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Capitol Ideas: Will 'Uncommitted' be the top vote-getter in Iowa's Democratic caucuses?

It happened twice before, in 1972 and 1976

Jimmy Carter speaks at a campaign event Jan. 8, 1976, at the Jim Albright residence in Cedar Rapids.  Carter's second-pl
Jimmy Carter speaks at a campaign event Jan. 8, 1976, at the Jim Albright residence in Cedar Rapids. Carter’s second-place finish in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa propelled him on the road to the White House. Who came in first in the Democratic caucuses? “Uncommitted.” (Gazette archives)

The Iowa Democratic caucuses may be set up for the biggest comeback in political history.

Could the winner of the 1972 and 1976 Democratic caucuses win again 44 years later?

Keep an eye out on caucus night for this upset candidate: “Uncommitted.”

OK, seriously. No, “Uncommitted” is not going to win the Feb. 3 Democratic presidential caucuses in Iowa, like it did in those first iterations.

Edmund Muskie — fantastic name — finished second in 1972, and Jimmy Carter was second in the 1976 race that is widely credited with turning the Iowa caucuses into the spectacle they are today. In both, the highest share of Democratic support went to none of the above, or “Uncommitted,” as it’s called in caucus parlance.

Ever since, Iowans have been more decisive at caucus time. The only times “Uncommitted” has showed up on the leaderboard were when there was an incumbent president or in 1992, when native son Tom Harkin ran.

But while it’s unlikely to be a top finisher this year, “Uncommitted” will be worth watching on caucus night, for a couple of reasons.

One, Iowans remain remarkably undecided about this expansive primary field. Polling continues to show that a majority of Iowa Democrats have not yet made up their minds just more than two weeks out, or are willing to have their minds changed by another candidate. So there could be a significant share of caucus participants who decide to start the night in the “Uncommitted” corner.

Which leads us to our second reason this is worth watching: A new caucus rule for 2020 locks participants into their candidate preference once that candidate is viable — once the candidate has, in most precincts, at least 15 percent of the support.

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And that rule, state party officials confirmed last week, includes uncommitted caucus participants. So if caucusgoers decide to start the night as “Uncommitted” and that group grows to 15 percent or more, those participants will be locked in. They won’t have an opportunity to move to an actual candidate in the ensuing rounds of reshuffling, even if that was their original plan.

Yang-mentum?

Speaking of candidates to watch on caucus night, this past week roughly 700 people attended an Andrew Yang campaign event in Des Moines. That’s a big number for a Yang event, and a possible sign that interest in his campaign is growing.

This is not to say that Yang is ready to vault into the top tier in this race with the likes of Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren. This is anecdotal evidence only: one big crowd on one night.

And maybe that big crowd was more a sign of interest and curiosity than steadfast support. Yang did have a big fundraising period at the end of 2019, and he has used it to get campaign ads on TV and digital services.

But being in that room on the Drake University campus felt like a moment that seemed significant enough to warrant a suggestion that it’s at least worth keeping an eye on Yang during these final two-plus weeks.

And remember, the caucuses are not just about results, but results versus expectations. If a candidate like Yang, who has been polling in the low single digits for most of the race, becomes viable in a bunch of precincts on caucus night and manages to show up on that leaderboard, that could give his campaign a boost. Maybe even enough that voters in other early voting states would take notice.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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