| Jocelyn Augustino, American Media Institute

Chaos at the caucus

Iowa’s caucus system was stretched to its limit Monday night amid massive citizen turnout, fired-up campaigns, and some sophisticated voting tricks used by Hillary Clinton supporters to deny victory to Bernie Sanders

A line stretched down the street and nearly around the block to get into the Democratic caucus at a union hall in Des Moines’ up-and-coming neighborhood of Sherman Hill. Attendance shattered estimates from party leaders: Officials who planned for a maximum 180 caucus-goers were swamped as the tally ended up at 325.

Iowa’s home-grown caucus system lived up to its history of surprises. Packed caucuses all over the state produced an upset victory for Republican Ted Cruz and an upset near-victory for the Democrat Sanders.

Cruz, a senator from Texas, won a tight race with billionaire Donald Trump, drawing 28 percent of the vote and eight delegates to Trump’s 24 percent and seven delegates.

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, ended the evening trailing Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton by just 0.3 percentage points. Clinton, with 49.9 percent of the vote, won 22 delegates; Sanders, with 49.6 percent of the vote, won 21 delegates.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida had a stronger than expected third-place showing, winning 23 percent of the vote and seven delegates.

Turnout was higher than expected throughout the Hawkeye State. In Cedar Falls, a Republican caucus at a local middle school was delayed by about an hour because of the large crowds. Clint Carpenter, who attended the caucus, said the cafeteria was supposed to hold about 200 people, but there were “way more.”

At the Cedar Falls caucus, speakers crowded the floor to denounce Trump, the perceived Iowa front-runner based on his commanding leads in national opinion polls.

“All of them went after Trump,” Carpenter told AMI Newswire. “They definitely felt he wasn’t the right person.”

Carl Maerz spoke in support of Rubio at his Des Moines caucus, and said he was excited by the candidate’s performance in the polls throughout the night. “People see that Rubio can win the general election, that he’s not going to split the party like Cruz and Trump,” Maerz told AMI Newswire.

At a caucus in the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, Trump’s weakness became apparent early on. Eric Trump, one of the candidate’s sons, attended to stump on his father’s behalf, but the caucus still supported Rubio.

Many Democrats went into their caucus still unsure which of the two leading candidates they would support.

Thai Loung told AMI Newswire that he attended his Des Moines caucus uncommitted but ultimately decided to support Clinton.

“Someone made a good point of how far left Sanders is compared to the average American,” Loung said. “Any moderate the RNC nominates will appeal to the average voter more than him; we need someone moderates are attracted to.”

Loung’s caucus near the Capital Park neighborhood split down the middle, a pattern seen at Democratic meetings throughout the night. In the end, Sanders and Clinton split the precinct’s four delegates. Even Loung and his girlfriend – who supported Sanders – continued the trend.

In the Democratic Sherman Hill caucus, Clinton supporters helped fend off the surging Sanders with sophisticated tactical voting.

After more than 300 caucus-goers filed into the precinct, a show of hands indicated Sanders enjoyed larger support than his rival. The first tally gave Sanders nearly 100 more supporters than Clinton. That would have given Sanders four delegates from the caucus and Clinton just two.

At that point, nearly 20 of the Clinton supporters switched to supporting former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

As a result, Sanders’ delegates dropped to three, Clinton held onto two, and O’Malley earned one of the only eight delegates he would win the entire night. O’Malley suspended his campaign soon after Iowa results began coming in.

Sanders’ strong showing was “a moral victory,” Iowa state representative Ed Fallon, who attended the caucus in support of the Vermont senator and then headed to a Sanders watch-party, told AMI Newswire.

Sanders had been trailing Clinton by several percentage points in most polls, and the strong show of support at packed caucus sites came as a surprise.

New Hampshire primary voters head to the voting booths next Tuesday. Polls show Trump and Sanders leading by significant margins in the Granite State.