Guest Columnist

Previewing the Democratic Iowa caucus: one big mess

The crowd listens to Caucus chair Cindy O'Meara at the start of a Democratic Caucus at Center Point-Urbana Middle School
The crowd listens to Caucus chair Cindy O'Meara at the start of a Democratic Caucus at Center Point-Urbana Middle School in Center Point on Monday, February 1, 2016. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

As a precinct chair, I’ve been to an Iowa Democratic Party training session and have spent hours mulling over the Delegate Selection Plan, the official title for the caucus rules. If you’ve caucused before, 2020 will be familiar but with enough changes to give you moderate discombobulation. If you’ve not been to one of these affairs before, bring aspirin, antacid and your entire supply of patience.

Complaints about the accessibility and the consistency of the caucusing process put Iowa’s first in the nation status in jeopardy. Getting rid of the caucuses all together and moving to a primary isn’t an option, because if that happens we’d make New Hampshire mad. And we can’t do that.

Satellite caucuses, four in 2016, balloon to 99 in 2020. Somebody in Georgia—the nation, not the state—will be having a caucus in their living room at 4 a.m. While this is a nice effort, it mainly caters to the well positioned, well educated and well represented.

In the IDP’s defense, satellite caucuses were pressed into service after the Democratic National Committee nixed a phone caucus proposal. The DNC’s concerns were legitimate, but came late. Satellite caucuses will benefit a few thousand caucusgoers by my guess, whereas the phone initiative might have served tens of thousands.

The caucuses handle lots of other business, but let’s restrict ourselves to the presidential bit.

After hellos, I and 1,680 other precinct chairs will hand out presidential candidate preference cards. That’s unwieldy, but New Hampshire objects if these are named ballots, so I’ll call them chits. Each chair will hand these out to everyone in the precinct, whether 12 or 1,200. One at a time.

Next: alignment. Go stand in the corner of your candidate. No secret ballot.

First heartbreak. The chair will count each group and determine which are viable. To be viable, a candidate must have the support of 15-25 percent of the room, depending on the size of the precinct.

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Your candidate is viable? The chair collects your chit, you’re locked in. Unless you’re in a fighting mood, this is where you go home.

Not viable? Argumentative? Next comes realignment. Those supporting non-viable candidates pick again, with partisans from the viable groups trying to woo them. Once they’ve landed, these folks record their consolation choice on the reverse side of their chit.

Again, the chair collects the cards. At this point, only viable candidates should remain.

Should.

It’s possible realignment can render a previously viable candidate non viable. If that happens, the chair returns the chits to that candidate’s unhappy supporters. Second or third heartbreak, but who’s counting now?

Even though we’re doing division to four decimal places, a tie is possible. Settled by coin toss. More heartbreak.

Neither case is likely anywhere. But both will almost certainly happen somewhere.

Now, delegates.

Those preference cards? They’re new. Chairs took a head count before.

That headcount went into a worksheet. Out came delegates, the only reported result in previous cycles.

Finding 2016 unsatisfactory but fearful of New Hampshire, the IDP enlisted Rube Goldberg to add confusion to chaos.

Before, there was the delegate winner, with others arguing about expectations.

This time? We’ll have the delegate haul, alignment count and realignment count. Throw in the aforementioned expectations game and Iowa will punch more tickets than the redeye chartered for reporters from Des Moines to New Hampshire on caucus night.

590 words to describe, imperfectly, the problem. The solution in five?

Iowa should have a primary.

Jonathan Green, was mayor of Lone Tree 2018-2019, served on the Iowa Democratic Party State Central Committee, 2016-2018 and is temporary chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party precinct caucus.

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