Government

Online Iowa caucuses would boost role of seniors

Democrats' call for virtual voting could help a Biden run

FILE PHOTO: Then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks Dec. 3, 2007, at a forum at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Biden again is considering a run for president, and Iowa’s plan to add opportunities for online participation in the 2020 caucuses could benefit seniors — and thereby the 76-year-old Biden, if he decides to run. (The Gazette)
FILE PHOTO: Then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., speaks Dec. 3, 2007, at a forum at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City. Biden again is considering a run for president, and Iowa’s plan to add opportunities for online participation in the 2020 caucuses could benefit seniors — and thereby the 76-year-old Biden, if he decides to run. (The Gazette)

The tradition-bound Iowa caucuses are likely to allow some online participation next year and among the expected beneficiaries are older voters, who’ll press candidates to focus on issues such as prescription drug prices, Social Security and Medicare.

Boosted participation by those 65 and older — a demographic that already accounts for more than a quarter of the Democratic turnout in the caucuses — could provide even more incentive for presidential candidates to pitch to voters who otherwise might not venture out on a winter night to attend in person.

The plan by Iowa Democrats — awaiting approval by the national party — is for the virtual caucus meetings to generate roughly 10 percent of the delegates from each of the state’s four congressional districts, no matter how many people participate.

While remote participation could carry less voting weight than in-person caucusing, it will be a slice of the electorate that can’t be ignored.

“Ten percent is not small potatoes and good campaigns will have to figure out how to turn that group out,” said Brad Anderson, Iowa director for the AARP and a former Democratic nominee for secretary of state. “They can’t afford to ignore any voter, but a smart strategy for any candidate would be to make sure that they are addressing issues important to the 50-plus demographic.”

It would be the most significant change to the Iowa caucuses since their inception in 1972, and is being made as many of the Democratic candidates are directly appealing to younger voters, who overwhelmingly favor the party.

One of the beneficiaries is likely to be Joe Biden, who still is expected to declare his third bid for the presidency this month, despite statements from two women that his uninvited physical contact made them feel uncomfortable.

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The former vice president, 76, gets some of his strongest support from older voters, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, 77, who would be Biden’s chief rival at this stage, relies heavily on younger supporters.

The Democratic National Committee is expected to approve the changes, creating the first-ever form of absentee voting in the caucuses. Iowa Democrats walked a fine line between increasing participation this way and turning the party-run process into an election primary, which would encroach on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary status and potentially threaten Iowa’s coveted position atop the nominating schedule.

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price, in announcing the proposed changes earlier this year, said Iowa Democrats worked with New Hampshire and other early-state Democrats to fashion the plan.

Once it’s in place, Democratic voters will be able to cast ballots the week before the in-person meetings, with participants allowed to submit a list of as many as five candidates ranked by preference. In the past, they had to show up at school gymnasiums, fire stations, community centers and other gathering places to show their support for a presidential candidate. In 2020, there will be roughly 1,700 such precinct locations. The caucuses currently are scheduled for Feb. 3.

The Iowa chapter of the AARP, the largest advocacy group in the United States for people 50 and older, already is preparing to train its members to participate in the virtual caucuses if they’re unable to go in person. Four of the six scheduled virtual voting sessions are during the day, with the remaining two at 7 p.m.

“I believe the real winners are seniors,” Anderson said. “Those are times that work really well for people who are older and retired.”

Anderson said he expects there will be 60,000 to 75,000 AARP members participating in the 2020 caucuses. The organization has about 370,000 members in Iowa.

Those 50 and older already typically account for the majority of participants in Iowa, the first state to winnow the field. That age group accounted for 58 percent of Democratic caucusgoers in 2016, according to entrance polls.

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Sanders received only 26 percent of the 65-and-older Iowa vote in 2016, while Hillary Clinton was backed by 69 percent of those in that age group. Sanders, like other candidates next year, will have to adjust his strategy to target voters participating in person as well as those taking advantage of the virtual caucus system.

Dave Nagle, a former congressman who served as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he expects older and younger voters to most heavily take advantage of the new option.

“You might see it on the ends of the spectrum,” he said.

“The desire is still to get people in the room,” said Scott Brennan, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Iowa who has worked on the proposal and is helping guide it through the party approval process.

But, he predicted, “I would be surprised if a particular demographic would really jump to the virtual caucus. It may just be a scattering. Once it is over, we will have some data and predictability for next time.”

Winter weather is always a consideration for the Iowa caucuses, but it isn’t likely to be much of a determining factor for whether people decide to participate in person or electronically. Registration for participation is expected to close more than two weeks before the actual caucuses.

The record for participation in the Democratic caucuses — about 240,000 people — was set in 2008 on a very cold night when then-Sen. Barack Obama scored a win that would set him on a path to the White House.

Most political observers in the state expect that mark will be surpassed next year given the large number of candidates and strong opposition to President Donald Trump.

If the caucuses do skew even older, that could bolster complaints of party leaders from other states who say that Iowa is too rural, old and white compared with the nation as a whole to be given so much power in the nomination process.

Some of that criticism is fueled by envy over all the attention the state gets every four years.

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Iowa’s population is 86.5 percent non-Latino white, compared with 61.5 percent nationwide, according to 2017 census estimates. Those 65 and older represent 16.1 percent of the state’s population, while nationally it’s 14.9 percent.

The presidential campaigns and Iowa interest groups already are gaming out how to best take advantage of the new rules. Candidates will likely have to make voter-by-voter decisions on whether to push someone to attend the regular or the virtual events.

“The people in the room are still the best example of your organizational strength,” Brennan said, “but because of the size of the field you can’t ignore it.”

Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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