DES MOINES — A night that was supposed to bring clarity to the Democratic presidential contest turned into a long ordeal of confusion and delays on Monday, as the Iowa Democratic Party failed to report results from more than a handful of precincts for hours after the state’s famed caucuses began.
Struggling to adopt a new byzantine process of tabulating results, Iowa Democrats offered little explanation for the problem for hours after the caucuses began. Eventually, not long before midnight on the East Coast, a spokeswoman for the state party said there was no issue with the integrity of the vote but it was taking longer than anticipated to collect and check the reported data for irregularities.
“This is simply a reporting issue, the app did not go down and this is not a hack or an intrusion,” said Mandy McClure, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party. “The underlying data and paper trail is sound and will simply take time to further report the results.”
In the absence of hard results, election watchers in Iowa and across the country, who had eagerly been awaiting the start of the Democratic nominating process, had to make do with televised snippets of scenes from caucus sites, many of them playing out in messy fashion on college campuses and in local meeting halls and gymnasiums.
And after anxiously awaiting results for much of the evening, the candidates grew impatient and, one after another, raced to their election night parties to address their supporters and get a few minutes of live television coverage. Without final results, none of them immediately emerged as a loser, allowing the candidates to project optimism and conceal their frustrations.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., was the most upbeat, crowing that “we are going on to New Hampshire victorious,” though there were no results to back up his boast.
By 10:15 Central time, the Iowa Democratic Party acknowledged in an emergency conference call with representatives for the candidates that there had been difficulties with the tabulation, according to a senior official with one of the campaigns. The delay, officials said, arose from the new rules requiring caucus leaders to report three sets of numbers to party headquarters, rather than just the delegate totals emerging from the complex caucus process.
But when the campaign officials grew impatient and asked when the results would be disclosed, the state party leaders quickly ended the discussion, according to two Democrats who were on the call.
While precinct captains across the state struggled to report the results, first with the app and then after calling and waiting on hold, the campaigns vented quiet fury at the lack of clarity about the outcome in a contest most of them had spent hundreds of days and millions of dollars to win.
Mr. Biden’s campaign hastily dashed off a letter to the Iowa Democratic Party’s leaders requesting “full explanations” for the failures “before any official results are released.”
As the throng of candidates waited for the results, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, an underdog in the caucuses, finally broke the silence before a crowd of supporters in downtown Des Moines.
Briefly noting the delays, Ms. Klobuchar declared, “We do know one thing: We are punching above our weight.” With her actual standing in the caucuses unknown, she said she would be headed to New Hampshire soon to continue campaigning there.
Mr. Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addressed their supporters soon afterward, with Mr. Biden noting that the state party was laboring to determine the results and that he was turning toward New Hampshire’s primary. Ms. Warren, branding the contest “too close to call,” pointed to the next round of contests and said her campaign was prepared for “a long haul.”
Following them was Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont — perceived as the candidate gathering momentum in the days before the caucuses — who promised his crowd that “at some point the results will be announced.”
When that happens, Mr. Sanders said, “we’re going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa.”
But nobody tried to seize the moment more aggressively, or perhaps brazenly, than Mr. Buttigieg, who said Iowa had “shocked the nation.”
His attempt to claim a victory without any corresponding evidence recalled Bill Clinton’s memorable declaration before the 1992 New Hampshire primary results were fully known that the state’s voters had made him “the comeback kid.”
The vote-counting delay, though, was a deflating moment at the outset of an election Democrats have been eagerly awaiting since President Trump’s victory and, momentarily at least, denied them any hint of clarity about their presidential primary.
Mr. Trump’s campaign was quick to express glee about the confusion and issued a statement taunting Democrats about their “caucus mess” and “train wreck.”
This was not the first caucus — a process staffed by volunteers at more than 1,600 precincts across the state — that did not produce clear results on the night of the vote.
Four years ago, Hillary Clinton’s narrow victory over Mr. Sanders was not clear until early the next morning after delays in reporting results. And in 2012, Republican state party officials declared a split decision only to reveal more than two weeks later that former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had narrowly won, a delay that robbed him of momentum he could have taken into New Hampshire.
Since the caucuses began 50 years ago, Iowa Democrats reported only one number: the delegate count from each of the state’s precincts.
But after the razor-close finish in 2016, Mr. Sanders’s allies pushed the Democratic National Committee to require caucus states to track and report the raw numbers of how many people supported each candidate.
For Iowa, the new reporting standards meant counting how many people backed each candidate on the first and second balloting. That change, requiring reporting of three separate numbers from each of the state’s precincts, slowed reporting the results.
Iowa remained a prize well worth winning for the leading Democratic campaigns: After a year of trying to differentiate themselves in what began as a sprawling field, each candidate hoped that finishing well here would encourage Democratic voters to see him or her as a strong general-election challenger for President Trump.
