Down the street, MSNBC had taken over an entire Java Joe's Coffee House with live broadcasts of "Morning Joe."
The world was watching all month, but especially that day. Any time you turned on the radio or scrolled through social media, the subject was Iowa. And, every moment, you could feel it, that whirling angst in your belly right before you jump off the high-board.
I'd driven straight from the Andrew Yang event to the Des Moines Marriott Downtown, for Amy Klobuchar's "Amy for America caucus night party," where I met up with Politics Politics Politics host Justin Robert Young at the downstairs bar.
The Des Moines Marriott Downtown was the media hub, where many of the pundits and anchors and always-glaring columnists stayed. Politicians, too. They tended to flock to those higher-end downtown hotels and boutiques.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
The previous day, at the nearby Renaissance Savery hotel, an "NBC News analyst" overheard former Secretary of State John Kerry on his phone, while sitting at the hotel restaurant, anxiously contemplate a presidential bid to counter "the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic Party — down whole." He added, "maybe I'm f***ing deluding myself here."
If it were the case that Kerry had gotten spooked enough to consider hopping into the Democratic presidential race the day before the Iowa caucuses, something incomprehensibly bad must have come to his attention. Especially since Kerry was in Iowa as a show of support for former Vice President Joe Biden.
By the end of caucus night, amid the disaster and chaos, the Kerry phone call would take on a sinister tone. Did Kerry get advanced warning? What did he mean about Sanders "taking down the Democratic Party — down whole"?
All night, the word was that Bernie would definitely win. In 2016, he'd been systematically robbed of the Iowa win. With caucuses all over Iowa rigged or stacked in favor of Hillary Clinton, who still beat Sanders by only a quarter of a percentage point. If it happened again — now that would seem hardly coincidental.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
Conversely, first reports hinted at a poor showing for Pete Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor.
Biden's fall had been much clearer. Imagine leading a race for months — the most important race in American politics — only to sink to the back right before you can broach the finish line.
So, on caucus night, all of us reporters had an itchy look, eager to capture some half-drunk politician or erratic staffer.
Later, Kerry told reporters, "This is a complete and total misinterpretation based on overhearing only one side of a phone conversation. A friend who watches too much cable called me wondering whether I'd ever jump into the race late in the game if Democrats were choosing an unelectable nominee. I listed all the reasons I could not possibly do that and would not — and will not under any circumstances — do that."
As is the custom, Kerry had to perform an apology on Twitter.
As I told the reporter, I am absolutely not running for President. Any report otherwise is categorically false. I’v… https://t.co/BCIkCTBTpy— John Kerry (@John Kerry) 1580680466.0
That did not go well, either.
To our left, in an overlarge booth, Donna Brazile sculpted a pork chop, then delivered each piece to her mouth with blissful concern. She'd come downstairs alone, but people occasionally stopped at her table to pay respects, as she sat mostly silent, chewing.
"Iowa has 99 Counties," the bartender told us. "It used to be a law that no town could be farther than a day's travel from Des Moines, so the highways here go everywhere."
She also spilled some delectable gossip about Michael Bloomberg and winked when she told us that the acoustics in the lobby are phenomenal.
The Klobuchar event had the energy of a funeral. Dazed caucusers strolled into the ballroom pinching champagne flutes and miniature cheese.
And Klobuchar was backstage, or just elsewhere.
So back to the bar.
Plenty of chatter, too, about how Trump had 80 surrogates all around the state. He wasn't there. Although he'd held a rally in Des Moines several days earlier — one of his favorite tactics, holding a rally ahead of any Democratic event, in the same city.
And, tomorrow, the following day, he'd give his action-packed State of the Union address, with a special appearance by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the end, ripping up her copy of the speech.
The day after that, Wednesday, Trump would be acquitted of impeachment charges, both Article I: Abuse of Power and Article II: Obstruction of Congress. The vote was surgically partisan, and only Sen. Mitt Romney broke ranks, voting "Guilty" on Article I, but not Article II.
