Throwback Thursday: When a computer malfunction may have robbed Ronald Reagan of a 1980 Iowa caucus victory

Steve Roberts is a walking encyclopedia of Iowa GOP politics since the 1970s. The Des Moines-based attorney is a past state chair of the Republican Party of Iowa as well as a longtime Republican National Committeeman. In 2008, state lawmaker Sandy Greiner suggested Roberts should be declared “king of Des Moines” after he helped beat back an effort within the RNC to take away Iowa’s first in the nation spot for the 2012 election cycle. Someone needs to persuade Roberts to write his memoirs or let a video archivist capture his entertaining stories.

I called Roberts on March 3 to ask about events at the 1980 state Republican convention, which I plan to cover in a future Throwback Thursday post. Roberts was the top Iowa GOP official at that time. While answering one of my questions, he mentioned in passing,

[George H.W.] Bush won the Iowa caucuses, but I’ll tell you now, in looking back on it, our computers broke down. We didn’t get to count a number of rural counties, and very possibly [Ronald] Reagan won.

Wait, what?

I hadn’t misheard.

Bleeding Heartland: Oh, really? The 1980 caucuses?

Roberts: What?

BH: It’s possible that Reagan won the 1980 caucuses?

Roberts: Yeah.

BH: Wow. How many counties were not counted?

Roberts: Um, quite a few, but they were rural counties. [I’ll] tell you what happened. We–we were one of the first states, if not the first state, to use computers to run the caucuses, and computers were in their infancy. And our system broke down, the computer couldn’t handle the, the keeping up with the count.

And to show you how undependable it was, Minnesota [Republicans] asked, they were very impressed with our computer system and they had a caucus after us, like around the first of March as they did this year. And they asked if they could borrow our computers, and we said they didn’t work and you [take] them at your peril. And they took them anyway. And if you watched the tv reports of the Super Tuesday, whatever it was called then, just like we had this week, they went through all the states, and they got to Minnesota and they said their computers broke down, we don’t know what the count is up there. […]

BH: I want to go back to the 1980 caucuses. How many people, roughly, how many people would you say were aware that not all of the counties were counted?

Roberts: Well, it was–everybody was aware. I mean, it was no [secret]. We had the [media] headquarters down at the [Hotel] Fort Des Moines ballroom, and ABC, and CBS, I think they were all there. I remember Frank Reynolds of ABC was there […] And everybody knew that not all the precincts were counted, and the computers broke down. But there was never a [full] count there.

So it looked like Bush had won pretty handily, and the conventional wisdom was that because Reagan didn’t show up at the Register/Tribune debate, and didn’t spend a lot of time in Iowa in ’79 that Bush had obviously done a better job, and they were off to New Hampshire, and the rest was history. […]

Here’s your vote. Bush won by 32 percent of the vote to Reagan’s 29 percent. […] [Longtime Des Moines Register political columnist David] Yepsen used to say that he thought I doctored the numbers to [help] Bush, but I said if that were true, why is it the Bush people threw me out [as state party chair] after the election?

The “midnight coup” that ousted Roberts was a good story in itself, but let’s not get sidetracked. The state Republican leader, a key organizer of the caucuses who was familiar with prevailing political leanings in various parts of Iowa, believes the wrong winner may have been crowned in 1980.

That sounded like a bombshell to me.

I asked Roberts whether any rural county chairs or other Reagan supporters complained that their caucus votes hadn’t been counted. The way he tells it, other disagreements were more salient for party activists at the time, involving social issues or a broader power struggle between three factions: supporters of then Governor Bob Ray; conservatives aligned with U.S. Senator Roger Jepsen, Senate candidate Chuck Grassley, and Lieutenant Governor Terry Branstad; and some Polk County Republicans who were moderates but opposed Ray for other reasons.

A LITTLE-KNOWN EPISODE

Given the uproar over the mishandled GOP caucus count from 2012–an eight-vote margin for Mitt Romney became a 34-vote edge for Rick Santorum two weeks later, with eight precincts unaccounted for–it’s surprising the failure to fully tabulate the 1980 caucus results didn’t become a major scandal.

Television talking heads and thousands of social media users were critical of the Iowa Democratic Party this year, when a handful of precincts around the state hadn’t reported by midnight. If either party failed to release results from multiple counties nowadays, aggrieved supporters of the runner-up would protest loudly, and journalists would pummel party leaders until full results were available.

But remember, Iowa Republicans had never organized competitive caucuses before 1980. (Democrats were on their third round, having had multiple presidential candidates compete in 1972 and 1976.) The lack of a precedent for reporting caucus results may explain why there was no movement by Reagan supporters to challenge the official numbers. Journalists were also fairly new to covering the event, although the caucuses attracted much more coverage in 1980 than in previous cycles.

