Anybody familiar with the caucus process is unsurprised by the chaos emerging from the Iowa caucuses last night. Iowa Democratic party officials are right now scurrying about trying to figure out who won.
The source of the problem is reportedly a mobile app that the local caucus leaders were to use to report their results. It appears that the app didn’t work. Given recent events in American politics, it’s easy to place the blame on this fiasco at the feet of the Russians or some other group intent on hacking our political process. Iowans deny this theory. Instead, they insist that they are just incompetent.
Interestingly, nobody is quite sure where the idea of caucuses came from. Even the etymology of the word is in some dispute. Suffice it to say, however, that it is an antiquated process that is on the way out. Iowans like to argue that it is a pure form of direct democracy. In reality, it is what was once called the “smoke-filled rooms” where party activists would debate who would be their nominee.
This year, only three states will hold Democratic caucuses: Iowa, Nevada, and Wyoming. In addition to those states, electoral powerhouses like Guam, American Samoa, the Virgin Islands, and the Mariana Islands will also elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention (DNC)through caucuses. Everywhere else, delegates are selected through a primary.
We previewed the chaos in the Iowa caucuses in Nevada in 2016. After Hillary Clinton won the Nevada caucuses, Bernie Sanders tried to win a majority of the delegates at the State Convention, essentially invalidating the electoral result. When Democratic party officials stopped this effort, Sanders supporters stormed the stage. None of this would happen, in Iowa, Nevada, or elsewhere, if we just relied upon primaries.
That seems to be the trend of the party. In 2012, 17 states, including my home state of Michigan, elected delegates to the DNC with caucuses. In 2016, that number was down to 15. This year, only three states will hold caucuses. Clearly, these are an artifact of the past.
Ironically, Sanders supporters should be very concerned about this trend. Due to their complex rules, caucuses tend to favor candidates with well-organized passionate supporters. Candidates with slightly less enthusiastic, but more broad-based support tend to do less well there. This fact was evident in 2016 when Sanders won every state caucus except Iowa and Nevada, which he lost by narrow margins. In other words, Sanders won caucuses, Clinton won primaries, and there are a lot fewer caucuses this year than in 2016.
Most registered voters, even in a state like Iowa, have never participated in a caucus. Unlike a primary, which is just an election usually held by the government, a caucus is just a party meeting. As a result, those who want to participate must be available when the caucus is being held — typically on a weekday night — and they must be willing to spend some time there, more time than it would take just to cast a ballot.
Each political subdivision will hold its own caucus. In Iowa, that means that each of its 1681 precincts will hold one. A local party official will be designated chair of the caucus, and he or she will call the meeting to order. Attendance will be taken. Once it has been verified that all attending are authorized to participate, a vote will be held. Let’s say the vote is as follows: Sanders 20%, Biden 20%, Warren 15%, Buttigieg15%, Klobuchar 10%, with everybody else below that. After the first vote, all candidates who received less than 15 percent of the vote will be dropped from the ballot. In other words, only Sanders, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg will remain. Another vote will be held involving those candidates.
Before the vote can be held, however, the various delegates have an opportunity to talk with each other, or “caucus.” Each candidates’ supporters will try to recruit the 30 percent of attendees who voted for one of the dropped candidates. In other words, supporters of Sanders, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg will try to convince the people who voted for Klobuchar, Wang, Bloomberg, and anybody else to change their vote to the candidate they support. Once these discussions have happened, another vote will be taken.
As you can see, participating in a caucus can be a long, drawn-out affair. It’s easy for people to get confused and give up. As a result, there is a premium upon organization and commitment.
Each precinct will elect delegates pledged to the presidential candidate who won that caucus. Those delegates will then attend the Iowa Democratic State Convention, where they will elect delegates to the DNC pledged to support the presidential candidate who won. As a result, the process is far from over when the caucuses closed last night.
Ironically, only 27 delegates are at stake in Iowa’s Democratic caucus. That’s barely more than half of the 49 delegates allocated to Iowa. And that’s a tiny fraction of the 4,750 who will be attending the DNC. As a result, the only reason anyone pays attention to Iowa is because it goes first.
Iowans are well aware of this fact. That is why they cling so strongly to the idea of holding a caucus. By statute and tradition, New Hampshire holds the first primary in the nation. The only way Iowa can go before them is by holding a caucus. If they switched over to a primary system like virtually every other state, their input into the selection of presidential nominees would be minimal.
Given the chaos this year, the case is even stronger to remove this advantage from Iowa. Already, commentators are calling to an end to the preferential position given to Iowa given its lack of diversity and its antiquated nominating process. Iowa won’t give up this advantage easily, however. They love the influence and economic power that come with their position in the nominating process. It remains to be seen if that self-interest is enough to retain their status.