DES MOINES — Presidential candidates have spent millions of dollars and months of their lives chasing a win in Iowa’s caucuses, but new rules adopted this year open the possibility — some insiders call it a probability — that multiple candidates could “win.”
Democratic insiders and campaign staffers have long acknowledged the chaos and confusion that could emerge, fretting over what it could mean for this year’s caucus as well as future ones.
For decades, the winner of Iowa’s caucuses has been decided by a complicated system of state delegate equivalents, which operates kind of like the Electoral College. Unlike in the November presidential vote, though, Iowa’s tally of popular support was never released.
But on Monday night, the Iowa Democratic Party will publish two raw vote totals and the delegate numbers from caucus night.
So one candidate could win one or both of the delegate counts but lose the popular vote. That would open a new layer of complexity as media report the results, campaigns spin them and voters in later states try to make sense of them — all in a year when the stakes have never been higher for Iowa to show it deserves to remain the first-in-the-nation presidential voting state.
Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democrats, said the procedure changes were part of negotiations and revisions in reaction to critiques of the 2016 Democratic caucuses. They’re designed to increase transparency and improve the process.
“But it’s a cruel irony that in some ways it can expose liabilities to the caucus as well,” he said.
Already, Iowa has faced outside threats from those who argue its lead-off position in the presidential nominating process is outdated, undemocratic and unrepresentative. And some Iowa Democrats worry that any hiccup on caucus night — like a confusing story about who won — would add fuel to the fire.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said he’s confident the new rules will offer a better explanation to the public of what happened on caucus night.
“I think what these numbers will do is just give greater transparency to the process, and people will have a better sense of what’s happening,” he said. “They’ll be able to see how people moved around and where support moved over the course of the evening. And I think that’s going to be valuable information as people head into the next round of early states and Super Tuesday.”
Caucuses are ‘messy by design’
Iowa’s Democratic caucuses are complicated affairs. They’re not run by the state, but by the state party and an army of unpaid volunteers.
“My goal, as I’ve joked, is to wake up on Feb. 4 saying, ‘Well, that could’ve gone worse,’” said Dubuque County Democrats Chairman Steve Drahozal. “Because the caucuses are messy by design.”
On Monday, tens of thousands of Democrats will simultaneously gather across the state in roughly 1,700 school gymnasiums, church basements and other caucus precinct sites at 7 p.m.
At each site, Iowans will physically stand in a designated area of the room to show their support for their candidate. Someone will count each person in each group and tally the results. That first count is known as the “first alignment.”
Candidates need to amass support from at least 15% of those in attendance to be considered viable in the first alignment. If a candidate is not viable, their supporters can try to gain new support to become viable, or they can pick a different candidate to support.
Then the groups’ sizes are counted again. That is known as the “final alignment.” While in past caucus years there have been multiple re-shufflings, this year there will be only two — the first alignment and the final.
Each candidate is awarded delegates based on the final alignment results at each precinct. Those are reported back to the Iowa Democratic Party, which puts the precinct-level delegates into a formula that calculates the equivalent number of delegates each candidate would earn at the county convention, the district convention and then at the state convention.
The final number is reported in “state delegate equivalents.”
People counting other people takes time and can produce inconsistencies. The goal is always to control the chaos and to make sure people are able to participate and feel that the process was run fairly, Drahozal said.
“I’m expecting there to be confusion and a mess, because that’s what happens,” he said. “But I don’t want that confusion to be: ‘Hey, I thought I could just show up and cast a vote and then leave.’ … I don’t want anybody coming away from a Dubuque County caucus saying, ‘That was not fair, it was rigged’ in any way.”
Tight finish in 2016 spurs changes
In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Iowa Democratic caucuses, earning 49.9% of state delegate equivalents and edging out Bernie Sanders, who earned 49.6% of state delegate equivalents.
The narrow result prompted outcries from Sanders’ campaign and supporters, who worried small errors could have changed the outcome, and they urged the Iowa Democratic Party to reconsider the results.
And lurking in that razor-thin margin was always the possibility that more people had turned out to support Sanders even though Clinton won more delegate equivalents. The state party did not collect or report the raw numbers behind the final delegate calculation that would have provided an answer.
That will change for Monday’s caucuses.
This cycle, the party will release the number of people who supported each candidate on the first alignment and again after the realignment.
“Almost always there have been campaigns that have said, ‘Look, if this were a primary, I would have won. I had the most people. I just didn’t win the delegates, and that’s a silly system,’” said Norm Sterzenbach, a longtime Iowa Democratic operative who worked as Beto O’Rourke’s state director at the time he was interviewed and now advises U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s Iowa campaign on its caucus strategy. “But that argument doesn’t go anywhere because there’s not really any data — there’s certainly no independent data — to suggest that. … Now, it’s going to be right from the Democratic Party, right there for anyone to analyze and see.”
