DES MOINES — Democratic presidential campaigns are trying an old strategy to gather new supporters. But no one is admitting it’s actually working.
Candidates and officials from Democratic presidential campaigns have told reporters in Iowa that rivals’ campaign officials have reached out about forming a caucus night alliance, in where supporters of one candidate would switch to another if their first choice didn’t get enough votes to move on to second round voting.
Andrew Yang said in a Bloomberg News roundtable that he had been contacted by other candidates about making a caucus night alliance, but that he did not plan to make a deal.
Making caucus night alliances is common practice for presidential campaigns, according to former U.S. Rep. Dave Nagle, a longtime Iowa Democrat. In fact, he said front runners should try to make alliances and recommended former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns do it.
“Biden and Sanders, too, and Warren, should all be reaching out to the ones that we know going in will probably not be viable,” Nagle said. “And that would be (Tom) Steyer and Yang.”
If supporters of Yang, Klobuchar and Steyer, who have not polled above the 15% in the Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll all year, moved en masse to another candidate in second-round voting, it could push that new candidate into serious contention.
An alliance between two weaker candidates could help them both on caucus night. If two candidates with 8 or 9% support each combined forces, one of them could become viable in a precinct. Done strategically, both candidates could pick up delegates across the state.
How would it work?
Candidates must attract at least 15% of the crowd at a caucus site to be declared viable. If, after the first alignment, a candidate is not viable, their supporters must pull more people into the group or re-align with a second choice candidate.
But if the non-viable candidate’s crowd moved to back another campaign, that process changes a bit. A campaign representative for the non-viable candidate would encourage supporters to choose the ally, rather than scatter among other viable groups.
Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich tried the strategy in 2004. The Democratic candidates announced in January that, if one of them were not viable in a precinct, their supporters should caucus for the other.
Edwards came in second place on caucus night. Kucinich came in fifth, with just 1% support in the state.
But by announcing the alliance publicly, rivals seized on the strategy as a sign of weakness. A spokeswoman for former Gov. Howard Dean’s campaign told CNN in 2004, “We are planning on being viable in all the precincts. We have no strategy to coordinate with another campaign.”
Today, rather than a candidate announcing such a strategy, precinct captains from the campaigns would direct voters on caucus night to go toward a certain second choice.
“That’s why the candidates need as many precinct captains in as many of the precincts as they can, who can speak and address (supporters) and do that manipulation,” Nagle said. “That comes back to organization.”
Does it work?
Even a perfectly planned caucus alliance faces a major challenge: The will of the people.
Paul MacGregor is going into Caucus Day with a short list. The 71-year-old retired physician is trying to choose between former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Steyer.
MacGregor said if his first choice for president isn’t viable in the first alignment, he would be open to hearing suggestions from staffers of his initial preferred candidate — but only to a point.
“Ultimately, I’m an adult. I make my own decision,” the Mason City resident said. “I wouldn’t blindly go against my second choice just because a campaign asked me to.”
MacGregor also doesn’t think other Iowans will be persuaded on this kind of alliance strategy, either. He noted some Iowans have spent months vetting candidates, and they’ve put a lot of thought into second choices.
“I don’t know how powerful that would be, that a campaign asked you to switch,” he said.
Patrick Pope, a 46-year-old Biden supporter in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said he might be persuaded to go along with another campaign, but he wouldn’t caucus for just anybody.
“I think it would depend on who they were telling me to go to,” the education administrator said. “I have some problems with Buttigieg, so I don’t know if I would go over to Mayor Pete’s room, if that’s what they were directing me to do. But I would have no problems with Warren or Bernie.”
Barbara Rodriguez, Stephen Gruber-Miller and Ian Richardson contributed reporting.