittal in the U.S. Senate, allowing the former vice-president’s surrogates to spin, or at the very least, ignore, the result.

Acronym, Shadow and the app that failed

In the lead up to Iowa, there were no signs of any worry on the part of the state’s Democratic Party, with Troy Price, the IDP’s leader telling NPR in January, “If there’s a challenge, we’ll be ready with a backup and a backup to that backup and a backup to the backup to the backup. We are fully prepared to make sure that we can get these results in and get those results inaccurately.”

Despite the confidence, the two systems meant to safeguard the caucuses from controversy failed spectacularly. The first, and most egregious, was an app that was meant to make the caucuses both simpler and more transparent after complaints about the process made by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, where his opponent received a narrow and in some corners, controversial, victory in the state.

The app was designed by a company with the trustworthy sounding name of Shadow Inc. The startup is run by Gerard Niemera, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the last U.S. presidential election. Although the non-profit company that once proudly announced its sole ownership of Shadow, the equally perplexingly named Acronym, has tried to distance itself from what we have been told is a coding issue in the hastily deployed and basically untested app, reporting by Lee Fang of the Intercept and others has shown this spin to be absurd.

As Fang reported, “In an all-staff email sent last Friday, an official with Lockwood Strategy reminded team members about “COOL THINGS HAPPENING AROUND ACRONYM.” The list included bullets points such as, “The Iowa caucus is on Monday, and the Shadow team is hard at work,” and “Shadow is working on scaling up VAN integration with Shadow Messaging for some Iowa caucus clients.” (VAN refers to the widely used Democratic voter file technology firm.) Acronym staffers also attended the Shadow staff retreat.

Further proof of the connection is offered by this January, 2019 tweet by Tara McGowan, the company’s CEO, “With Shadow, we’re building a new model incentivized by adoption overgrowth, with a deep focus on building the underlying tech infrastructure that will enable campaigns to use the most effective new tools in smarter ways & better integrate + leverage data across platforms.”

While there are many ties in both companies to both Clinton and Obama surrogates, in a seeming conflict of interest, Acronym founder McGowan, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, is married to Michael Halle, currently a strategist for Mayor Pete.

The company, which bills itself as “a non-profit committed to building power and lasting digital infrastructure for the progressive movement”, also has other ties to the Buttigieg campaign, which has paid the company $42,500 for a variety of services. The Biden campaign, which has said it will no longer be using the vendor’s services, paid Shadow $1,225 for a text messaging service that seems like it might be useful to a national campaign but is a much different animal from building a secure app for an event as important as the Iowa caucuses.

As is so often the case when it comes to the kinds of political insiders that lead companies like Acronym and Shadow, the debacle caused by app is probably the result of sheer hubris rather than malicious intent.

As reported by CNN, “Our impression was they (SHADOW) don’t do software development, to be honest,” the official said. “It was surprising to see them in all of this, because it seemed like their main work was more like organizing and get out the vote through technology services. Our impression from some conversations with them was that that was not their area of expertise.”

The second problem with the reporting of the results on Monday (if not the way they trickled out in the days that followed) came from the only real back up, having precinct captains, who were left with busy signals and long hold times, phone in the results. This was made much more difficult when the number to call in was found by supporters of the current president online, who, as reported by Bloomberg, called in to troll the party in real time, having at least some impact on the reporting of the results.

As we might have expected given previous history, Bernie Sanders, who should have ended the night in triumph, became the biggest loser in Iowa due to the technical failures and subsequent reporting that focused on the Buttigieg campaign’s claims that it had won the night. While the main problem seems to have been incompetence on the part of the party and their vendors (along with a willingness on the part of Mayor Pete to stretch the truth), it’s pretty hard to argue that there isn’t some bias at play against the Vermont senator, who, despite the roadblocks being thrown in his way, is surging in the polls, both nationally and in upcoming states, at exactly the right time.

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