Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg both claimed victory in a race so tight that the Associated Press announced it could not declare a winner. And amid reports of miscounts and faulty delegate math, there has been enduring drama about what to do. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called for a full re-canvass of the results and then dialed that back. The Iowa Democratic Party announced it would review results from 95 problematic precincts and then extended its deadline for candidate re-canvassing requests to Monday. It has all served to extend even further the political hangover of weary Iowans who had labored to make sure the caucuses worked smoothly, only to see it all explode.
“We’re actively testing Dante’s circles of hell,” one local Democratic Party official said just hours after the state party held a Wednesday night conference call with county chairs to divulge even more chaos in the process, including claims that a hotline set up for caucus leaders to phone in results had been swamped by prank calls from supporters of President Trump after the number was posted on social media.
For all the drama, including the concern that the mishandling of the results means the end of Iowa’s storied role as an influential early state, there were other lingering worries in the aftermath of Monday’s caucuses. Where were all the people?
According to the state party, an estimated 177,000 people caucused Monday, a slight uptick compared to the roughly 170,000 who turned out to caucus in 2016. But that was nowhere near what the party had anticipated. Many believed turnout would easily surpass the record-breaking 240,000 who caucused in 2008, including droves of young and first-time caucus-goers who’s support of Barack Obama effectively launched his bid for the presidency.
For months, Iowa Democrats predicted big turnout, pointing to polls that showed higher-than-normal enthusiasm about the race among Democrats and the huge crowds at major political events in the run-up to caucuses.
In anticipation of equally big crowds at the caucuses, state and local Democratic officials scouted out and booked larger venues to prevent the overcrowding that had overwhelmed some caucus sites four years ago. But on Monday night, Democratic county leaders across the state were stunned to see small lines and empty seats in precincts that have been known to draw large crowds.
In Precinct 18 in Dubuque, where some of the area’s most loyal Democratic voters reside, county chair Steve Drahozal had anticipated a turnout of 300 to 400 people inside the expansive high school gym he’d reserved to accommodate the crowd. He began to worry when he walked outside into the school lobby, where they’d set up registration tables, to find no lines about a half-hour before the strict 7 p.m. start time. “I was completely shocked,” he said, adding that other precincts in the county had reported turnout at 2016 levels or below.
Precinct 18 drew 217 people — about the same number as 2016. That total included 65 people who had newly registered to vote on-site. Inside, many surprised Democrats looked around the room and took note of the friends and neighbors they knew who were missing. “It’s unusual. This precinct is really Democratic and gets a great turnout, maybe the best in the county,” said Greg Simpson, a local Democratic activist and former county chair.
Dubuque County, one of the 31 counties that flipped from Obama to President Trump in 2016, had been an intense focus of organizing and candidate visits. “It means they spent over a year on campaign outreach, and they didn’t turn out enough people,” Simpson said.
Dubuque County wasn’t the only place that drew less than expected turnout. The candidates had devoted time and attention to the string of counties to the south that wind along the Mississippi River where Trump won in 2016 and Democrats are now trying to win back.
Like Dubuque, many precincts in those counties saw smaller crowds than expected.
In working-class Wapello County in southeast Iowa, turnout was lower than in 2016, according to county chair Zach Simonson. “We’re working on gauging why that was the case,” he said. “The best argument I’ve heard that squares with talking to voters is that Democrats are more invested in defeating the president than in choosing a nominee.”
That argument was echoed by aides to several campaigns, who suggested they weren’t surprised given how undecided Iowans were in the final days leading up to the caucus. In New Hampshire, Sanders, whose electability argument largely rests on his ability to turn out new voters, said he was concerned about the lackluster numbers but pointed to numbers that suggested younger voters had turned out in higher numbers than four years ago.
But Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who ended his own 2020 race in November, said the low turnout was “the most alarming thing” to come out of Iowa this past week, even beyond the drama in figuring out the results. “What should most concern us is that turnout might have barely kept pace with 2016 levels, and fell well below the historic turnout of 2008,” O’Rourke wrote in a Medium post. “We’re in the middle of a national emergency, and people are staying home.”
There were bright spots, including Polk County, where county chair Sean Bagniewski said turnout was higher than 2016 across the county, which includes Des Moines and its suburbs. Democrats were processing five large boxes of forms from people who had registered to vote on-site that night.
Vanessa Phelan, chair of the Northwest Des Moines Democrats, said turnout was up about 20 percent at the precinct she helped run. Phelan, a first-time caucus organizer who was driven to become more involved in politics after Trump’s election, said she was exhausted and disappointed by the drama surrounding the reporting and handling of caucus results. But was she was certain it would not dampen enthusiasm among newly energized voters like her who are determined to do whatever they can to elect more Democrats and defeat Trump.
“We are incredibly engaged, and we’re ready to go,” Phelan said. “We all know we have to get Trump out of office.”