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Kathryn Gamble for BuzzFeed News

The Iowa Caucus Is Supposed To Tell A Story About America. He’s Still Trying To Figure Out What It Meant.

Troy Price devoted years of his life to the Iowa caucus, hoping to make it successful, transparent, and inclusive. But in a year when everything fell apart, the 2020 Iowa caucus was the first institution to collapse.

Posted on February 3, 2021, at 11:06 a.m. ET

For the 935 days that he spent planning the Iowa caucus, Troy Price can think of three or four times when he believed things were as bad as they would ever get. In moments like these, Price could feel his stomach drop, and in its place, a fierce and unpredictable panic would rise to the surface, producing some combination of anger and tears and bouts of dry heaving, his head bent unceremoniously over a toilet bowl.

The first time was in June 2019, months into the process of trying to twist the caucus system into something more accessible and transparent via the creation of a “virtual caucus,” when the Democratic National Committee first expressed concerns about the security of the tech they were developing. Price happened to be in Israel, watching a livestream of the DNC meeting, “just screaming in my hotel room, which was probably not great because it was Shabbat.” The next time was at a DNC meeting in August, when it became clear that the party wasn’t going to allow the virtual caucus to go forward. He was summoned to meet with Tom Perez, the national party chair, in his suite at the San Francisco Marriott. Price sat down and saw the words “virtual caucus cannot go forward” written on Perez’s notepad. “That’s when my resolve ended,” he says. The meeting ended cordially, but when he got home to Des Moines, he thinks he had a nervous breakdown. Back in his office, where he kept a ball of Scotch tape that he globbed together while working for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he at one point picked up the ball and hurled it at the wall, leaving a small hole.

The last time, of course, was Feb. 3, 2020. You remember the night of the caucuses.

It was strange then, as is it now, to imagine that something like the Iowa caucus, one of the most random, complicated, flawed inventions of American politics, est. in 1972 and situated in a predominantly white state previously best known for its production of corn, eggs, pigs, and cattle, accounting at one point for one-tenth of the nation’s food, could wreak so much emotional havoc over any single individual, let alone the entire country and its national press corps. Price himself had assured reporters that things would run smoothly on Monday, without delay — this, he says, is his biggest regret — but when they broke down, he wasn’t prepared for the despair he felt, or the collective outrage directed at his party. “The one thing I could never have expected was the ferocity with which everything collapsed on my head.” People were just so mad. “We were taking a threshing,” he says. “Everyone just killed us.”

Price can recount the nine days that began at 8 p.m. local time on Feb. 3, 2020, hour by awful hour, ending with his resignation as chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

He asked what the problem was. They didn’t know. He asked if they had been hacked. They didn’t think so.

He remembers walking down the hallway at the Iowa Events Center, the hulking concrete conference facility in Des Moines that served as headquarters on caucus night, when the tech team from the DNC stopped him and told him to turn around. They walked back to Price’s private conference room. At first, everyone was silent. They were getting Perez on the phone. Price asked what was wrong. They told him there was a problem with the results reporting system. He immediately wanted to puke. He asked what the problem was. They didn’t know. He asked if they had been hacked. They didn’t think so. The numbers were going into the app — developed that year for precinct chairs to submit results on their phones — but the numbers were getting flipped as they came out. They eventually described it as cords routed into a system: There were 17 cords plugged into various jacks, and somewhere two of them were flipped. They just needed to untangle the wires. That made sense to Price. He remembers DNC staffers seemed calm. Perez did too. He remembers they said to give them 15 minutes and they would know more. “Every 15 minutes,” he said, “they would say they needed another 15 minutes.” It was a “hell loop.”

Soon almost everyone moved into Price’s workroom. “We basically met every 15 minutes for five hours,” he says. They thought they’d have answers by 9 p.m. They didn’t. They thought they’d have answers by 10 p.m. They didn’t. “It just kept getting worse and worse, and there was nothing we could do.” Price was panicking. They had data from about 600 or so precincts, about 35% of the results, somewhere on the back end of the app. He didn’t understand why they couldn’t record the results manually. “I can get 100 volunteers in the next 10 minutes. Like the way they’ve done it every four years,” he says. He was yelling. “I was just trying to fix it. Like, let’s just start plugging it into a Google doc. I’ll create it right now and give everyone access to it!” The answer he got back was no, Price says — the problem was going to get fixed.

