At Drake University in Des Moines, the state capital, caucus night seemed to go off without a hitch.
The different supporter groups were friendly and polite, and no one complained when Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was declared the winner of the precinct.
Similar scenes were taking place at nearly 1700 locations across the state – and “satellite” caucuses as far away as Tbilisi and Paris.
Then it all fell apart.
Local Democratic officials usually start releasing the caucus results just after 9pm. This time nothing appeared. It turned out a new app the party was using to report the results had malfunctioned.
Almost instantly, conspiracy theories started circulating. Was this a ploy by the Democratic establishment, some Bernie Sanders supporters wondered, to deny their candidate victory?
Rival campaign teams began releasing their own unverified and incomplete results in a bid to hype their candidate’s performance.
Democratic officials didn’t release any official results that night, and wouldn’t until almost a day later. Even then, the figures were incomplete and inconclusive. They showed Sanders ahead on the popular vote but former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg winning the most “state delegate equivalents”, the official metric of success.
By lunchtime on Thursday, 97 per cent of results had been released, showing Sanders and Buttigieg in a virtual tie for delegates. Then Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, called for a full recount of results, declaring: “Enough is enough.”
Instead of pride, Iowans felt embarrassed and angry – as did Democrats across the country.
A party with bigger problems
If there was an upside to the caucus night debacle, it was that it deflected attention from the more fundamental difficulties Democrats face this year.
Technical glitches can be overcome, but a dubious pack of presidential candidates remains. Democrats are growing increasingly alarmed that none of their potential nominees can defeat Donald Trump in November.
This was reflected in the mediocre turnout in Iowa, essentially at the same level as the 2016 caucuses.
An Associated Press poll released last week showed 66 per cent of Democrats reporting anxiety about the upcoming election compared to 46 per cent of Republicans. Conservative voters were more likely than progressives to declare they were excited about the election.
“I’m 75 years old, why am I here doing this?” James Carville, Bill Clinton’s former chief strategist, said in a widely-noted MSNBC appearance this week. “Because I’m scared to death, that’s why.
“I’m looking at popular opinion right now and frankly, we’ve got to snap back and get this thing going or … I don’t want to even think about if we had four more years of Trump.”
Carville implored the candidates to focus on issues relevant to mainstream voters rather than boutique concerns like allowing prisoners to vote or giving undocumented immigrants free healthcare.
“So, hopefully, we have time to jerk this thing back and be about healthcare, prescription drug prices, education, infrastructure, climate, diplomacy, rejuvenating whatever it is. But this is not happening so far. We can’t act like this is going well.”
All of the Democrats’ leading candidates have obvious flaws and are struggling to appeal to voters across the party’s different constituencies.
Buttigieg, 38, has risen from obscurity to become a national political star. But his governing experience is limited to being mayor of South Bend, a town of 100,000 people.
Polls show his support among black and Hispanic voters is negligible, and it remains to be seen if America is ready for an openly gay president.
Sanders, 78, has the most energised supporters and a grassroots support network that spreads across the country. But he’s far to the left of many Democrats, who are alarmed by his calls to abolish employer-provided healthcare and his identification as a democratic socialist.
Former vice-president Joe Biden, 77, has a lot of goodwill and remains the candidate of choice for non-white voters. But his campaigning style has proven uninspiring; his events in Iowa drew tiny crowds compared to his rivals’. Most young voters regard him as a figure from the past.
The Iowa results showed a party divided almost entirely down the middle on the key question of the contest. Do Democrats want a candidate who can soothe the country’s divisions? Or do they want a progressive champion of “bold structural change” and “political revolution”?
Meanwhile businessman Michael Bloomberg is blanketing the country in television ads ahead of his official entry into the race on Super Tuesday (March 3). It’s conceivable he will further splinter the moderate vote, helping the most left-wing candidate in the race, Sanders, to become the nominee.
A contested and bitter Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July is growing increasingly likely.
While the Democrats were digesting their Iowa meltdown, US President Donald Trump strode into the House of Representatives chamber on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT) to deliver his annual State of the Union address. Republicans stood to their feet, bellowing chants of “four more years”.
Trump boasted about his administration’s economic achievements, citing the historically low 3.6 per cent unemployment rate and rising wages for low-income workers.
Democrats complain, accurately, that this economic recovery began years ago under Barack Obama. But there’s no doubt the country’s strong economy is working in Trump’s favour.
A Gallup poll released in January showed 66 per cent of Americans rate the economy as excellent or good – up from 25 per cent in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Almost 70 per cent of Americans say it’s a good time to find a quality job.
“Rarely in the years that Gallup has tracked public ratings of the economy, since the early 1990s, have Americans had higher confidence in the economy than they do now,” Gallup said.
The same pollster this week found Trump achieving his best approval rating since he took office: 49 per cent.
Listening to the State of the Union, progressive commentator Van Jones heard a series of carefully-crafted appeals to black voters on school choice, immigration and healthcare.
“This was a warning shot from the Trump campaign to liberals, and we need to take this very seriously in order to win,” he said. “We need to wake up.”
Two days later, Trump appeared in the East Room of the White House as Hail to the Chief, the President’s official anthem, played from the speakers.
He dismissed his impeachment as “bulls—“, yet few blinked an eye at such presidential profanity.
Meanwhile the House was debating a motion to censure Speaker Nancy Pelosi for tearing up the text of Trump’s State of the Union speech.
“This is a day of celebration because we went through hell,” Trump said, brandishing a copy of that day’s Washington Post bearing the front-page headline “Trump acquitted”.
“Honey, maybe we’ll frame it,” he quipped to wife Melania.
“They brought me to the final stages of impeachment, but now we have that gorgeous word. I never thought a word would sound so good. It’s called total acquittal.”
The only words that could bring Trump more pleasure: being declared the winner, and a two-term president, on November 3.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.