Government

Party leaders: Postponing Iowa caucuses not an option

When bad weather hits, parties have little choice but to proceed

Tristan Hines of Cedar Rapids holds up a sign for precinct 17 before the start of the Democrats’ precinct caucuses Monday evening at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Tristan Hines of Cedar Rapids holds up a sign for precinct 17 before the start of the Democrats’ precinct caucuses Monday evening at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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By Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times

Iowa’s off-year precinct caucuses were thrown a curve earlier this week when Mother Nature dumped 4 to 7 inches of snow on the state.

And while the storm led some people to wonder why the parties didn’t just postpone the caucuses for a day or two, Democratic and Republican leaders said this week they had little choice.

The fortunate thing is it didn’t happen in a presidential year, when tens of thousand more Iowans attend the caucuses — and the ever-watchful spotlight of the political world is upon them.

A snowstorm then could have given ammunition to critics who have been all too willing to fault the state’s caucuses for limiting participation.

too late to change

In interviews late this week, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price and Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, agreed there really was no way to have postponed the caucuses.

“It was so late in the process. We did not have the time at that point to do it,” Price said.

As the snow began to fall Monday, the parties issued a joint statement saying while they recognized the hardship, a review of the state code and their respective constitutions showed there was “no provision for us to postpone the caucuses due to weather.”

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Price noted state law requires the parties give two weeks notice before the caucuses take place. He added the Democrats’ constitution demands 90 days notice.

“For us to reschedule would have pushed us into May,” he said.

Price acknowledged fielding complaints that some people weren’t able to make it through Monday’s snowstorm to get to their caucus sites.

But he said the party’s preliminary estimates of attendance by midweek showed that about 10,000 people got to their caucuses.

That’s better than the 6,500 who went four years ago. “We still had great turnout across the state,” he said.

more sites?

Kaufmann said Monday’s snowstorm will likely lead to discussions about how to mitigate the effects from future unexpected storms. But even then the options are limited, given the caucuses, in order to be first, have to happen in the winter months.

“We’re constantly looking at our caucus process,” Kaufmann said.

A potential step, he said, might be to have more sites for caucuses in non-presidential years.

Often, precinct caucuses are consolidated into a single building during non-presidential years.

case of dominoes

Both leaders, though, said a caucus-night snowstorm is just something that would have to be dealt with in a presidential year.

State law requires the caucuses be held eight days before any other presidential nominating event, such the New Hampshire primary.

Also, Kaufmann said, any postponement would affect, like a row of dominoes, other states around the country.

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“We have this honor of being first in the nation. What that means is once we set a date, we have to honor the date,” he said. “This is the price we pay for leading the nation.”

the 100,000 mark

If a snowstorm were to strike during the presidential caucuses, then Iowa could be the subject of criticism if turnout dipped too much, said Chris Larimer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa.

Larimer said if turnout were to fall well below 100,000 for either party, “I think there would be renewed and stronger calls to remove Iowa from its place as the first state to hold presidential caucuses.”

Over the history of the modern-day caucuses, it’s not been that unusual for turnout to fall below 100,000. But since the record turnout for Barack Obama in 2008, the caucuses have been experiencing better turnout, even though it still is just a fraction of the state’s number of registered voters.

In 2016, 186,000 Republicans attended their caucuses. On the Democratic side, 171,000 showed up.

Larimer believes sinking below the 100,000 mark now would lead to louder calls for reforms. Already, the 2020 Democratic caucuses are heading toward significant changes, with the recommendation by the Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission that absentee ballots be included.

piling on

Price acknowledged critics could use an event like an attendance-limiting snowstorm to pile onto the caucuses. But he added, “if it snows on Election Day, we don’t move Election Day.”

Party officials here recalled that the New Hampshire primary faced the threat of a major snowstorm in the days leading up to the 2016 presidential primary. The snow mostly fell the day before, and the primary went on with record turnout.

Kaufmann says that, had a snowstorm hit Iowa’s caucuses in 2016, the party might not have seen the 186,000 turnout that it did. But, he said, “I’ll bet we would have had 150,000.”

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As for getting to caucus sites, he also says the presidential campaigns, as they have in the past, likely would manage to get supporters to their precinct sites. “My guess is they would have had several offers of a ride.”

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