Meanwhile, there was a debate about how to handle reporters, many of whom were working in the Community Choice Credit Union Ballroom, one level below Price’s room. Price wanted to talk, but almost everyone else thought it was a bad idea. “They were probably right, only because I couldn’t definitively answer what was wrong,” he says. They knew reporters would ask if there was a hack, and Price would have to say he didn’t know. The whole thing felt fragile, barely held together. “The moment I said we don't know if this was a hack, the credibility of any results we produced at any time would have been in question. They wouldn’t have trusted anything.”

They knew reporters would ask if there was a hack, and Price would have to say he didn’t know. The whole thing felt fragile, barely held together.

All night, Price puffed on his Juul, watching the little clouds of vapor hang in the air and dissolve under the fluorescent lights of the Events Center. His workroom — Mezzanine Level, Board Room 4 — is a place he intends to never visit again. Across the hallway was a private bathroom, where he spent most of the night dry heaving. Next to the bathroom was a kitchenette, where he went to make phone calls and be alone. The carpet in Board Room 4 is a dark purple pattern, now seared into his brain, with yellow and moss-colored lines that look like tiny wildflowers and/or violent streaks of paint. If you stare at it long enough, it starts to look brown.

By 9 p.m., things were starting to turn on TV. Reporters and pundits had been sympathetic to the new caucus reforms — this was the first time the IDP would be collecting and releasing a raw vote tally, tracing attendees’ preferences before and after what’s known as the “realignment period,” when candidates who don’t meet a 15% threshold are disqualified. But people were getting more and more frustrated. As a first explanation for the delay, party officials told the press they were doing “quality-control checks,” which was not totally true. They were still trying to untangle the wires. Price knows they did a terrible job communicating with the campaigns, which had been building toward this exact night for more than a year. He is sure he missed a call from one of the candidates. At some point, he turned off his Twitter notifications and removed his Apple Watch. His wrist kept buzzing.

Down the hall in the boiler room — set up as a call center for precinct chairs to report their results if they couldn’t or didn’t want to use the app — things were also melting down. There was supposed to be a 20-minute hold time. It was two hours, at least. Pete Buttigieg’s campaign accidentally published the call center phone number and private code, causing a flood of prank calls, false reports, and people calling to curse. In total, there were 5,816 phone calls that night, more than 2,000 of which were neither answered nor picked up by the system before the caller gave up trying.

Sometime after 11 p.m., Donna Brazile, a former national party chair, texted Price. Pull the plug and send everyone home, she told him. “And that's what we did,” he says. “At 1 a.m., we pulled the plug.” At one point, he remembers a friend trying to have a “real conversation” with him: “Like, ‘Troy, you need to be prepared to resign tomorrow.’ I said, ‘No fucking shit. Do you really think that’s not how this is going to end?’”

Before he left for the night, he glanced at his TV and heard Chris Cuomo on CNN, talking about him and his team. “Of course they’re good people. Everybody’s acting in good faith. But they had one job,” Cuomo was saying. “They had one job!”

Kathryn Gamble for BuzzFeed News

Price pictured in his home in Des Moines on Jan. 29, 2021

It has been one year since the Iowa caucus.

This otherwise harmless marker of time feels somehow startling in light of the rest of 2020. It’s like the joke people used to make about how “this week has been a year,” except in reverse and before a time when weeks entailed things like insurrection and thousands of deaths from a pandemic. At the time, the events of Feb. 3, 2020, were largely understood to be a “debacle” — “disastrous,” an “epic fiasco.” This was true. To this day, there are grievously bitter feelings between some people at the DNC and some people in Iowa about who is to blame for the breakdown on caucus night.

