A Funny Thing Happened at the Iowa Caucus
Note: Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy Associate David Huppert worked as an organizer in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president. Here he recounts the singular experience of that year’s Iowa Caucus night, and projects how that may change with this year’s event.
What finally got things moving was a pregnant woman standing up on a metal folding chair. “Everybody! This isn’t going anywhere! We have to get this thing started! I’m pregnant and I have to pee!”
The crowd roared in approval.
She continued, “Hillary people over there! Bernie people over there! O’Malley people in the middle!”
With that, a mass shuffling began. The 2016 caucus was underway.
I spent the winter of 2015-16 in Ames, Iowa, working for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ames is a college town— home to the Iowa State University Cyclones— where Bernie Sanders enjoys great popularity, so my task was not easy.
It was my job to convince our supporters to go to their local precinct caucuses across Story County. From November to February, I walked neighborhoods in the icy Iowa winter to knock on doors and urge people to support our campaign. At one point, I canvassed homes in a wind chill that felt 26 degrees below. Then there was the day my car got stuck in the mud outside the town of Zearing, which has a population of 554.
On Iowa caucus night, I was assigned to the Ames Heartland Senior Center to work the Ames 1-3 precinct caucus. The fire code set the building capacity at 100, but by our designated start time of 7 p.m., several times that number were in attendance. Local party officials couldn’t quiet the overcrowded room. Directions could not be given. The caucus could not start.
After an hour, the Ames Heartland Senior Center became overheated. The ill and the elderly had to leave. An older man in a wheelchair rolled past me in tears, distraught that he was unable to stay and vote for his candidate.
The local party officials huddled together to try to solve the noise issue and the space issue. One proposed holding it outside in the cold, counting people and tabulating the candidate they supported as they exited through a side door. But standing outside on a freezing Iowa night in the dead of winter through multiple caucus rounds was not palatable -- cramped and hot though we were. Ultimately, the proposal was deemed untenable because party rules clearly stated that leaving the building meant the forfeiture of your vote.
After two hours, the pregnant woman intervened.
“Everybody! This isn’t going anywhere! We have to get this thing started! I’m pregnant and I have to pee!”
After her passionate plea, the process went smoothly. The crowd managed to organize itself without any direction from the local party officials.
After the first round, Bernie supporters outnumbered Hillary’s by a four-to-one ratio. O’Malley was not viable because he did not have enough supporters to meet the threshold to earn delegates. In the second round, O’Malley supporters had to choose between Bernie and Hillary.
That brings us to a crucial principle of the Iowa caucus: The viability threshold.
In order to earn even a portion of the delegates at each precinct location, a candidate needs to earn support from a minimum percentage of attendees — 15 percent at most caucus locations.
This year, candidates like Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Tulsi Gabbard and even Amy Klobuchar will likely lack the supporters needed to meet this threshold in most precincts.
And that means that, just like the O’Malley folks in the Ames Heartland Senior Center, their supporters will have to choose among the remaining viable candidates. This year that will likely mean choosing — in the second round — among Joe Biden, Pete Buttigeig, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. For this reason, those four candidates are campaigning to be Iowans’ second-choice candidate — as well as their first.
At the Ames Heartland Senior Center, five delegates were up for grabs. Four went to Bernie, one to Hillary. Statewide, Hillary and Bernie nearly tied in the delegate count, winning 49.8% and 49.6% of delegates respectively.
In 2020, the results are likely to be more diffuse. The state’s winner will end up with as little as a fifth and at most a third of delegates, with second- and third-place finishers close behind.
This year’s race appears wide open.
Joe Biden is known to Iowans — he has campaigned there before. Over the last 10 years, he has been calling Iowa Democratic County Chairs, developing personal relationships with influential locals.
Sanders has the support of younger caucus-goers, who are passionate and loud. In the second round, when all those supporters of unviable candidates need to make their second choice, passionate and loud can really matter.
Warren and Buttigeig have youthful organizations with the energy to prepare their supporters for caucus night.
Still, the outcome may not be clear when the night is over. That is because this year the caucus will have new rules, such that three potentially different outcomes will be reported at the end of the night. The result after round one will be recorded as First Expression of Preference. Results at the end of the night — after the second round — will be recorded as the Final Expression of Preference. Third, the ratio of state-to-county convention delegates will be reported as the State Delegates Equivalent.
This presents the potential for multiple candidates to claim victory. For instance, Biden could have the plurality of delegates after the First Expression of Preference, but Sanders could finish with the plurality after the Final Expression of Preference.
The Iowa Caucus doesn’t end there. At the end of the night, each side selects delegates to represent their candidate at the district convention on April 25. At the district convention, delegates are free to realign with a different candidate. For this reason, I returned to Iowa in April 2016 to ensure the individuals selected as Clinton delegates on caucus night followed through and supported her at the district convention.
Nevertheless, a caucus night win is a public relations boon for whoever can get it. This is particularly the case if you can claim unequivocal victory by winning both the First Expression of Preference and the Final Expression of Preference.
Such an outcome could seize momentum for subsequent contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and beyond.
Will the Ames 1-3 caucus again be held at the Ames Heartland Senior Center? I called there to ask. The woman on the other end of the line was panicked. She hadn’t heard anything about a caucus there.
“I only ask,” I said, “because it was there four years ago and it did not go so well.”
“I try not to think about that,” she said.
The Story County Democratic Party demonstrated some foresight this time. The caucus for Ames 1-3 will be held at the presumably larger Iowa State University Scheman Building.
Hopefully it goes more smoothly this time around.
David Huppert is an Associate in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.