But having the data likely won’t end the jockeying.
“I think candidates will spin whatever narrative they want to coming out of caucus night,” Price said. “Our job is just to make sure that the data is accurate — that it accurately reflects what happened on caucus night. And that’s what we’re going to stay focused on.”
Then there’s the momentum winner
Iowa has 41 pledged delegates it sends to the national convention, and those are divvied out to candidates proportionally to their caucus night results. The candidate who earns the most delegates officially wins the Iowa caucuses.
But the caucuses have never just been about who actually gets the most delegates — Iowa has too few of those to matter much compared to larger states like Texas, which has 228 delegates, or California, with 416. The real winner in Iowa has always been the candidate who captures the media narrative and claims momentum going into the rest of the primary race.
In 2020, candidates will have more ways than ever to claim victory.
The candidate who wins the delegate count, for example, will likely be able to argue they out-organized their competitors. Iowa’s Electoral College-style delegate system rewards those with a grassroots operation that can reach supporters across the state in rural and urban areas.
But the candidate who wins the most support in the first alignment could say they would have won the night had Iowa held a simple primary contest. That’s a direct measurement of how Iowans felt when they walked into the caucus.
And the person who tallies the most supporters in the final alignment could make the case they can create the broadest coalition. Being able to attract supporters beyond one’s own base is valuable in a general election.
It’s possible the same candidate could win all three measures of support. That would create the simplest narrative out of Iowa.
But it’s also fully possible that a different candidate could “win” each of the three metrics.
Anticipating what the new results might mean for a narrative, some campaigns could be campaigning strategically to try to inflate one metric over the other.
Previously, there’s never been a benefit to campaigning only in the densely Democratic Iowa City, for example, because the delegates there are capped. But a candidate this cycle might choose to run up the score there and in other Democratic strongholds to try to inflate their raw support numbers on the first and second alignments.
The availability of the new menu of results could benefit candidates by giving them more ammunition to argue they’ve won or over-performed expectations. But Sterzenbach said it could also make it harder for a candidate to claim momentum if there are others making the same case.
“If you’re banking on a momentum strategy like, ‘I’m going to do really well in Iowa and it’s going to springboard me to fundraising nationally’ … you need a clean result,” he said. “Only winning one of those is not clean. You’ve got somebody else who’s got this momentum story they can tell.”
‘We can’t mess it up’ on caucus night
A mixed result could also color the local and national perception of the caucuses.
The caucuses are already seen by many as unnecessarily complex and arcane. News that some precincts decided ties between Sanders and Clinton with coin flips in 2016 turned into a multi-day, international story as people marveled that such an important decision could come down to such low-tech solutions.
Those coin flips are allowed and ultimately had little impact on the overall results.
“But perception is reality,” Bagniewski said.
And if the perception is that, after years of campaigning, the caucuses produce difficult-to-understand, convoluted results, it could undermine the legitimate arguments for maintaining a caucus over a primary, Sterzenbach said.
“In the future, it just becomes harder to justify us doing the realignment and everything that goes with that instead of just putting in the one-person, one-vote process like Republicans do,” he said.
The process of meeting together and discussing candidates and issues makes caucuses better vehicles for party building, proponents say. And Iowa, a rural state, is a place where low-budget candidates can slowly build name recognition by in-person campaigning, without a big budget for TV ad buys.
Former housing secretary Julián Castro is among high-profile Democrats who say a one-person-one-vote primary would be simpler and more inclusive. He defended those beliefs at a recent town hall in Des Moines, arguing Iowa should lose its first-in-the-nation status in 2024.
Though the criticisms rise and fall with each caucus cycle, this year they carry particular weight as the national Democratic Party has emphasized the need to be inclusive and highlight diverse voices. Those concerns were amplified when U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris ended her presidential campaign.
Split winner results could give critics yet another arrow to aim at the caucuses. Already this year, the DNC, citing cybersecurity concerns, said Iowa could not hold virtual caucuses in the week leading up to Feb. 3. The proposed virtual caucuses, which would have allowed people to caucus by phone, were an effort by the state party to make the caucuses more inclusive. The phone caucuses would help shift workers, the elderly, parents with children and others who find it difficult to participate at a particular place, time and night to take part.
“The stakes are incredibly high,” Bagniewski said of this year’s caucuses. “One thing that we have told all the people in training is that all eyes of the world, all eyes of the country are on the Iowa caucuses this time, and we can’t mess it up, because there are a lot of people who want to challenge our first-in-the-nation status. No pressure or anything.”