The answer, according to a 26-page report commissioned by the state party and done without the cooperation of the DNC, is everybody. The report cites inattentive responses on tech issues, a convoluted 34-page manual for an app handed to older volunteers, too few phone lines at the ready, and other failures by the Iowa Democratic Party. But its authors place particular emphasis on the long delays in the app’s procurement and development, due in part to the DNC's late cancellation of the virtual caucus over concerns about cybersecurity, as well as the last-minute addition of a “conversion tool” to render the results data in a format that was compatible with DNC’s systems. At the DNC's direction, the tool was developed by Shadow, the company that made the caucus app, according to the IDP report, so the DNC could “quality-check” results in real time, which it eventually did. But the report identifies the DNC conversion tool as the cause of the tangled wires that delayed results. In a statement, DNC spokesperson David Bergstein said the “underlying technical problems” were caused by “errors” from Shadow.

The IDP ultimately certified Pete Buttigieg as the winner of the traditional delegate count that's decided the contest for decades. The Associated Press decided not to declare a winner at all, as if the 2020 caucus never took place at all.

The caucus was the first thing to go wrong in a year when absolutely everything went wrong.

Perhaps you remember the absolute onslaught of coverage that followed the caucus — the tick-tocks about What Went Wrong, the anonymous accounts from Inside the Boiler Room, and the rush to connect the dots between Shadow, the app developer, and its main investor, a company named Acronym, and that company’s cofounder, Tara McGowan, a digital strategist married to a top Buttigieg adviser. Or perhaps you just know that the caucus was the first thing to go wrong in a year when absolutely everything went wrong. More specifically, it was the first institution to unravel in a year when so many crumbled in real time. The biggest outrage in Iowa that night wasn’t that we didn’t get the results on time. We all waited four days in November, though we knew what to expect then. The biggest outrage was that when we all went to sleep on Monday night, it was as if the entire campaign, the two years of rallies and debates that were supposed to culminate in the Iowa caucus — an American tradition that has shaped the presidency for 50 years — had instead combusted in a moment that suddenly, actually, maybe meant nothing at all.

If there was an increasingly familiar experience in 2020, this was it. The Trump era rewrote the rules of Washington in extreme fashion, making us wonder what the old rules meant in the first place. It then ended in the middle of a pandemic where his opponent, now the president, successfully spent much of the race at his house in Wilmington, without the usual trappings of America’s long election season.

Iowa is supposed to be the place where the story of that election is first written. The story of the caucus is what people remember and expect. It’s usually a simple story: There are winners and losers, and when it’s all over everybody leaves and someone becomes president. The magic of the story, its central premise, Iowa’s promise to the nation every four years, is that it could be anything. There is no good explanation for why one candidate connects and another doesn’t. It’s supposed to be a feeling, a process, generated in the partnership that has grown over time between the people of Iowa and the press — the wisdom of the Des Moines Marriott Downtown lobby bar.

The Jefferson-Jackson dinner, now considered the defining early showcase of Democratic talent, drew an audience of three network correspondents and four national reporters in 1975. Forty-five years later, the dinner is a zoo, with campaigns putting on big public cheerleading displays outside on the street, known as “vis” (or “visibility”). In Iowa, campaign subcultures flourish. It was in Iowa that Buttigieg caucusgoers embraced their roll-and-clap dance to “High Hopes,” a song about a man who believes he is destined to fulfill a “prophecy” of greatness. It was in Iowa that Elizabeth Warren organizers fostered their obsession with “Liberty Green,” the campaign’s signature color, brandishing the same mint-colored iPhone case (from Target) and nail polish (“empower-mint” by Essie or “This Cost Me a Mint” by OPI) as they canvassed door-to-door. Joe Biden’s last Iowa campaign is perhaps best remembered for its vigorous surrogate presence via friends like John Kerry, Chris Dodd, and Dick Harpootlian, who once speculated to New York magazine that Iowans were inbred and who spent one evening before the caucus making jokes to reporters about Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster while hanging around, where else, the Marriott lobby bar. In the retelling of elections, this is the place of legendary turning points (Kerry ’04, Obama ’08) and cautionary tales of those who dare to ignore or offend Iowans. Clinton’s first loss in Iowa became synonymous with several notorious “missteps,” including her decision to fly in a chartered “Hill-a-copter,” and, later, to hand out snow shovels. How dare she! Candidates can bend over backward to visit all 99 of the state’s counties without it making a bit of difference. Kamala Harris, after joking she was “fucking moving to Iowa,” literally flew her family to Des Moines for Thanksgiving, only to drop out five days later.

