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News Brief: Caucuses' App Malfunctions, Coronavirus Spreads


We are in Des Moines, Iowa, broadcasting live from Smokey Row, a fabulous coffee shop. We are in front of a live audience of brave souls...


GREENE: ...Who got up very early to be here with us.


Thank you.

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GREENE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: We thought we were going to be talking through results of the Iowa caucuses. But we are not going to do that because for a lot of reasons that we'll get into, there are no results to talk through. The delay has given several candidates a chance to declare victory.


JOE BIDEN: Well, looks like it's going to be a long night, but I'm feeling good.


BERNIE SANDERS: When those results are announced, I have a good feeling we're going to be doing very, very well here in Iowa.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: We know there's delays, but we know one thing...

ELIZABETH WARREN: It is too close to call, so I'm just going to tell you what I do know...

KLOBUCHAR: ...We are punching above our weight.


MARTIN: So what in the world happened?

GREENE: Well, NPR's Miles Parks is with us from Washington, D.C. And NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro is with us here at Smokey Row. Good morning to you both.


MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: Domenico, let's start off with you. This is a mess.

MONTANARO: This is a mess...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GREENE: What happened?

MONTANARO: What happened was that they were using an app for the first time in this process, and something went wrong. We don't know specifically what happened. But we know that a lot of people had difficulty, initially, downloading it, in reporting the results. And then we saw things unravel as hours went by. We didn't get results. We heard from lots of county co-chairmen and precinct captains who said that they even tried to call in the information because they couldn't get the information loaded...

GREENE: Which seems pretty basic. Like...

MONTANARO: Right. But they couldn't report it through the app - they then were trying to call. And I'm certain that because of the fact that they were supposed to report it through an app this year, they didn't have as many people manning the phones. And people were, like, left on hold like it was a radio station that they were trying to get tickets to a concert to.

GREENE: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: And some of these folks decided they were just going to go to sleep and that they'll maybe report them in the morning.

MARTIN: And so, Miles, what did it used to be? The system was they just bypassed an app and just went right to the phones until...

PARKS: Yeah, the phones were the old-fashioned way. And they basically said, well, we have the app this time. It's optional. We think it's going to work really well. They actually said that they thought - and this is kind of hard to believe now - that results were going to come in a lot earlier than in previous years, that they might - that we might have results by 9 or 10 p.m. Eastern time. I think people who monitor elections for a living were very skeptical of that claim right when they were putting that out there. But they really thought that this app meant that results were going to come in quickly.

GREENE: Domenico, what does this mean for the candidates? I mean, they had all planned, OK, get results from Iowa. Move on to New Hampshire. Keep going sort of with the context being what happened in Iowa. There's no official context yet for this campaign to move forward.

MONTANARO: This is completely deflating for whoever winds up being the actual winner here in Iowa because think about what's going to happen later today. We've got the president delivering the State of the Union address. On Wednesday, there's supposed to be the impeachment vote. So when is this person who won going to be able to capture that momentum that they were supposed to have...

MARTIN: Which is the whole point.

MONTANARO: That's exactly right because the number of delegates that are selected here represent just about 1% of the overall pledge delegate count. So it's not really about delegates, even though it's about delegates for who wins, you know? This was really about momentum. And you have the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday. You have a debate on Friday. And, you know, this really robs whoever was going to win the caucuses here of that much-needed momentum, the winnowing of that field. And it just throws things all up in the air in a place where the candidates spent $50 million in ads to try to win here over a year. This is a complete disaster and a mess for the Iowa Democratic Party and for the party going forward.

MARTIN: Also really disheartening just for the people who showed up to have their voices heard, right?

MONTANARO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Like, David and I were both at caucuses last night. The caucus that I went to, at least - it was running hours behind. We, in fact, had to leave because we had to put on a show in mere hours. And so we didn't even stay long enough to see the results. But people take this really seriously in Iowa. And so I'm sure people are waking up this morning - you guys in the audience, how many of you caucused last night?



GREENE: Everybody.

MARTIN: Everybody caucused last night.

GREENE: Does it feel empty not knowing what happened?



MARTIN: Yeah, right. So do we know at this point when the results are coming in? Do we have a time?

MONTANARO: The Iowa Democratic Party says that they, quote, unquote, "expect" results sometime Tuesday. So, you know, they're checking every piece of paper. Luckily, they had a paper backup this year for the first time. They'll be able to go over each of the results. Remember, we're talking about almost 1,700 caucus sites. That's a lot of paper to go through and a lot of places where they're going to have to check and recheck.

And it was already going to be complicated because they were releasing three different kinds of results - the results for the first alignment, then after that, second alignment and then the estimated number of delegates. Already it was going to be confusing. Already it was going to be something we were going to have to explain and walk people through. And now who knows how this is going to be sifted through?

MARTIN: Right.

GREENE: Miles, I want to go back to you. You were actually the first to report last month on the state Democratic Party's decision to use this smartphone app to transmit results in this year's caucuses. I mean, how did party officials justify this decision despite what you brought up? - some questions about security and usability, which seem important to talk about this morning.