Despite my hobby of collecting Iowa caucus anecdotes, I hadn’t heard of serious doubts about the Bush victory. However, in researching this post I learned that the story has been told before. Jennifer Jacobs mentioned the “legendary” problems with the 1980 caucus count in a 2014 Des Moines Register review of caucus night “snafus.” Her piece cited the book The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event by Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis Goldford (third edition published in 2010). Winebrenner wrote the chapter covering events in 1980.

A table on page 94 shows Bush received 33,530 votes (31.6 percent) and Reagan 31,348 votes (29.5 percent), as multiple news organizations reported based on numbers “provided by the Republican Party of Iowa,” representing 2,389 of 2,531 (94.4 percent) of precincts. Winebrenner wrote, “A total of 142 precincts did not hold caucuses, did not conduct the poll, or simply did not report their results.” The book does not indicate where the unreported precincts were located or whether they were largely in rural areas, as Roberts recalls. Pages 96 and 97 describe some of the problems that emerged overnight as caucus results were being counted:

[S]ome of the totals on the large results board were strange. CBS officials thought the numbers from six counties were too large and favored Bush by too great a margin (Mitofsky 1986). There were also “patterns of error” from the Fifth Congressional District–with more precincts reporting than there were precincts–and at least one party official thought there were some “shenanigans” going on there (Hyde July 3, 1986). At that point, party workers moved the tabulation process from the hotel ballroom to state party headquarters, and with calculators rather than computers, they recounted, or at least spot-checked, all results. Incomplete data from some precincts led to inquiring phone calls and “extrapolations” by those doing the counting. The final results, completed on Tuesday afternoon, showed Bush and Reagan separated by a margin of only 2 percent, rather than the 4 to 6 percent spread reported in the newspapers the day after the caucuses. CBS’s tally, based on sample precincts, had it even closer–less than 1 percent separating the two candidates, with Reagan leading–and the network decided the race was too close to call. NBC had projected Bush as the winner (Plissner July 7, 1986).

It is clear from interviews with those present that the 1980 Iowa Republican tabulation system left much to be desired and that the party was unable to complete an accurate and reliable count of the results of its preference poll. Party officials assert that it was simply a case of their first attempt at a statewide reporting system not being up to the job. They are satisfied that they ultimately reported the most accurate figures possible from the available data, and they note that neither the Bush nor the Reagan people protested the results (Hyde July 3, 1986).

ANOTHER VIEW FROM INSIDE THE FORT DES MOINES

Tim Hyde was the Iowa GOP’s legislative campaign director before the 1980 caucuses and became the party’s executive director shortly after the events discussed here. He has spent most of his career in public affairs based in Washington, DC. Over the past fifteen years, developing his phenomenal talent for photography has consumed an increasing amount of Hyde’s time. His latest exhibition features photos taken in Washington at daybreak. Previous work has explored nighttime images and natural disasters. You can find more of those photographs here and here. But I digress.

Hyde shares my view that the story of the 1980 Republican caucus count is not nearly as well-known as it should be. He spoke with me by phone on March 9.

Hyde: I kind of took charge. I was the legislative campaign director, and the executive director was missing, and Steve Roberts was really busy as state chairman, you know, entertaining [guests]. And so we were down on the floor when this thing fell apart, and I had Lou, who was really young, Lou Bonsignoir [the Iowa GOP’s organization director] announce that the computers had stopped working and that there was no automated system, and that we would announce the result–we would have to hand count, and we’d announce the results as soon as we had them, probably the following day.

And then he and I physically took the ballots, and there were however many precincts there were at that time […] we took them to the state party headquarters a few blocks away and spent the entire night [at] this huge long conference table, putting them in 99 counties and then counting each precinct one by one, all night long, it took all night. And then the two of us got Steve Roberts, state chairman, who called a press conference and announced the results.

BH: Were people still calling in with the results? Because Steve Roberts gives the impression that a number of counties just never reported.

Hyde: Oh, it would have been very few. That wasn’t the problem. So the problem was, we had this new, brand new system where people would call in, to these fallbacks we had–and that part worked really well. And then people had the volunteers–and there were, you know, like a hundred of them–and they called in precinct by precinct, not county by county.

Side note: Winebrenner wrote on page 96 of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses,

Party officials agree that it would have been more practical to have had county party workers collect precinct data and report the numbers to the state tabulation center, thus reducing the Des Moines callers from 2531 to 99, but the idea had been rejected by the state central committee.

Back to my interview with Hyde:

Hyde: And these volunteers would then fill in the card with a number 2 pencil. You know, like a test.

BH: Right.

Hyde: And then a runner would take those over to the two brand new Apple computers we had. And they had a card reader, and they would read the card. But it quit work. They quit reading the cards. The cards were intact, but the computer system wouldn’t read it. It was all brand-new technology. So that was where it fell apart.