Of his run in the 1996 Republican caucus, televangelist Pat Robertson summarized the process as follows: “I went to Iowa, and the snow was on the ground, and it was ice-cold, and then they planted corn, and then after a while, the corn grew, and then the corn was high, and then the corn was harvested, and then the ice was on the ground — and then they voted.”

In reality, the caucus is far more convoluted, with rules (and provisions to the rules) and complex delegate math that most reporters largely pretend to understand. At no point does anyone “vote.” At a caucus, neighbors gather in gyms and auditoriums to express their preference for a presidential candidate by trying to convince other people to come to their literal corner. The most salient line of the IDP report may be one of its last: “The bottom line,” the authors write, “is that the caucus process is complicated.”

Steve Pope / Getty Images

A volunteer fills out a worksheet for caucus results on Feb. 3, 2020, in Carpenter, Iowa.

And yet few other events in politics have so obviously shaped the American presidency, conferring special power, seemingly at random, to a very rural, very white state.

When Julián Castro became one of the first presidential candidates to criticize the caucus process in 2019, the reaction ranged from “feeling a cold shoulder to enthusiastic support that someone had actually said what people were thinking,” said Castro. “The entire system is rigged to disadvantage communities of color and to discourage participation.” Other Democratic candidates avoided the debate. (Warren, who later made Castro one of her top campaign surrogates, memorably deflected the question by saying, “Look, I'm just a player in the game.”)

Ask an Iowan why they should keep their status as first in the nation, and you will hear a lot about party-building and the value of a state where you can’t buy the vote on TV. Eventually, though, you will land on some version of the same answer, which is that Iowa goes first because Iowa goes first. “I’m not naive enough to try to make the case that only Iowans are intelligent enough to do the vetting of candidates and whatnot,” said Grant Woodard, a former Democratic operative who has been involved in the caucus since 2000. “But in the code of Iowa, the Iowa caucuses will be first. We’re going first come hell or high water. If you don’t like it, strip us of delegates, but we will be first. Obviously, it sounds selfish of Iowa — and, yeah, I guess it is selfish.”

In the case of every caucus, it doesn’t really matter what the story is, per se — so long as it matters. Instead, this year, it was 9 p.m. on CNN, and John King was standing at an empty magic wall, tapping at nothing. The map of Iowa was empty and gray. “Ninety-nine counties that are just all gray right now as we wait,” he said. Tap tap tap. By this time in 2016, he noted multiple times, 70% of the precincts were already in. The campaigns have been “working for more than a year,” King said, “spending millions of dollars — and they’re sitting around right now.”

“Is this the right way to do it in the very first process of 2020?”

“We wanted a story that would make people feel good about talking to their neighbors and participating in the political process — and boy did we not get that.”

Looking back on that Monday, there were signs that the story was already splintering away from the actual caucus. That night, as reporters waited for the caucuses to begin, evening news broadcasts aired stories about at least 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the US. The eventual Democratic nominee, Biden, after a monthslong debate among Iowa voters about choosing the candidate best positioned to beat Donald Trump, wasn’t even looking at a top-three finish in the caucus.

Two hours east of Des Moines, a filmmaker who works in Democratic politics set out with a full camera crew for a caucus site in Mount Vernon, where he embedded with about eight different caucusgoers, hoping to tell a feel-good story about politics at its purest, one neighbor talking to another. “The whole point of the project was to make counter-programming to the world being a dumpster fire,” the filmmaker said. “We wanted a story that would make people feel good about talking to their neighbors and participating in the political process — and boy did we not get that. It got really dark really fast.” He filmed the group as they watched CNN. “The coverage, rightfully so, was like, ‘This is ridiculous! This is crazy!’ But it was just devastating for these folks,” he said of the group in Mount Vernon. “They ran a really nice caucus, but it just did not matter.”

