The Iowa Caucuses – 2016

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A grain elevator in Blairstown, Iowa set ablaze by a midwest sunset. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/toby_d1/4135297412

Published by Josh Cook

For those of you who don’t know, I am from the great state of Iowa.  Feel free to roll you eyes but I am much more proud of my home state than I am of where I went to school (Wisconsin), where I lived after college (California), and where I live now (Illinois).  Iowa had marriage equality in 2009, before any of these states and just third in the nation overall.  Iowa’s budget remained in the black during the great recession.  Iowa has not elected a Scott Walker / Bruce Rauner type.  Iowa has water.  As a politically active Iowan, I love the caucuses.  I have been to every caucus since I was able to vote in (first was the 2004 election) but one.  The lone miss was 2012, when the Democratic Party did not need to have one because of the Obama incumbency.  2016?  Yup, I was there the previous Monday.  Here is what happened in my slice of democracy.

My parent’s address reads Iowa City but the fact is their house is in a rural development between Iowa City and North Liberty.  For election purposes the area is called Penn Township for nearby Penn Elementary, the old caucus location.  This year we got to go to a brand new school: North Central Junior High in North Liberty.  I’ll be honest, Iowans have a shaky track record avoiding the generic when naming things.  We have Iowa City, four communities with Liberty in the name, and a town called State Center.  It rests in the center of the state.

The caucuses started at 7 but all the campaigns were saying to get there no later than 6:30.  Knowing that record turnout was expected we hedged our bets and got there closer to 6:15.  The parking lot at NCJH was already crammed and there were lines of folks signing in.  This seems like a good point to explain how I actually got to vote without committing fraud.

In Iowa, once you are registered to vote, you are good to go until you register somewhere else. Now I am a student again, for the purposes of DePaul and some other mail, I again use my parents address as a permanent address.  If registered, Iowa does not check ID or proof of address.  To double check, I called the campaign and a cousin who works for the state party to confirm I was good to go.

After my parents and I signed in we headed to NCJH’s gym.  The AC was on thanks to being so crowded and the stadium seating worked for the majority of the caucus goers.  With roughly 500 Penn Townshippers exercising their right to vote, even the stadium seating wasn’t enough.  Each campaign has a precinct captain and each precinct has a Democratic Party volunteer running the show.  I can’t speak to how Republicans do their caucus night since it is a closed election.

The large party volunteer with a beard Grizzly Adams would be proud of announced that based on the people who signed in candidates would need to have around 75 votes to be viable.  In the Democratic caucus, the viability threshold is 15%.  Not surprisingly, the Martin O’Malley camp was well below that figure.  A representative from his group was allowed a moment to speak on his candidate’s behalf.  After his turn it was persuasion time.

The Hillary campaign went first.  Obviously nervous, their captain gave a meandering speech about mental health care.  An odd topic that seldom receives much attention but it was clearly personal to him.  Then the Bernie captain.  This was a bit of an advantage because the speaker from Bernie’s pool has a column in the paper and is now running in a local election.  He was prepared and spoke confidently, reiterating much of Bernie’s passionate income inequality talking points.  He also highlighted the similarities of O’Malley’s stances to Sanders’ policy positions.  Once each campaign had a chance to speak the O’Malley voters, as well as any undecideds, can join a viable candidate.  There is some more interpersonal persuasion during this time too.  In a testament to how close this election was, the O’Malley voters were practically dead even in which candidate they joined.

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Counting votes from paper bags demonstrates some low level tech at work in Iowa’s true democratic caucuses.

When it came time to count, the Bernie campaign had their voters turn in campaign stickers.  Hillary’s folks used carnival tickets.  Regardless of the counting device, we tossed our vote into…paper bags.  Each campaign then counted.  Regrettably, due to the party rep and the campaign captains not being trained adequately several people left, assuming the night was done.  It wasn’t.

As often happens, people who weren’t signed in or eligible managed to get either a ticket or a sticker and then vote.  It isn’t malicious.  Usually it is a kid or an observer voting accidentally.  As a result the tally from Bernie and Hillary added up to about thirty more votes than there were signed-in voters.  A re-count was started but since people had left, the count was now off by over sixty.  A third recount was started but since it wasn’t announced, people had started to float around the room.  I was one of those floaters.  I spotted an old friend in the Hillary group so we were chatting.  A fourth hard-count was started where both candidate’s voters lined up single file and were counted.  Finally.

The captains then went off to go over the math while the few of us that stayed after the accurate count got to nominate county caucus reps and party policy positions.  It is fun yelling ‘Yay’ and ‘Nay’ out.  You are probably wondering, what the heck is the county caucus!?  Each precinct has a number of delegates that reflects the proportionate vote then go to a county caucus held later.  From there a proportionate number of delegates gets to go to the state caucus.  From that final one, a proportionate number get to go to the Democratic National Convention.  Although time consuming, it is an honor to get to go to these other caucuses.  For the purpose of the news reports on Monday night, they just use the precinct returns.

Hillary won Iowa 49.8% to 49.6% and our little Penn Township was no different.  Hillary won our slice of Iowa by under seventy votes.  She got 5 delegates, Bernie got 4.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The polls said Hillary was up 3% and with margin of error she could have won by even more.  I thought it bode well for Sanders that Penn Township – a more older and affluent area – was so tight.  It played out like this for much of the state.

It was so close in fact some areas used coin flips.  This story gained a lot of national attention but they did not matter, not in the slightest.  The flips came from rounding.  Let’s say the math works out to each candidate winning 4.5 delegates for a total of nine delegates.  You can’t send half a person to the county caucus, so they flip a coin.  To give you some idea how small a percentage that is, my home county of Johnson County has nearly 50 precincts.  What’s crazier, is Bernie won several coin flips too, they just weren’t caught on camera and became viral.

Every four years Iowa gets a lot of attention for the first in the nation status and it comes with a lot of debate.  Iowa is too rural, too white, too evangelical (for the GOP side), too locked into ethanol, and based on the low tech counting too stupid to have this honor.  I think this is unfair criticism because it doesn’t highlight the positives.  At one point in this election 17 Republicans and 5 Democrats were running.  Can you imagine 22 campaigns trying to navigate California or New York City?  Another advantage is being in the central time zone.  When there is an event, like the town hall that was in Des Moines, it can start at 7 or 8 local time and be seen in California without being too early or on the east coast without being too late.  An earlier debate in Las Vegas finished around midnight in the east.

It is naive to say Iowa picks the winner.  We don’t.  But what we do is weed out certain candidates.  Santorum, Paul, Huckabee, and O’Malley all dropped out because of awful performances in Iowa.  Our left skews a tad more to the left than the national average and our right leans a pinch more to the right than the national average but all in all we are a fairly level-headed state.  The two parties are in pretty equal numbers and we are small enough not to to tip the scales in any major way.  A California primary would end the election right away since it holds so much power.  An Alabama election would be far to the right and not have many Democrats participate.  Are there flaws with the counting practices?  Yes, and that is on the party and candidates for not having better trained staff, not on the state of Iowa.  Thanks to these traits, other than Minnesota or maybe Missouri, there really isn’t a better state to kick off the election.