So we physically counted them, and you know, expected the wrath of God to come down on us, that everybody was going to protest and scream foul and all that. But they didn’t. And I later learned that the Reagan campaign, they had a parallel system of their own, a call-in of some level of sophistication, I don’t know. But in any case, the results they had were consistent with the results we had. So they didn’t object, even though they lost.

BH: Because Winebrenner’s book has a table that shows only like 94 percent of precincts ever reported, that there were 142 precincts that either didn’t hold caucuses or didn’t report the results.

Hyde: Yeah, that could be. I mean–but it was, that wasn’t the story that night, or the next day. And I think that there were, I think–and I’m just remembering this, which means it’s not entirely reliable, [it was] many years ago. But I think there were a lot of caucuses where they just combined. You’d have three caucuses in one room, you know in a schoolhouse or something.

BH: Oh, I see.

Hyde: But we weren’t–that part didn’t alarm us. We thought we had accounted for almost all of the precincts. What alarmed us was the fact that the entire world was relying on two kids, a little older than a kid. But in all honesty, to do this we could have come up with any damn thing we wanted, though. I think our innocence made us–you know, we wouldn’t have dared do it.

BH: Are you aware that Steve Roberts thinks that it’s quite possible Reagan won the caucuses?

Hyde: No, I’m not aware of that. I don’t think it’s possible.

BH: So you don’t–as far as you know, the precinct caucuses that did hold caucuses, or held a straw poll, did for the most part report their results.

Hyde: That’s right. And I think that if there was any possibility that Reagan had actually won, they would have cried foul, even if they thought they won. They would have at least thrown some dirt on it and cast some doubt on it. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t. But they did not.

BH: I guess the only argument for not doing it would be that there’s only eight days until [the] New Hampshire [primary], and they just wanted to get people to stop talking about Iowa and just pivot to New Hampshire as fast as they could.

Hyde: Well, it could be. But there were certainly plenty of passionate, passionate, Reagan people who were part of the party structure. And their focus was not on New Hampshire. Their focus was on–you know, remember, this was a state party that was under some–you know, not like these days, I suppose, but there were a lot of fissures. I mean, there was a fissure between the Bob Ray moderates and the Polk County anti-Bob Ray moderates, all of whom were Bush people. And then there was a fierce division between the Reagan people and the Bush people. And had Reagan actually won that, you know, they would have been calling for Steve Roberts’ head. […]

BH: So you don’t recall any county leaders for Reagan, or you know, grassroots leaders for Reagan objecting that, you know, the count was wrong and that Reagan should really have won the caucuses.

Hyde: No. I mean there may have some, there may have been people who made that statement, but there was no, there was no real objection to the outcome that I recall at all. I mean, it was just–you know, this is the outcome.

BH: And so, you said you were the legislative director of the state party at that time. When did you become the executive director?

Hyde: About five days later (laughs).

The executive director Lloyd McGee was missing in action during the vote count on caucus night.

CHALLENGING A CLASSIC IOWA CAUCUS NARRATIVE

As Roberts noted, conventional wisdom says Bush won Iowa because of superior retail campaigning and Reagan’s unforced error in skipping the Register and Tribune debate. Episode 2 of Jason Noble’s “Three Tickets” podcast series for the Des Moines Register spent a long time on Bush’s 1979-1980 campaign, which was explicitly modeled on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 Iowa strategy.

Noble explained that Reagan “barely showed his face in Iowa,” choosing to campaign as the “leader of the pack.” Iowa Republican insiders Ralph Brown and George Whitgraff recalled a two-day April campaign swing, during which George and Barbara Bush met with activists in fourteen Iowa counties. Bush won six informal Republican straw polls that year. Here’s how Noble described the vote count on caucus night 1980 (starting around the 28:45 mark):

The final statewide tally was extremely close, and complicating matters was the fact that party officials tried to tabulate the results using a very early computer system, a system set up at the Hotel Fort Des Moines, but which relied on results telephoned into the hotel from 2500-plus caucus precincts, all across the state. The system failed, and party officials had to hastily count up the numbers by hand. Bush won by about 2,000 votes, two percentage points–a result not entirely trusted by partisan and non-partisan observers alike.

That depiction understates the irregularities. To say the result was “not entirely trusted” suggests that some conspiracy theorists or cynical journalists had their suspicions. But Roberts was a party insider at the Hotel Fort Des Moines that night. He believes a significant number of votes–perhaps enough to have produced a different winner–were never counted. Furthermore, Roberts asserts, those uncounted caucus-goers weren’t randomly dispersed around the state. They came from a specific kind of county where many Republicans favored Reagan.