The filmmaker, who asked not to be named because his livelihood depends on political clients who are particular about which stories they do and do not tell, has no plans to use the footage.

Back in Des Moines, Woodard walked from his caucus site to the Warren party downtown. Out of the dark, he heard two reporters talking about what had happened. “Well,” one was saying, “we can all say we were here for the last Iowa caucus.”

Steve Pope / Getty Images

Price addresses the media about the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 7, 2020, in Des Moines.

Around 1 a.m., Troy Price held a call with reporters where he spoke for one minute and did not take questions. His voice sounded flat and hollow, like all the slack had been let out. At the Events Center, the DNC tech team planned to work through the night to try to fix the problem. At 2 a.m., Price talked to his husband for the first time.

He had a room reserved in his name at the AC Hotel, just across the Des Moines River, a “‘bugout room,’ which is what I jokingly called it, if shit goes south,” he says. Tyler Johnson, a Democratic staffer who was in town and volunteering for the week as Price’s body man, pulled around the Dodge Caravan they had rented for caucus night. They picked up a pack of Parliaments and drove to the hotel. After Johnson left, Price realized he had left without his bag, which contained his only change of clean clothes. He couldn’t get Johnson on the phone so he went to his room and lay down. “I sat there in the dark staring, trying to close my eyes, but the level of despair was too great,” says Price. “Finally, maybe 4:30 a.m., I’m like, OK, I’m not getting any sleep. I took a shower. I put on the same clothes I had worn the night before.”

Troy Price suspects that if there is a loser in this story, it’s probably him — “I was the face of this problem, I believe wrongly so,” he says, “but at the end of the day, I was the face of this problem” — making this year a first in caucus history, in that Price was not a candidate for president. Before last year, his greatest political aspiration was to restore credibility to the caucus system, a tradition he cherishes, after its rocky run in 2016. His challenge was to satisfy the DNC’s new reforms while meeting its cybersecurity measures, but not also transforming the caucus so much that it resembled a state-run primary, which would have caused problems with New Hampshire, the next state on the primary calendar. Price, who is 40, grew up in Durant, Iowa, a small town on the eastern side of the state where his grandfather was mayor in ’90s. He has spent more than half of his life working for Iowa Democrats. His first caucus was 2004. (Price was for Howard Dean; John Kerry won.) Because he didn’t understand how caucus math worked, he caucused in Durant, thinking his vote would be more consequential in a less populated district. The caucus was on a farm in a woman’s living room, Price and 31 other people.

Around 5:30 a.m., he walked back inside the Events Center, where he saw the boiler room was empty, filled with ringing phones. Price sat down and started picking up calls. “It was a lot of people calling to yell. The only call I can remember was Tracy Freese, the party chair in Grundy County. She was calling to report some results. I told her, ‘Hey, Tracy, it’s Troy. Hope you’re doing well — give me the numbers.’ She said, ‘What the fuck are you doing answering phones?’ She was very nice though.”

“I told her, ‘Hey, Tracy, it’s Troy. Hope you’re doing well — give me the numbers.’ She said, ‘What the fuck are you doing answering phones?’”

How and when to report results consumed the rest of Tuesday. After reconciling the data, they’d verified an initial batch, 62% of results, with a press conference already on the books. Downstairs in the Events Center, reporters kept trying to talk to staffers. Every time Price left his room to walk across the mezzanine, reporters yelled from the floor below, “Hey, Troy! What's going on! Come down and talk to us!”

The press conference felt like a movie. “A bad movie, a West Wing episode. There was something melodramatic about it,” he says. Like much of the DNC and IDP staff, Price still hadn’t eaten or slept. He had managed to get his change of clothes from the Dodge Caravan, but he felt overwhelmed by the mass of reporters and cameras that crowded the stage. “It shouldn't have surprised me — but there were 200 people there.” After the press conference, they swarmed as he walked away. Through the chorus of shouted questions, he heard a TV reporter “screaming at me about app tests,” Price says.

It was in the elevator that he first started to cry. When he saw his husband waiting for him upstairs, he broke down.

