Caucus Crazy 2020 — Caucus Day Is Here!

Iowans Put Their 'Bodies' on the Line

'We few, we happy few': Steyer supporters at Precinct 62. | Credit: Lawrence Gamble

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Morning visit to the state capitol building. Apparently we were very tired from yesterday’s activities, so instead of waking up at our usual 6 a.m., we were only awake after 7. I had penciled in a couple of possible early morning “caucus kick-off” events that started at 8, but I just couldn’t convince myself to rush off. Instead, Evelyn and I decided to tour the state capitol building. It was worth it. The day was colder and blustery, but we bundled up and tried not to think about what the temperature probably was in Santa Barbara at that moment.

We joined a tour group of young Latter Day Saints missionaries and were entertained by a very energetic and knowledgeable docent as she squired us around the capitol. It is a beautiful building and well worth the stop if you are passing on I-235. We learned about the history of Iowa, of the capital being moved twice before it landed in Des Moines, how and when the capitol building was built, got to see the Constitution of the State of Iowa, sat in the gallery of the state house of representatives, and admired the art and craftsmanship that has been and still is put into the building. 

We had the time because the campaigns really don’t do public events on caucus morning and the senators are back in D.C. for the closing arguments in the impeachment trial. 

Before I came out to Iowa, a fellow I had met in San Francisco who hails from Iowa had put me in touch with two people who had been precinct captains and who are conversant in the goings and comings of Iowa Democratic politics. Today we met and sat down with Mike Whitmer. Mike had previously been a lobbyist at the state capital and will be attending the Precinct 62 caucus tonight at Drake University. He asked me what I had been up to and I gave him a (brief) run down of the events recounted at more length in this blog.

We talked about the pros and cons of the various Democratic candidates. I won’t divulge his preference without his permission, but he did confide that at this late date, with the caucus just four hours away he was still undecided! I think many Iowa Democrats feel that way. They want a candidate who will pursue a policy agenda they agree with, but they also want to win in November. These two are often in conflict, particularly this year. It will be interesting to watch the caucus and see who Mike ends up supporting when he has to “put his body on the line,” which is what the caucus process requires.

After speaking to Mike I became concerned that I didn’t know enough about the process of actually attending a caucus as a member of the press. Evelyn and I are planning on attending the Precinct 62 caucus, which will be held at the Knapp Events Center at Drake University. More than 1,200 people are expected, which would put it as the highest participation total ever, and someone predicted that the number might approach 2,000.

Parking is a potential problem, and long lines to get in the building are concerning, as a Santa Barbarian not used to Iowa winter weather. After a balmy day yesterday where the high temperature reached the high 40s, today the clouds have returned, the wind is blowing from the north, and at caucus time the temperature with wind chill factor is supposed to be in the 20s. I decided action was needed.

Harvey Wolf had sent me a letter from the precinct chairman for precinct 62 which explained the process and answered questions. Harvey also clued me in that Jeffrey Goetz, the precinct chairman, was a UCSB grad. That was all the entrée I needed. Jeff had placed his cell number on the letter, so I called him, introduced myself, and he invited us to the Knapp Center to register and get our entry stickers.

We found Jeff being interviewed at great length by a local news outlet and saw that video cameras had already been set up, and that a satellite truck was parked behind the building. When Jeff was finished I introduced myself and Evelyn and explained our task to view the caucus in action. He was very gracious and took time to introduce us to his staff and to make sure we were registered early so we wouldn’t have to wait in line later this evening. We listened in as Jeff explained to his helpers how the registration process would go for folks who had not yet registered for the caucus. As Iowa now has same-day voter registration, the volunteers also have to be ready to sign people up to vote before they register to caucus.

The Knapp Center is a new, nicely appointed basketball pavilion. From the many banners hanging from the ceiling, it is apparent that both the men’s and women’s Drake basketball teams have storied success at both the league and national level. Large video monitors are stationed at both ends of the court, over where the baskets would normally be. These monitors flash greetings and information for caucus goers.

Our business concluded for the moment we headed back to our hotel to recuperate.

6:30 p.m. — Knapp Center. Only one third of seats reserved for caucus goers are filled. Hundreds of people mill around the mezzanine level, just above the seats where they are supposed to sit. The precinct chairman, in consultation with the Iowa Democratic Party, has roughly apportioned the seats based on a poll taken in early January. It looks like Elizabeth Warren has been granted the greatest number of seats, but it remains to be seen if they all will be filled.

I was told that the decision was made to seat people initially by their initial presidential choice because it will be easier to count. The problem I see is that by having people sit in folding stadium-type seats, it will be more difficult for caucus goers to talk to people in other groups and to try to persuade them to leave a candidate and join another.

Candidates who are not able to garner at least 15 percent in the initial tally will be considered “non-viable.” Their caucus supporters will then be given three choices: align with another candidate; move to the undecided column; or leave. Due to a change in the rules, if there are 15 percent or more undecideds after the second tally, they will remain undecided.

There are approximately 2,000 seats in the basketball pavilion. In 2016, 800 people showed up in this precinct to decide between Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley. They are expecting as much as 50 percent more.

Jeff, the precinct chairman, asks for a show of hands as to how many people are first-time caucus goers. Hundreds of hands shoot up, primarily in the Warren and Pete sections. Jeff also notes that while in the past a few observers showed up, tonight the end bleacher section of 500 seats is almost full. He also notes that people have come from around the world and the U.S. to “watch your community caucus.”

Two women running for the Democratic nomination to run against Senator Joni Ernst, who is up for re-election this year, give brief speeches asking for support.

The Caucus Count

The counting starts a little after 7 p.m. First, each section is asked to shift over so that there are no empty seats. The counters have caucus goers stand up row by row to be counted. It is time-consuming and even tedious, but for everyone’s sake and the legitimacy of the process, it must be done correctly. The first count will be of total voters present, which will make the viability threshold possible. After the viability number is reached, non-viable candidates’ supporters will have a change to realign. That will be the interesting moment in the process.

At 7:45 the head count and viability numbers are announced. For the 849 head count, viability is 127. Now each candidates’ section is re-counted to see the exact numbers seated for each of the seven candidates.

At 8 o’clock the results are announced.

The initial tally:

Biden–131

Buttigieg-172

Klobuchar-140

Sanders-129

Steyer-26

Warren-212

Yang-28

Uncommitted-7

Gabbard-2

The Haggling Begins

Now the “haggling” begins: a 15-minute period during which followers of viable candidates can try to convince followers of the non-viable to come over to their candidate. As only 63 people have the chance to re-align, it seems doubtful that the realignment will be significant at this precinct.

I went over to the area where people were supposed to be talking to the 63 to try to convince them to join one of the viable candidates, but I only saw one Steyer voter convinced to switch to Buttigieg. There is such a scrum of media and non-media observers at this precinct that I can’t see any more persuading going on.

I don’t wait for the final tally or the delegates awarded from the precinct. This last is the third of the three numbers each precinct is supposed to report to the state party.

Arriving back at my hotel, I turn on MSNBC and learn that problems arose during the process of reporting results to the state party. The reporters have nothing to report. In 2016, official numbers were released at 8:30 (which is when Precinct 62 should have been able to report tonight), but nothing so far. By the time I turn out the lights, no Iowa results. I am confident that when I awaken Tuesday we will all know what happened in the more than 1,600 precincts tonight.

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