Noble implied that party officials tabulated all the precinct results old-school after the computers crashed. Yet the available numbers do not include data from 142 precincts. Hyde believes almost all of the votes were accounted for, and he may be correct that some of the gaps reflect areas where several small precincts caucused in the same location and reported all votes from that location as a bloc. Still, based on the available evidence, I would put an asterisk next to the Bush victory.

Why aren’t the 1980 caucus count problems more widely known? Episode 3 of Noble’s podcast covered at length the “great Republican caucus vote counting debacle of 2012,” interviewing then Iowa GOP chair Matt Strawn. Surprisingly, Noble did not mention that the 1980 results might not have been reported accurately.

My hunch is that the story of Bush’s winning strategy feeds an appealing narrative for those engaged with Iowa politics. The idea that success requires spending real time here benefits local party committees, down-ballot candidates, and activists who enjoy seeing presidential contenders in person. In a long interview for Episode 5 of Noble’s podcast, Becky Beach described key elements of the Bush campaign from her perspective as an assistant who spent much of 1979 touring Iowa with Barbara Bush. She provided insight on small-scale outreach and the famous Bush system for cranking out thank-you notes promptly to everyone they met on the campaign trail.

The dominant narrative about how to win Iowa is convenient for media outlets too, especially the Des Moines Register, which has built its brand on covering caucus-related events around the state in unrivaled detail.

During the current election cycle, numerous commentators have pointed to the cruel fate of GOP presidential candidates Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry. They all traveled this state relentlessly without gaining traction. The big takeaway: retail campaigning isn’t as important as it used to be in Iowa.

Acknowledging even a small chance that Reagan gained more votes in the 1980 caucuses, based on his strong performance in rural counties he never visited, would undermine what Iowa politicos have said for three and a half decades about the path to victory here.

P.S.- Neither Roberts nor Hyde was aware of lingering questions surrounding the 1988 Democratic caucus results. Iowa City-based blogger John Deeth told an abridged version of that tale in 2015:

When I got here [in 1990], the caucus wounds of 1988 were still raw. Johnson County was Paul Simon and Jesse Jackson territory. Dick Gephardt was a very weak fifth, in part because we were about the only Bruce Babbitt hot spot anywhere.

Back then, precinct chairs reported their results to the county chair, and the county chair called Des Moines when the county was complete. The way the story goes: the county chair, a Gephardt guy, supposedly waited until the Register had printed its GEPHARDT WINS headline before he called in with our numbers. There are people who are STILL angry about this, and who STILL believe “Simon really won Iowa,” even though that long ago chair and Paul Simon are both dead.

UPDATE: Todd Blodgett, an Iowa native who worked in the Reagan administration, commented via Facebook, “It’s been known since 1980 that RR really won.” Blodgett further alleged that Bush supporters called fraudulent results from some Des Moines precincts directly to the Des Moines Register. He added that Reagan himself “told me that he was also cheated out of his victory in the 1976 N. H. Primary” against then President Gerald Ford. When I asked Blodgett to speculate on why Reagan’s supporters in Iowa did not challenge the 1980 caucus results, he replied,

I have no theory, but RR, himself, and his brother (J. Neil ‘Moon’ Reagan – a longtime family friend) told me that they opposed any such challenge. John Sears was summarily fired by RR, personally, a couple of weeks later. Lyn Nofziger and Stu Spencer (who were back “in” – along with Mike Deaver – afterwards/post-Sears) told me that RR knew he had to win BIG in New Hampshire, and he did exactly that.

I am not aware of Republican caucus results being reported directly to the Des Moines Register as well as to the Iowa GOP. I am seeking comment from former Register journalists who may be able to confirm that part of Blodgett’s account.

SECOND UPDATE: Longtime Des Moines Register columnist David Yepsen commented by e-mail,

The Reagan people in 1980 felt they were victims of a “short whistle.” I remember Ray Hagie of Clarion using that phrase with me. The tabulations stopped when the computers went down and reporters simply went with what they had, which was that Bush was ahead. Since rural Reagan counties were slower to report than more urban Bush counties they felt cheated. Perhaps. It was clear that what had happened was that the conservative vote was split and the moderate, Bush, won with a plurality. Sound familiar?

Check the microfilm to see whether the paper used their own results or the state party’s in the paper. It was customary for the paper in those days to use stringers around the state to report election results directly from counties/ They were helpful in spoting early trends or key precincts and Todd may be thinking of that.

There was coverage of this short whistle issue later and there was fodder in columns but it wasn’t the sort of outrage that would occur today. The story then just moved on to New Hampshire, John Sears, Reagan’s comeback, etc. Wasn’t much that could be done by way of recounts in Iowa and attitudes toward election counting and accuracy changed after 2000. You can’t apply today’s standards of outrage at election flubs today to the vote-counting of those days. One thing that’s always present are conspiracy theories.

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