The candidates made their final pitches throughout the day on Monday, with an undercurrent of urgency that Iowa would be a critical test of their viability going forward. “Everything comes down to today,” said Mr. Buttigieg, 38, as he spoke to a crowd in West Des Moines. “All of the dates, all of the appearances, all of the conversations with friends and neighbors.”
Yet even as Democratic voters were united chiefly by a ravenous hunger to oust Mr. Trump, many Iowans went to register the first verdict of 2020 still undecided or convinced more of the risk of the candidate they opposed than of the promise of the one they ultimately backed.
Democrats here and beyond are deeply divided along generational lines, with Mr. Sanders building deep support among millennials, Mr. Biden appealing to those over 65 and each drawing sharp opposition from those voters in the opposite demographic.
As revealing was the chasm between Iowa progressives, who sided with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, and more moderate voters who backed Mr. Biden, Ms. Klobuchar and Mr. Buttigieg.
A pre-caucus survey conducted for The Associated Press found that a majority of voters participating in the Iowa contest were female, a slight majority had graduated from college and about two-thirds were over age 45. Notably, in a contest in which voters have been divided by age, 34 percent of caucusgoers were over 55.
And in a reflection of how little Iowa’s demographics resemble those of the nation, nine in 10 respondents in the survey were white.
The survey found the caucus-going electorate ideologically divided, with somewhat more moderates than liberals. But there was near unanimity that it was important to nominate someone who could defeat Mr. Trump.
This state helped catapult Barack Obama to the Democratic nomination in 2008, but it has not always been so prescient. Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri triumphed in the Democratic caucuses in 1988 but did not capture the nomination, and the last three Republican standard-bearers failed to win here but went on to win the nomination.
Still, the caucuses offered a first indication of Democratic voters’ preferences after an unusually unsettled primary season, defined mainly by voters’ angst and indecision about finding a strong challenger for Mr. Trump. The diffuse nature of the Democratic field has already given rise to temporary surges by several candidates — including Ms. Warren, Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Kamala Harris of California, who dropped out of the race in December — and drew two late entrants from the party’s moderate wing, Michael R. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, and Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts.
At the heart of the party’s schism is a debate over whether Democrats are more likely to defeat Mr. Trump by appealing to the electoral middle, nominating a pragmatist of the sort who helped them prevail in the 2018 elections, or by elevating a progressive who can galvanize some of the young and nonwhite voters who sat out the 2016 general election.
Even before the caucuses got underway on Monday evening, Mr. Buttigieg offered a warning about deviating from the party’s midterm formula.
Pointing to the largely moderate class of freshman Democrats in Congress, Mr. Buttigieg said there was “a lot of concern” in their ranks about running with Mr. Sanders. “Look at how we actually took the House,” he said of 2018.
Yet Mr. Sanders, in his final appeals to Iowa Democrats, said that the party would tempt another presidential defeat if it did not nominate a candidate who could excite the party’s base. “If it is a low turnout election, Trump will win,” he warned over the weekend.
While all of the leading candidates had their ardent supporters, many Iowa voters seemed even more passionate when discussing those contenders they were most opposed to the party putting forward this fall.
As he has since he was sworn in three years ago, Mr. Trump could ultimately prove to be the most powerful force for Democratic unity.
But that prospect seems elusive now and may grow only more difficult over a long primary race. After New Hampshire, a larger and more diverse array of states will cast ballots that may further highlight the party’s generational, ideological and racial divisions.
Of all the candidates, none may have a more fraught relationship with Iowa than Mr. Biden, whose last attempt at the presidency in 2008 disintegrated after a dismal finish here. In the 2020 race, Mr. Biden for months took an ambivalent approach to the state, seeming wary of an all-out push that would raise expectations for him to win outright. But he took a more decisive stance by late fall, deploying senior aides to the state and approving the creation of a super PAC that has devoted millions of dollars to television advertising here.
Over the last weekend of the race, Mr. Biden kept pace with his rivals’ television advertising only as a result of super PAC spending. His campaign was far outspent on the airwaves by every major rival and a few lower-profile ones, including Mr. Yang and Mr. Steyer.
Ms. Warren has appeared to be a resilient force in Iowa. In the closing weeks of the campaign, Ms. Warren shifted her political strategy, taking a more direct approach to talking about the subjects of electability and gender, and branding herself in television ads as the candidate best positioned to unite the party.
“Women win,” Ms. Warren told supporters on a conference call on Monday morning, in a refrain she has used frequently over the past month.
Reid J. Epstein, Astead W. Herndon and Sydney Ember contributed reporting from Des Moines.