CNN was the hotel's chosen network, on all the glittery televisions. The feed hopped to different correspondents at caucuses all across Iowa. Some caucus sites had too many people shoved together, others were pitifully small.
The bartender had a much better grasp of the various counties and who was likely to win than the correspondents did.
"College town," she would say, uncapping another Bud Light. "Bernie, for sure. Yang might hit 15% viability, but Biden doesn't stand a chance."
When causers' candidates didn't meet the 15% viability threshold, they could migrate to another candidate. Or leave. This was considered an impolite move, but could you blame them?
"Only Iowans registered as Democrats can vote," she added.
I'd been asking people for months by then how caucusing works. By now, it had gone on too long, so I had to pretend I understood.
The whole awkward dance played out on the TVs. It felt like watching some ancient sport from a far-off part of the world, and the rules made no sense, full of complications, the whole thing felt like an elaborate prank.
One group of supporters hokey-pokeyed to their designated corner of the gym or town hall or elementary school cafeteria, and score-keeping judges etched numbers or lines into their notebooks.
The New York Stock Exchange — that's what it was like, with all the feverish men in costumes squawking at the scoreboard. And then, it ended. And how did they know anything had actually been accomplished?
The next day at the airport. so many media figures would stroll toward their departure gate with their cameras hanging down.
The caucus would be all anyone could talk about.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
While waiting for the plane to board, some media guy was on his cellphone, talking about the caucus. His friend clearly didn't understand what a caucus is, then he explains it. Even now, at the end of it all, nobody knows what it means.
Justin and I were upstairs in the press pen when an on-air reporter in a red dress began half-shouting into her microphone and leaning toward the camera, then scoping down at a tablet and her phone.
We returned to the bar.
Within a minute, on every screen in the place, the woman in the red dress from upstairs, and a "BREAKING NEWS" banner.
Now, as I mentioned, the caucus already confused me. So when I looked around and saw utter disbelief and panic and confusion, I knew that an unexpected disaster had occurred, but not how or why.
Justin scrolled through Twitter, refreshing, refreshing, searching. He was the first person I heard mention the app. He'd read an article a few weeks earlier about how the app, IowaReporterApp, hadn't been tested, despite reports of coding errors.
IowaReporterApp was supposed to tally votes digitally for all 1,679 precincts as well as 99 satellite caucuses in-state, our-of-state, and three international.
Fifty-five precincts were affected.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
Conspiracy theories began to swirl, connecting the company behind the app — which, hilariously, is called Shadow Inc. — to Hillary Clinton, and maybe even Pete Buttigieg, who seemed to have benefitted from the fiasco. It was only a matter of time before the name "Soros" started appearing across the murkier crevices of the internet.
"This is the funniest thing I've ever experienced,"Justin said, laughing.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
I laughed the way you do when you're in a foreign country, where you don't understand the language, and everybody else laughs first.
It wasn't until the memes started appearing on Twitter that I understood, with the "Curb Your Enthusiasm" theme song in the background.
One of the journalists at the bar with us announced that he'd just heard from a colleague that there were also calculation errors with the backup system.
"Math?!" I shouted.
A burst of applause came from the second-floor ballroom, then Klobuchar appeared on the screen, every screen, in the entire lobby, in the entire nation.
Every journalist in the room sprinted upstairs. For that moment, nobody cared about ideological subversion, and the tragic meltdown of the caucuses was still an unknown, something we didn't have to worry about. Now, things are different.
Photo by Kevin Ryan
None of the candidates had taken the stage yet. Nobody knew how to react. Klobuchar — brilliantly, having lost severely — gave a victory speech.
"Bravo," someone said.
Klobuchar seemed too calm for such a solemn occasion. Tipsy, almost.
Yes. Definitely tipsy.
Why the hell not? Good for her.
Klobuchar was on fire. She torched Donald Trump with the acuity of a rapper on a brutal diss-track.
After her speech, she walked out into the crowd and people swarmed her. Selfies were taken. Over-thought words were said to Klobuchar. Masking fanciful ideas.
Being there was tremendous. Actually being in the room. Studios and sets all look different in person. There's only half as much of the room as you'd expected.
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