Later in the week, Price would learn that a group of protesters had gathered on the bridge near their house in Des Moines, chanting and, in the case of one person, holding a sign that read “Troy Price Will Pay The Price.” At first he laughed. Then he worried. He googled his own name, and as he typed, he saw that after “troy price caucus,” the next suggested search term was “troy price husband.” He took a screenshot and texted it to him. “This is why I want you to go to a hotel for a few days,” Price wrote.

By the end of Tuesday night, he and the rest of the team at the Events Center were barely functioning. The results were still incomplete, but the DNC and IDP staffs were working side-by-side. “We were all in battle together. Things were good,” Price says. “I don't want to make it seem like I was ungrateful for the DNC in this moment. They were busting their ass, too.” The camaraderie wouldn’t collapse until later that week.

At last, sometime around 11 p.m., Price and a friend tried to find some food. The first place they tried had stopped serving. Same with the second. So they sat down and drank. “Eventually I got a Mcdonald's cheeseburger and that was the first food I had. I think I went home. I think I called some friends. I think I had a couple more drinks.”

And then he went to sleep.

Kathryn Gamble for BuzzFeed News

Price at his home on Jan. 29, 2021

In every public crisis, there is a point at which an imperceptible shift takes place. You can feel it creeping in, silent and inevitable. You are still in the thick of the crisis, deep in your hole, but the wild energy of the first few hours and days is gone. The adrenaline has left the body. The strange, myopic clarity of battle — that moment you realize, OK, here is a crisis and we are going to tackle it, simply by getting from one moment to the next, because what other choice do we have — that begins to loosen and blur, stretching out indefinitely before you. Things are slowing down, but it’s not because the crisis is over or dealt with. It’s because the world is moving on. This is a lonely moment.

“By Thursday,” Price says, “it started to feel like a problem that was never gonna go away. It started to feel different, like walking through molasses. People were leaving. It was just hard. The amount of loneliness I felt in this period was really hard.”

It had been three days since the caucus, and most of the 200 reporters had left, working on their final stories from somewhere in New Hampshire. There was a primary to cover. Price was still in his workroom. At some point, he remembers overhearing one of his staffers on the phone, asking around about other jobs. “I don’t give a shit,” he heard the person say. “I just need out of this terrible place.” At the same time, the team was getting kicked out of the Events Center. The IDP only booked the rooms through Feb. 5, but the building staff had let them stay an extra day. “Oh yeah, well, we were just trying to help,” said Carrie Jackson, the assistant general manager of the Events Center. “They were in a predicament.”

It started to feel like a problem that was never gonna go away...People were leaving. It was just hard.”

Meanwhile, they were trying to release the last of the results. To those outside, little errors kept cropping up that undermined the enterprise. How did Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and a little-followed candidate, end up with 22 delegate equivalents? A mistake with merging two spreadsheets. They had given Warren’s numbers to Patrick, requiring a public correction. Most of the problems boiled down to simple human error — what Price calls “fat fingers.” The caucus reforms required even more math than usual: At every of Iowa’s 1,750 precincts, they had to account for a raw count of people’s first preference (pre-realignment), a raw count of people’s final preference (post-realignment), and the state delegate equivalent awarded to each candidate. With 12 candidates, that was nearly 75,000 data points.

With all the extra numbers, even if they saw a caucus worksheet that didn’t make sense, they couldn’t just “cherry pick” where they did and did not fix bad math. According to Price, “that’s where lawsuits happen.” As of 2020, the IDP had a formal “recanvass” process for examining the accuracy of the results. Even so, some local attorneys were contradicting Price’s stance in the press, he says, “fueling the maelstrom of people claiming we were cooking the books.”

With reports of discrepancies floating around on Twitter, Perez called. He was frustrated with the large error rates, Price says. When Perez also mentioned that he had agreed to do an interview with Rachel Maddow, arguing that he needed to address the crisis, Price says he replied by asking, “How hard are you going to come after us?”

