DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Democrats are scrambling to prepare for potentially record-setting turnout for Monday’s caucuses as well as the significant changes to the system being introduced this year.
The overhaul to the caucuses includes new paper preference cards, more satellite caucuses and a new balloting system that could result in multiple candidates claiming victory by the end of the night.
The confluence of factors has some in the party on edge, as they’re also busy beating back the quadrennial talk that the caucuses represent a relic that needs to be replaced, rather than a longstanding political tradition that could use a few tweaks.
“I don’t know if we’re prepared for the numbers that might show up at caucus,” said JoAnn Hardy, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Cerro Gordo County. “2008 was big, but I think people have seen what can happen if they don’t get involved and they don’t participate. I know attendance at anything political just skyrocketed as soon as Trump was in office.”
Every four years, Iowa becomes the political mecca for news junkies, with the first-in-the-nation caucuses kicking off the presidential nomination process.
In 2008, about 240,000 people turned out for the caucuses, setting a record and helping jump-start Barack Obama’s then-underdog campaign against Hillary Clinton.
The process is different from a primary, where voters simply pull a lever to record their choice. Participants will gather at various sites at 7 p.m. central time on Monday and physically move to a designated area in an auditorium or a gym to indicate their preference.
Supporters of candidates who don’t hit the “viability” threshold — at least 15% in most precincts — have to pick someone else, become “uncommitted” or go home, which can lead to a frenetic series of horse-trading and bargaining to win the support of people who are up for grabs.
After the second and final “alignment,” the district chairmen relay the results to the state party in Des Moines. Eventually, the party will announce an estimate of the “state delegate equivalents” for each candidate, which the party has emphasized will be the number that really matters at the end of the night.
But in a break from the past, the party will make multiple announcements: the raw vote totals after the first “alignment,” the totals after the second and final alignment, and the projected number of delegates.
That means the candidate who has the most raw votes after the first alignment might not be the same candidate who leads after the second round, or even who secures the most projected delegates — potentially leading to multiple legitimate claims of a “win” as candidates try to justify pressing on in the race.
“We don’t know how it’s going to work right now — just don’t know. And I don’t know what to make of it when it’s over — multiple announcements,” said Jim Zogby, a longtime member of the Democratic National Committee. “I don’t know. I’m confused about the process.”
The multiple announcements could offer talking points for candidates who don’t finish in first place, said Laura Hubka, chairwoman of the Howard County Democrats.
“I can see them already formulating the story of how things broke down,” she said. “For someone that may not get that many delegates and maybe comes in third and [says] ‘well … it’s spread out everywhere but originally look at all the people that I had showing up for me. I know I came in third but I had a lot of support — it was just spread out over the state.’”
In the past, the party used multiple alignments, though there are just two rounds this year. Also new: if a candidate does hit the 15% mark, his or her supporters are locked in, so those who clear the bar initially can’t lose support as the night goes on.
In another process that’s new for 2020, the party is having attendees fill out paper presidential preference cards to try to have some sort of paper trail of people’s choices.
In 2016, some supporters of Sen. Bernard Sanders cried foul when Hillary Clinton picked up a handful of delegates via a coin toss, including one at an Ames precinct after some 60 caucus attendees appeared to vanish.
“The biggest thing that I see is you have to make sure that everybody understands not to do anything to the preference cards until the appropriate time and how after the first round if you’re viable, you’re done,” said Dan Callahan, the Buchanan County Democratic party chairman.
Mr. Callahan did say he felt relatively prepared — a sentiment echoed by Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party.
“We don’t know exactly what the final turnout number is going to be, but we’ve been preparing this entire year to make sure that we can handle the crowds, make the process easier, more accessible, more transparent for our caucus-goers,” Mr. Price said this month on the “Iowa Press” program.
Iowa Republicans will hold caucuses on Monday as well, but eligible voters will simply write down the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper and hand it in. There’s also considerably less drama since President Trump will almost assuredly win the GOP’s nomination.
Democrats are trying to make the process more inclusive by installing more than 90 “satellite” caucus sites both in and out of the state to accommodate Iowa residents who are physically unable to make it to their would-be site.
But disability rights advocates have raised concerns that the preparations aren’t sufficient. And the expanded satellite idea only came about after the Democratic National Committee rejected a proposal for “virtual” caucuses, where participants could have made their selection via smartphone, over security concerns.
Now, a new phone application that district chairmen will be able to use to send their results to Des Moines is sparking similar concerns over security and efficiency.
Ms. Hubka said she hasn’t “heard anything good” about the app.
“I’m not having any of my chairs use it,” she said.
Mr. Callahan said a lot of people who are going to be running the proceedings are “older” and that people will have the option of phoning in.
“I know for a fact that some of my temporary chairs are going to use the phone over the app,” he said. “If it works, it’s going to be a sweet thing. There was an app last time, but I guess there were so many issues with it that it wasn’t as widely used. This time they’re promising that it’s going to be better.”
Mr. Callahan complimented the state party and local organizers for doing a good job in encouraging those involved to come to training sessions.
“I think people are feeling generally well-prepared,” he said. “A lot of the people that show up don’t follow the ins and outs, so communication — same as anything else — is always going to be the important thing.”
Mr. Price said the app will be secure but that the party is leaving nothing to chance.
“We have backups and backups to those backups and backups to those backups to those backups,” he said.
Sign up for Daily Newsletters
Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC.
here for reprint permission.