PARKS: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of amazing - they didn't, really, honestly. We asked all of these questions. And, basically, what they said was that we were basically kind of overblowing these issues, that everything would be fine, that they were testing it, and everything would work great. I was really curious about whether this was just a public-facing thing to the media or whether this was the same impression that some of these precinct leaders got. I actually talked to a precinct leader named Tom Courtney (ph) who was leading a precinct in Des Moines County. And I asked him whether he felt like the Democratic state party was really considering the worst-case scenarios around this app.

TOM COURTNEY: I thought it got glossed over. They made it seem like this was going to work fine. They tested it and tested it, and it was going to work fine. I'm old enough. I was skeptical of the whole thing. But I thought it would be better than it is.

PARKS: Courtney actually went home before he was able to send in his results to the state party. He went home, left the empty cafeteria, said he was on hold for over 45 minutes, gave up and said he was going to try again, calling again in the morning.

MARTIN: But you had reported on these problems, Miles, way back in the day. So you get to say, I told you so.

PARKS: It doesn't feel good, Rachel, I promise.

MARTIN: It doesn't feel good.

PARKS: I would much prefer to have some results to talk about.

MARTIN: Right.

GREENE: Domenico, do you think the party's going to have to make changes? And what could this mean for Iowa as the first state to hold a contest?

MONTANARO: I think this - you know, it doesn't help. It doesn't help Iowa in the sense that there's already been a lot of pushback based on the lack of representation, the fact that it's over 90% white in the caucuses, that it doesn't look like the rest of the country. It doesn't look like the Democratic Party. There's already been a faction of people within the Democratic Party who have wanted to move Iowa off its first-in-the-nation status as the first caucuses. This is going to become a huge issue within the Democratic Party. You can bet there are going to be a whole lot more reporters at the next Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting of the Democratic National Committee, something that's usually pretty tame. And I guarantee there's going to be a whole lot of conversation about what to do, you know, four years from now.

GREENE: And a whole lot of scrutiny.

MARTIN: It's only February.


MARTIN: It's only February.

GREENE: NPR's Domenico Montanaro here in Des Moines and NPR's Miles Parks in Washington, D.C. Thanks to you both.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

PARKS: Thank you.


GREENE: All right. We have more grim numbers to report on the coronavirus. Nearly a third of the more than 20,000 cases worldwide are in just one Chinese city, Wuhan.

MARTIN: The city has been under quarantine since January 23 to prevent the outbreak from spreading even further than it has. The quarantine has also put an enormous strain on hospitals in Wuhan trying to screen and treat patients coming in there. Wuhan is close to finishing construction on two new treatment centers. But many people diagnosed with the coronavirus say they are still waiting for medical care. At least 420 people have died from the virus.

GREENE: And let's go to NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. And, Emily, how desperate does it feel in Wuhan for people there right now if some of them are not - just not getting medical care?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In Wuhan, the system seems to have broken down completely. There simply just aren't enough hospital beds and doctors to treat everyone. I managed to speak to one dozen people in Wuhan today. Either they or themselves have been diagnosed with this coronavirus, and they're still waiting for proper medical care. Instead, they're being sent now to these makeshift isolation wards, which are basically repurposed hotel rooms or clinics.

I was able to talk to one of the patients diagnosed in one of these clinics. Her name is Liu Xiaohong (ph). She actually couldn't really breathe very well, so we're not playing the audio. But she said she's not getting any medical care. Someone just comes by during the morning and night to take her temperature. All she wants right now is a hospital bed.

GREENE: I mean, just the idea of being sort of set apart from everyone else alone and incredibly sick like that. I mean, how did we get here? Why are the resources so scarce in this part of China?

FENG: The first is screening. People had been waiting overnight to get these coronavirus kits. And they're not allowed to be admitted into a hospital until they're confirmed as a coronavirus patient. The other is paralyzed bureaucracy - take the case of this woman named Pan Yifei (ph) that I talked to. Her grandmother died of a pneumonia-like illness on January 25, but she's not sure it was coronavirus because she passed away so suddenly. Now her father has been diagnosed with the virus, but she's been calling up everyone. She even called the Wuhan city mayor asking for help.

PAN YIFEI: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She's saying, "The attitude these officials towards us common people is just so disappointing. Several officials said they didn't know who we should contact. Our community representatives told us to contact the health commission. The health commission then told us to contact our community representatives."

So given this totally circular logic, a lot of people have had to make the heartbreaking choice of taking care of their own relatives at home. One of these people is Pearl Tian (ph). She is only 23 years old. Both her parents have come down and been diagnosed with the coronavirus. And she is now desperately trying to get them care at home.

PEARL TIAN: (Speaking Chinese).

FENG: She's saying she has to rely on herself. No one else is going to do it. She's terrified right now. Everyone is scared, but she's got to be there for her parents.

GREENE: Is there any hope - I mean, I know we're seeing all these new cases. Any hope that maybe just the quarantine on Wuhan could be lifted at some point?

FENG: Parts of it are going to be lifted by next Friday, February 14. That's when Hubei province, which is where Wuhan is the capital, is supposed to let people start going back to work. And authorities said that people in Wuhan who have to leave for work are going to be allowed to. So we shall see whether people will be able to leave and whether that will make the conditions in Wuhan better or worse.

GREENE: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing talking about the spread of the coronavirus and a particularly desperate situation in one Chinese city. Emily, thanks for your reporting.

FENG: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.