Don’t Count Out Iowa Just Yet

Don’t Count Out Iowa Just Yet

The Iowa caucus has had a target on its back for decades. But like a vampire, it will be hard to kill. Here are some reasons why.


Caucuses are not elections.

No one “votes” for president at a Democratic caucus in Iowa. People sit or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbors and choose their favorite candidate. If that candidate has less than 15 percent of those neighbors’ choices, people have an opportunity to choose again.

But in a lesser-known way, precinct caucuses are elections. After most people and the TV cameras leave, those who remain cast votes for precinct committee members, county convention officials, and a slate of delegates representing the presidential preferences of the caucus members.

At my caucus of 846 people, for example, participants awarded five delegates each to Sanders and Warren and two to Klobuchar. They then elected 12 people to serve as those delegates at the county convention, the next step in the party-building process that was the original intent of the caucus system. It’s truly democratic to decide who will represent you in party affairs that affect your neighborhood, your county, your city, your state.

In the good old days (i.e., the previous century) before the glare of national publicity began to threaten the existence of the caucuses, one more election would be held: the adoption of resolutions that eventually become the party’s platform. Those resolutions ranged from the cosmic (e.g., “We support world peace”) to the comic (e.g., “We believe that everyone here should help put away the chairs”), but they also tackled relevant issues like marriage equality, immigration reform, health care, and support or opposition to specific pieces of state and federal legislation. Sadly, to some of us, only a handful of caucus-goers linger into the night to discuss ideas, big and small, with their neighbors.

Caucuses are not primaries.

The expectation of rapid results coming from nearly 1700 events run by volunteers (not the secretary of state, not the county auditor, not paid professionals) is ridiculous. Most Iowa caucus attendees waited patiently and with good humor for their neighbors to work through the caucus process in their school gyms, church basements, and college buildings, in contrast to Chris Cuomo in his CNN studio demanding hard numbers immediately.

If you can do something without an app, don’t use an app.

The Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) had a plan to make the caucuses more inclusive. It worked hard to, among other things, hold so-called virtual caucuses to allow more people to participate. But then something happened.

It’s all the DNC’s fault.

On August 31, 2019, the Democratic National Committee told the IDP to scrap its plans due to “hacking concerns.” This left the IDP five months to come up with a new plan that would improve inclusivity, satisfy the ever-demanding New Hampshire Democratic party, and please the media and others who wanted, for the first time, raw numbers as well as delegate equivalents.

Caucuses build community and Democratic/democratic participation.

In a primary you cast your ballot, usually in a few minutes, and go home. You don’t interact with the family who lives down the street, the couple who just moved into your apartment building, the young person who shovels your walk, the people on your bus route… or the farmer down the road. In a primary you don’t get to elect people who represent you locally. In a primary you don’t build community by hanging out with old friends and meeting new people, or by volunteering to check people in, count cards, or by talking with strangers about which candidate you’re supporting.

In the words of one Democrat at her first caucus, “It was such an experience, aiding democracy in a concrete way. I’m grateful to be able to associate with so many wonderful people in the neighborhood.”

The Iowa caucus has had a target on its back for decades. Maybe “App-gate” will be the final stake in its heart. Despite its problems, this year it succeeded once again in winnowing the field (remember when 22 candidates tested the water in Iowa?) and giving candidates real-world training. Like vampires, it will be hard to kill.

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