On the Campaign Trail in Iowa — Day 8

Friday was our last day in Iowa. The state has been good to us.  We have had the pleasure of interacting with many friendly, gracious and knowledgeable people who have helped us understand more about the nature of Iowa caucus politics and the Iowa caucus process.

Friday morning we met with Polk County Democratic Party Chair, Tom Henderson. Des Moines is in Polk County, so after getting a sense of a county party operation in a smaller county yesterday during our time in Poweshiek County (where Grinnell College is located), we learned more about party organization in a much more populous area and one that leans Democratic politically.  Tom helped us understand his role in preparing for the upcoming caucuses on February 1, including the selection of precinct locations.  We learned that by state law, the parties can reserve public buildings for precinct caucuses, including structures such as schools and libraries. While churches are sometimes used, these private entities would need to agree to let a caucus occur on their property.  They are not obliged to do so according to law.  Churches are more likely to serve as precinct caucus locations for Republican caucuses. Our visit with Tom was very timely because on Thursday, both political parties in Iowa announced the development of a cell phone app that will hopefully allow precinct captains to report results in a more timely and efficient manner. Naturally, after some of the contested caucus results coming out of the Republican caucuses in the last election cycle, both parties are keenly aware of the need for efficiency and accuracy in reporting caucus results.

Tom has had the privilege of interacting with a number of democratic presidential candidates over the past two decades including John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and shared astute observations about the prior three Iowa caucuses. This review provided us with helpful perspectives of candidate strategies and traits and campaign organizations.

Our final session of the Iowa leg of our trip was with Drake University Political Science Professor Art Sanders. We were captivated by Professor Sanders’ astute and detailed analysis of each of the remaining candidates on both sides of the aisle. This session was a perfect ending to all of our activities in Iowa.  Our direct observation of the candidates and our numerous sessions with political scientists, current and former party officials, campaign staff and activists, have given us significant knowledge we will be able to use to analyze the last three weeks of the campaign and the eventual outcome of the Iowa caucuses.

As is the case with all elections, turnout is key. On the Democratic side, while it does not appear the turnout in the Democratic caucuses will rival 2008 when Barack Obama scored a stunning victory that catapulted his campaign, a larger than normal turnout could benefit Bernie Sanders.  Our speakers and our own observations from attending a Clinton campaign event and interacting with Clinton campaign staff this week verified that this time around, the Clinton campaign is well-organized in the state. While Martin O’Malley may not fare as well in Iowa, our session on Thursday in Poweshiek County where we received a primer on caucus math. This lesson illustrated how O’Malley caucus-goers and uncommitted caucus-goers might strategically behave after initial preference groups are formed on caucus night, and could also have an impact on the delegate count for each candidate in the precinct. Professor Sanders noted that from his observations, the O’Malley campaign was better organized in Iowa than the Bernie Sanders campaign, something that could impact caucus-day turnout.

As we have learned through our fall courses and time in Iowa, the caucuses are a dynamic process that involves a strong understanding of the rules and procedures. The two parties have different caucus processes.  Iowa Republicans essentially conduct a straw poll of presidential preferences on the evening of the precinct caucuses whereas Democrats form initial preference groups.  The Democratic process is more interactive and requires campaign precinct organizers to persuade other caucus goers to join their preference groups (supporters of candidates) before the final determination of viability (a percentage threshold a groups must meet that is based on the number of delegate at stake in the precinct).  Most American citizens also don’t understand that the caucus process is repeated at the county and congressional district levels before both parties hold their state conventions in the summer where the final delegate slate to the national Democratic and Republican nominating conventions is determined.  The big focus for the media is the presidential preference component.

It is important to understand how important the caucus process is to the development of the state party. For instance, in 2012, Ron Paul supporters were strategically cognizant enough to know that after the initial straw poll in the GOP caucus, supporters who remain in at the caucus location through the process of delegate selection stand a better chance of getting themselves selected as delegates to the state party convention where state party leadership is determined.  So, in 2012, Paul supporters (largely libertarian-leaning) essentially gained control of the leadership of the Iowa Republican party. The establishment Republicans (referred to in the state as the Branstad [Iowa Governor Terry Branstad] wing of the party), however, regained control of state party leadership during the 2014 caucuses (yes, party caucuses are also held during midterm election years as well, but obviously don’t involve presidential preference voting).

Precinct caucus night on February 1 will be a dynamic evening and, thanks to our time in Iowa, we feel very well positioned to interpret developments that evening as we watch reporting on television.

We feel fortunate to now have the opportunity to understand more about the first-in-the-nation primary state, New Hampshire, as we launch our week in the state on Saturday.

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