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Caucus chaos sparks fresh calls for an end to Iowa's leadoff status

In the wake of Monday night's confusion, critics called the state's process a "quirky, quaint tradition, which should come to an end” and a "total mess."
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WASHINGTON — Iowa Democrats woke up Tuesday worrying that they might have been first for the last time.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s inability to declare a caucus winner Monday night added fresh fuel to calls from Democrats in other states for the order of the primary process to be reconsidered, potentially leaving the future of Iowa's coveted first-in-the-nation status in greater jeopardy than ever before.

"I think the Democratic caucus in Iowa is a quirky, quaint tradition, which should come to an end,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on Tuesday.

Although toying with the idea of reordering the presidential nominating calendar is a perennial political tradition, the voices this cycle arguing to strip Iowa of its kickoff slot were already louder and more impassioned, saying that the honored position on the calendar should go to a more diverse state — and one that did not adhere to the caucus system.

The chaos that began Monday night appeared to give ammunition to those critics.

"As we try to make voting easier for people across America, the Iowa caucus is the most painful situation we currently face for voting," Durbin added. "People who work all day, pick up the kids at day care, do you think they’re headed to the caucus next? Of course not. We’ve got to have a means for people to express themselves that is reliable; unfortunately the caucus system is not."

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, an outspoken critic of the permanent leadoff status of the Iowa caucuses given the state's lack of diversity, pointed to Monday’s “mess” as further evidence that change was necessary.

“This is a total mess. I respect the people of Iowa, they’ve been great. But it’s become very clear that our democracy has been misserved by a broken system,” Castro, who dropped out of the presidential primary in January, said late Monday as he campaigned in Iowa for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The Obama 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, a former state party staffer whose candidate saw a huge boost from the results of the caucuses that year, seemed to agree that the time had come for a change.

“I think it’s likely Iowa won’t be first again and if they are, they're gonna have to change their whole approach," he said on MSNBC, pointing to "a lot of questions building about the caucuses."

"I think there’s a lot of positives to them, but it’s hard to argue now because we've had cycle after cycle where there are issues," Plouffe said.

Some Iowa Democrats seemed to agree that the decision might be out of their hands. "I don't know why any sort of presidential candidate would want to spend the type of money here that they did, again. I think most folks will say it's time to move on," said Des Moines County Democratic Chair Tom Courtney, who worked as a precinct chair Monday night.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there are the calls to end it now. You'll remember four years ago Hillary barely winning by a few percentage points," Courtney said, referring to Clinton's razor-thin win over Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2016.

“I’m afraid to death we’ll lose this thing," said Andy McGuire, who served as the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party in 2016 and is now the Iowa chair for the campaign of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

The chaos left some campaigns echoing President Donald Trump's skepticism of the Iowa Democratic Party's ability to deliver reliable results.

"If you have a process where you can't be confident that the results that are being reported are reflective of the votes that people cast last night and the process, that's a real concern,” said Kate Bedingfield, former Vice President Joe Biden's deputy campaign manager and communications director, speaking to CNN about the yet-to-be-announced election results.

The Iowa Democratic Party's plan to release data from roughly 50 percent of the precincts later Tuesday afternoon — with no indication that the numbers would be in any way indicative of the final result — drew public criticism from every campaign except Sanders'.

"I just don't understand what that means to release half of the data," Warren told reporters in New Hampshire. "So I think they ought to get it together and release all of the data ... that's what we need."

New Hampshire Democrats, who have felt overshadowed by Iowa, used the moment to make the case for their own first-in-the-nation status.

“We’ve never had an issue with the New Hampshire primary,” the state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said in a radio interview Tuesday morning. "It’s simple: Go in, mark the ballot,” he added.

"We don't have any apps. We just have a ballot box. We keep it simple," New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner told NBC News.

When asked if he was worried that Iowa could abandon the caucus in favor of a primary system, potentially usurping New Hampshire's first primary status, Gardner brushed off concerns: "We will go ahead of them and they know that. And that’s why they’ve been trying to come up with something different."

With Iowa's privileged status hanging in the balance, the state's Republicans rushed to defend their political opponents.

The state's governor, Kim Reynolds, and both U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, released a joint statement Tuesday morning in defense of the Iowa Democrats, saying that the nominating process “is not suffering because of a short delay in knowing the final results.”

“Iowans and all Americans should know we have complete confidence that every last vote will be counted and every last voice will be heard,” they said. “We look forward to Iowa carrying on its bipartisan legacy of service in the presidential nominating process.”

But even the lone candidate whose campaign supported the state party's partial release plan — and expected to eventually claim a strong showing in Iowa — did not sound thrilled about the outcome Tuesday afternoon, as he departed for New Hampshire.

“This was not a good night for democracy,” Sanders said.