The next morning, after an 8 a.m. meeting, Price remembers floating the idea of the IDP publicly calling for a statewide recanvass. They expected the Sanders and Buttigieg campaigns would want one anyway, and they wanted to initiate a process to restore as much faith in the accuracy of the results as possible. According to Price, DNC staffers on the ground in Iowa liked the idea and agreed it would be a show of good faith. Price estimates that maybe an hour and a half later, before any decision about a recanvass announcement had even been made, Perez made his own announcement calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to do a recanvass. “Enough is enough,” Perez tweeted at 11:18 a.m. CT. “I am calling on the Iowa Democratic Party to immediately begin a recanvass.” Price was getting coffee from a kiosk on the third floor of the Events Center when a DNC staffer called to give him a heads-up about the tweet. “What was never said to me was that it would be as pointed as it was — that it would be so ‘enough is enough,’ ‘stamp and stomp,’” Price says.

After the tweet, “it got very chilly” between the IDP and DNC, he says. Whatever “esprit de corps” had bound the two teams together in the previous three days was very obviously fading. IDP staff felt thrown under the bus by Perez. Other Democratic state chairs across the country, who generally consider themselves to be a tight-knit constituent group when it comes to DNC affairs, were alarmed by what they saw. If something like this had happened in Iowa, it could happen to their state parties, too.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez looks on during a summer meeting in 2019.

In his four years at the DNC, Perez oversaw an influx of funding for Democratic state parties — increasing the monthly investment to each one by 33% — but chairs nevertheless liked to complain about his lack of party experience. His successor, Jaime Harrison, is a former state party chair.

“That's part of the reason we pushed so hard for Jaime,” said Ray Buckley, the party chair in New Hampshire. “It's really hard to understand the real role of a chair of a party — whether it's a town chair or county chair or state chair or national chair. Being chair of a party takes a specific skill set. When you elect someone national chair who's not only never been a party chair at any level, but was never even part of a party committee, it's sort of like getting a shot and saying, ‘OK, now you're an astronaut.’ It's just not operable.”

Over the next few days in Iowa, the relationship between Perez and Price, representing the national party’s connection to one of the most important states in the nominating process, was souring in real time.

A few days later, on Saturday, Perez called again — this time to discuss a forthcoming New York Times story about the underlying problems on caucus night. According to Price, Perez said he had it on good authority that the story was coming from Iowa. Price says he denied this.

A DNC official declined to comment on Price’s account of his conversations with Perez.

The Times piece came out on Sunday. In the story, Perez is quoted saying that while the national party and state parties work as partners, Iowa was ultimately responsible for administering its own caucus. “Troy Price was doing his best,” he told the Times reporters, “but it wasn’t enough.”

The next day, Perez sent Price an email to say that the story had not presented “the entire context of my interview,” according to a copy of the email. He sent highlighted portions of an interview transcript with the Times, where he went on to say that “this is a hard job, administering elections” and it was time to resume the conversations about getting “out of the business of running caucuses.”

The email also included a quote from an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, where Perez said, “We’re all in this together” and “I’m really proud of our team.”

Price wrote back, “I hope you now realize at this point that we didn’t frame up that article, pitch it to them, or throw you or the DNC under the bus, as you suggested on Saturday.”

“If we had framed this story up, then we clearly did a shitty job,” he wrote.

Kathryn Gamble for BuzzFeed News

The Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines on Jan. 29, 2021

Over the next few days, the end finally came.

They were able to locate the last missing precinct — a small rural county out east. No one had seen the paperwork or could remember exactly what happened. The precinct chair insisted he had mailed it to the county chair. The county chair insisted that it couldn’t have been mailed because he’d never received it. The postmaster was scouring post offices across the state. Finally, they got a hold of the caucus secretary, who had written the results in his workbook and read them aloud over the phone.

On Saturday, Price woke up and could barely move. “My head was basically a block of gelatin,” he says. “It was just exhaustion.” The doctor at urgent care said he was severely dehydrated and that his eyes were yellow from malnutrition. They gave him something low-grade to take the edge off, and told him to drink Gatorade and eat. On Monday, he held the press conference where the sign fell off the lectern. In the video, you can see Price stick his hand out, trying to reattach the sign as he answers a question. He thinks he has saved it, but the sign drops. “I was like, what else? Maybe my pants will fall down too.” He chose Wednesday as the day he would resign. “Why Wednesday? It had to happen at some point.” Afterward, Price says he got a text from Perez saying that he was a good man and would be back. He didn’t respond.

