WASHINGTON - The vaunted Iowa caucuses -- the first test of the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates' strength in challenging President Donald Trump in the 2020 election -- hit an embarrassing roadblock late Monday when the state Democratic party was unable to report even a single vote hours after the polls had closed.
State party officials attributed the delay to an issue in reporting totals from precincts across the state, and said they expected to "have numbers to report" sometime Tuesday.
WATCH: Results delayed
"We are validating every piece of data we have against our paper trail. That system is taking longer than expected but it's in place to ensure we are eventually able to report results with full confidence," Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said in a statement to reporters.
With no results as the calendar turned to Tuesday, candidates were left with little else to do but go before their cheering supporters and portray a sense of optimism amid the uncertainty.
But in a contest that is important for its status in setting the tone of the campaign and assessing the viability of the candidates in a crowded field, the lack of any official sense of winners or losers meant top performers did not have the usual ability to claim victory and subsequent momentum heading into the New Hampshire primary next week. Several of the candidates flew from Iowa to New Hampshire early Tuesday to begin campaigning there without knowing the Iowa results.
"The history of the caucuses is that the candidate that does better than expected is often the one that gets attention and a real boost in votes in later states. But, of course, if we don't know how they did, we don't know who did better than expected and who did worse than expected," David Redlawsk, professor of political science at the University of Delaware, said. "So in that sense, New Hampshire is only eight days away, even if we get some results from Iowa, they may be eclipsed very quickly."
Redlawsk told VOA that Democrats face the challenge of figuring what direction they want to take their party, whether it's behind a center-left candidate, such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or a more centrist candidate, such as former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump called the caucus "an unmitigated disaster" in a Tuesday morning tweet.
"It means the battle continues without any clear direction so far on which way it's going, and I think that's tough for Democrats, who will have to unite ultimately in running against Trump for the fall election," he said.
The 2016 race featured a delay in declaring a winner as Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton battled in a close race. Clinton ended up winning 49.9% to 49.6%, with Sanders complaining, but not seeking a recount. At the time, however, he said, "We need improvement by which the process is determined."
Late Monday night, Sanders tried to sound philosophical in a speech to his supporters, who were eagerly awaiting the caucus results: "At some point, those results will be announced, and when they are, I think I will do very very well in Iowa."
Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota told her supporters: "We know there's delays, but we know one thing, we are punching above our weight."
Regardless of how the Iowa results turn out, the faulty vote count and the surrounding controversy after months of intensive campaigning and vast spending by the candidates is seen as a humiliation for the state party and will raise questions about the efficacy of the first-in-the-nation caucus.
More than 100,000 Democrats poured into about 1,680 precinct caucuses throughout Iowa Monday evening, from tiny churches and community centers and college gymnasiums in rural areas to large arenas in heavily populated urban areas like Des Moines, rallying behind their choice of 11 candidates and seeking to deliver enough votes to help their favorites qualify for precious delegates.
It was a night of American democracy in action, with voters spending the better part of a winter evening clustering in groups of supporters for Sanders, Biden, Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and others in hopes of achieving "viability" to qualify for delegates.
Voters showed their preferences by raising their hands or gathering in groups of like-minded supporters of the candidates.
The goal in the caucus is to reach what is called the "viability threshold" -- the 15% of support needed to move on to the second round. Backers of any candidate who fails to meet that 15% are given a chance to throw their support behind their second choice at each caucus -- a process that includes cajoling, horse-trading and seduction before a final statewide count is tallied and a winner declared.
Iowans living outside the state, in such places as Florida, Arizona, and even overseas in Paris and Scotland, earlier made their choices in the first-ever satellite caucus.
But the bulk of Monday's contest took place in the U.S. heartland in the state of Iowa itself -- a predominantly white state with less than 1% of the country's population that is hardly reflective of the nation's growing racial and ethnic diversity. The contest is customarily the first on the political calendar during the quadrennial campaign to win a four-year term in the White House.
Statewide polls of Democratic voters going into Monday's Iowa caucuses indicated a tight contest at the top between Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, and Biden, a longtime fixture in Washington political circles who is making his third run for the party's presidential nomination.
The political surveys indicate two other challengers running close behind the front pair, Warren, a one-time Harvard law professor, and Buttigieg, a political centrist and the only gay candidate in the race, with Klobuchar of the neighboring state of Minnesota in fifth.
Preliminary results from an entry poll conducted by Edison Media Research indicated about 30% of caucus participants made their decision about which candidate to support in the past few days, and that those late-deciders gravitated toward Biden and Buttigieg.
Sanders led among younger voters, those under age 45, while Biden was the choice for older voters.
The Edison poll found that 60% of caucus-goers said they wanted a candidate who can defeat Trump. About 40% labeled health care as their top issue, with 20% picking climate change and another 20% income inequality.
Trump's incumbent status means he has little major challenge for his party's nomination, but Republicans did have their own caucus with the president projected to romp to victory with 97% or more of the vote over former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.
Despite all the attention it gets, the Iowa caucus has not always been a reliable harbinger of who will win the Democratic Party nomination.
Former President Bill Clinton had a notoriously poor showing in the 1992 caucus with less than 3% support and wound up winning the White House that November.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the 2016 Republican caucus, but Trump was the eventual nominee.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack said Iowans believe the purpose of the caucus is to narrow the large field of candidates so the rest of the country has few, but good, choices for the primaries to come. The northeastern state of New Hampshire votes next week, with the southern state of South Carolina and the western state of Nevada voting later in February.