Des Moines 61 Democratic Precinct Caucus held at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, February 3, 2020.
Photo Credit: Phil Roeder (CC-By-2.0)
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Being a week out since the Iowa Democratic Caucus, I wanted to highlight three lessons we can learn from the results and its subsequent mess.

Lesson One: Organization Trumps Endorsements.

Former Vice President Joe Biden had an impressive list of endorsements leading up to the Iowa Caucuses. They included the who’s who of the Iowa Democratic Party, including the last two Democratic governors Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, and two of the state’s three Democratic members of the U.S. House – U.S. Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne.

He still came in fourth place in the first round, second round, and with final delegates.

The caucus process always favors campaigns that build an organization that turns voters out, and that is true regardless of the political party. A strong organization is why former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg surprised a lot of people winning the final delegate count. It is why U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders had the most votes in the first and second rounds of voting. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren can thank her third ticket out of Iowa on her campaign’s turnout apparatus.

They attracted voters to their events. They did the best job canvassing to strengthen participation in the caucuses. These campaigns also had the staff and volunteers to ensure representation in most of the precinct caucuses across the state.

Also, something Sanders learned is that he could not just turn out voters in metro areas, but needed to turn out voters all over the state. Sanders won more votes, but Buttigieg won delegates in more precincts, which is why he was the winner with the final vote and SDE allocation.

Lesson Two: Democrats Need to Turn Out More Than Just Young Adults.

Democrats were expecting a record turnout, but that did not happen. The Iowa Democratic Party saw slightly better participation in 2020 than it did in 2016. Last Monday, 176,574 people voted in the first round. That number fell off to 172,669 for the second and final alignment vote (due to people leaving and some choosing not to vote a second time). In 2016, the Iowa Democratic Party announced 171,517 participated in the caucus, and that is far, far short of the record turnout the party saw in 2008 when 239,000 Iowans showed up to caucus, a year that saw Barack Obama convincingly win the state of Iowa.

Not only that, Iowa Democrats saw fewer first-time participants caucus on Monday – 35 percent – nine points lower than 2016 and 22 points lower than 2008.

Also, while they saw a slight increase in metro areas, Democrats saw a decline everywhere else.

I’ve seen more than one Democrat express concern about the turnout because it does not bode well for Democrats in November. 

The Iowa Democratic Party, according to entrance polls, did see a record-setting turnout from voters under 30. Sanders needed this demographic to turn out to caucus to finish well.

The voters under 30 made up 24 percent of those who caucused for Democratic presidential candidates last Monday; this was up six points from 2016, and one point higher than 2008.

That alone will not help in the general election, and will under 30 voters turn out to the polls if Sanders is not the Democratic nominee? 

Lesson Three: Keep It Simple, Stupid

The Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus process violates the KISS rule. It is far, far too complicated. 

The Republican Party of Iowa has more straightforward rules for its caucus process because they offer a presidential preference straw poll not directly tied to the selection of delegates. 

The Iowa Democratic Party ties delegates to caucus results. They adopted the process they have to appease the mighty and powerful New Hampshire Secretary of State. That person will enforce a primary date earlier than Iowa should a political party in our state adopt a process that is even remotely similar to a primary per New Hampshire law. 

Before the Iowa Caucus, I thought the Democratic process was complicated, but it’s even more complicated than I initially thought. 

Each precinct caucus is awarded a certain number of delegates based upon participation in the gubernatorial or presidential election prior. 

Unlike Republicans, Democrats gather in preference groups rather than vote by paper ballot. 

Bleeding Heartland recently explained the caucus math. Most of the precinct caucuses a candidate has to receive 15 percent of the attendance to be considered viable. In precincts allocated three delegates, the viability threshold is one-sixth of those attending. In precincts allocated two delegates, the viability threshold is 25 percent. With precincts with just one delegate, there is no threshold. “Rather, caucus attendees will break into preference groups just one time, after which the entire group will elect the delegate by a majority vote,” Laura Belin wrote at Bleeding Heartland.

The change in the rules this year meant votes (literally voting with their feet) for viable candidates after the first round are locked in, and those candidates could only gain votes in the second round, which then determines who wins the delegates from that precinct. 

What further complicates the caucus math is when there are more viable candidates than the precinct’s allocated delegates, something more likely in smaller districts. In that case, there is a second realignment, and we saw reported that several precincts ended up flipping a coin to resolve, which is hardly ideal.

The easiest thing to do is for Democrats to adopt the Republican process, but that is something I doubt they’ll do. 

At the very least, basing delegates on one vote, having delegates awarded proportionately based on how the candidates place. Precincts should have an odd number of delegates, and there isn’t the possibility of a tie. Hence, the precinct winner always wins more delegates than the second-place candidate (in precincts with more than one delegate) and third-place candidate (in precincts with five delegates or more). 

If there is a tie for second or third place, in precincts where it matters, then have a realignment for just those candidates to determine who will receive the number of delegates awarded for second or third place. Purge coin tosses altogether, it’s a bad look.

While Iowa Democrats have held their caucuses with this level of complexity before, they’re asking volunteers to enter lots of data into a mobile app. 

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