You can see Price stick his hand out, trying to reattach the sign as he answers a question. He thinks he has saved it, but the sign drops. “I was like, what else?”

That weekend, the party elected a new interim chair. Afterward, Price said his farewells, made some calls, cried, drove to the bar. As soon as he was no longer chair, he changed his Twitter avatar to a photo that ran in the Onion under the headline, “Iowa Democratic Party Finally Releases Full Caucus Results to Rubble-Strewn Remains of Des Moines In Year 2186.” In the picture, Price is spattered with blood and engulfed in flames, a MAC-10 strapped to his back and his left eye replaced by what appears to be a cyborg eye, suggesting either that he had died and was remade with robot parts or survived an apocalypse. For the rest of the weekend, he felt depressed. He couldn’t stop looking at his mentions on Twitter, which were filled with conspiracy theories. Most of them involved a plot to rob Bernie Sanders of the nomination. Multiple variants involved Price supposedly rigging the caucus for Buttigieg, the reason being because he is also a gay man. Another involved a photo that Price had taken outside a Des Moines bar called El Bait Shop with the cofounder of Acronym, Tara McGowan. The two knew each other from the 2016 cycle. It was the Saturday before the caucus and McGowan, celebrating her birthday, had posted the photo on Instagram. Most of the national press was also there that night. “I went outside to suck my Juul and Tara was smoking a cigarette. We took a photo,” he says. It was only then, according to Price, that he even found out McGowan’s company had a connection to Shadow, the developers that made the caucus app.

Olivia Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

Price discusses caucus updates at a press conference on Feb. 10, 2020, in Des Moines. The sign is on the floor to his right.

On Monday, a full week after the caucus, Price went to the gym, attempting to establish a more normal routine. Outside the kickboxing studio, he noticed a couple of people staring at him through the glass, though he says he may have imagined this. “I don’t know if it’s true, but I was like, I can’t show my face around here,” Price says.

He had already been booked the following week to attend AIPAC, the annual pro-Israel conference, so he decided to drive east. In DC, he saw Robby Mook, who managed Clinton’s 2016 campaign and became, in part, the face of her loss. “I tried to think of people who had gone through something terrible,” Price says. “Honestly it was a very helpful conversation. And he said to me, which was true, ‘It’s gonna take a long time for you to feel normal again.’ And he said, ‘It’s gonna be a lot worse in three or four months than it is now,’ which was true.”

At AIPAC, everyone kept asking “about the fucking podium sign,” he says. “Like, ‘Oh, god, I felt so bad for you when that podium sign fell down.’ It’s still in my feed every time I post on Twitter.’” At a party one night, he was introduced to a lobbyist. He could see her trying to place him, and when it clicked into place, “she just started laughing in my face and wouldn’t stop,” Price says. “It was uncomfortable. I just said, ‘Yeaaaah?’ And she said, ‘Oh, maybe you can do something like Katie Hill.’”

The former member of Congress, now an activist, resigned after having a relationship with a campaign staffer, which tabloids detailed in addition to publishing private photos. “She’s figuring out how to rebrand herself,” the woman offered. People didn’t know what to do with the story.

Price didn’t know what to say either. “I don’t think I stuck around much longer,” he says. The city was already shutting down because of the coronavirus.

He finished the conference, packed up, and drove back home to Iowa. ●

Kathryn Gamble for BuzzFeed News

Contents from Price’s office when he was the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party are collected in his garage.

The Iowa Caucus Is Supposed To Tell The Story About America.

This Is The Story About Disaster, Heartbreak, Failure, Expectations, Outrage, Troy Price, Tom Perez, The DNC, State Parties, Shadow, The Media, Outrage, Politics, 2020.

Troy Price devoted years of his life to the Iowa caucus, hoping to make it successful, transparent, and inclusive. But in a year when everything fell apart, the 2020 Iowa caucus was the first institution to collapse.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.

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