OTTUMWA, Ia. — The Iowa caucuses have officially begun, with Democrats in southeastern Iowa declaring their preferences and kicking off a day that will help determine the fates of the seven presidential hopefuls who have staked everything on this state.
The Ottumwa satellite precinct caucus — which kicked off at noon at the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 230 union hall — was the first of roughly 1,700 caucus locations in Iowa to meet Monday.
At those locations across Iowa, the country and the world, Democrats will get the first take on what voters think about the field of presidential contenders. Before the vast majority of the country gets to weigh in, Iowans will already have made their mark.
“This is the very first satellite caucus to take place in the United States, which also means that this is the very first — and you all are the very first people — in the country to cast ballots in the presidential election,” Zach Simonson, the chairman of the Wapello County Democratic Party, told attendees. “You’re the first of the first. It’s a phenomenal opportunity that we have to throw the spotlight onto what we’re going to do as Democrats in order to defeat Donald Trump, in order to bring about a progressive agenda and to elect Democrats at all levels.”
Though nearly all of Iowa’s precincts will convene their caucuses at 7 p.m. CDT, local Democrats petitioned the Iowa Democratic Party to host this so-called satellite location earlier in the day. It’s designed to accommodate those who work the second shift at the local pork processing plant and during the evenings at other service industry jobs when the caucuses are traditionally held.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won the precinct’s first alignment, with 14 of the precinct’s 15 people. One person caucused for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren’s supporter said she did not wish to caucus for Sanders on the second alignment.
The Iowa Democratic Party will award delegates from the satellite caucus locations based on their final turnout later in the evening. The ultimate winner of Iowa’s caucuses will be based on those delegate numbers.
The Ottumwa results may not ultimately reflect Democrats’ choices statewide, and they represent the smallest slice of the Iowa caucus electorate. But with Democrats across the state and the country are eager for a final verdict, they offer the earliest insight into how Iowa’s caucusgoers might align and how new rules may play out through the evening.
The group was largely comprised of Ethiopian immigrants who work at JBS Pork in Ottumwa. Chris Laursen, president of UAW Local 7, observed the caucus as a Sanders supporter. He said the Sanders campaign had been canvassing outside of JBS during shift change between midnight and 2 a.m.
“The Bernie campaign was actively sitting outside trying to talk to people as they were coming in and out of work late at night,” he said. “That’s what’s special about Bernie’s campaign. It’s not a campaign, it’s a movement. Bernie literally has an army.”
Wapello County is among the 31 Iowa counties that voted twice for Democrat Barack Obama before swinging in favor of Republican Donald Trump in 2016.
Simonson said that more broadly across the county he expects labor groups to back Sanders. But he said Warren’s organization was the “best and quickest organized.” He said Buttigieg’s campaign has “done a great job of organizing behind the key demographics that he’s done well with across the state” — some of the wealthier areas where residents are more likely to have a college degree.
Though the Iowa Democratic Party had experimented with satellite caucuses in the past, they were introduced on a far grander scale this year to help accommodate a desire to make the caucuses more accessible and inclusive.
“The people who work second shift and don’t have permission from their employers to leave their place of work to go and caucus can be part of the democratic process,” said Frank Flanders, a 53-year-old Ottumwa resident who petitioned the party to host the off-hours caucus. “I believe it is a form of voter suppression to not make the democratic process available to everyone no matter what shift they work.”
Eighty-seven such caucus sites are being held across the world, according to the Iowa Democratic Party. Sixty are in Iowa, 24 are in other states and Washington, D.C., and three others are internationally located.
They included 14 workplace-related sites, 24 sites on college campuses, 29 sites designed to accommodate accessibility needs, 11 that accommodate language and culture needs and nine sites for Iowans who spend the winters out of state.