Hillary Clinton went in to caucus night in 2008 in 2nd place. Nearly every entrance poll released showed her ahead of John Edwards, though still behind Barack Obama. But after the realignment period in the actual caucus – where candidate groups who don’t meet the Democrats’ viability threshold switch sides – Clinton ended just behind Edwards. Very few supporters of Bill Richardson, Joe Biden or Chris Dodd had Clinton as their backup option. Non-viable caucus-goers’ 2nd choices were a big reason Clinton suffered the damaging 3rd place finish.
Now we’re entering the final stretch of the 2016 Iowa Caucus, with Clinton and Bernie Sanders neck-and-neck for the lead. Clinton bested Sanders in the last Des Moines Register poll by a mere two points, meaning Martin O’Malley’s backers 2nd choice could swing the whole thing.
O’Malley has frustratingly stayed stuck in the mid- to high-single digits for much of this campaign in Iowa, and is unlikely to see any major movement in the last two weeks (although they do keep signing up some late-deciding Iowans at events). He has pockets of strong support around the state, and will certainly reach viability in a number of places. But in many others he will not.
Starting Line reached out to many of O’Malley’s backers around the state that we know well over the past few days to get a sense of what might happen on caucus night. Some preferred to not be quoted by name out of concern for their strategy in their own precinct on caucus night.
Where Will O’Malley Support Go?
Let’s start out with who a typical O’Malley supporter in Iowa tends to be. They’re almost all former caucus-goers, many are activists and county party central committee members, some younger people and the issue-oriented crowd.
The O’Malley campaign actually did a rather good job early on of locking down important activists and building a loyal group of volunteers. Indeed, O’Malley’s core supporters have taken on a Biden-esque quality of loyalty – they committed early on and have steadfastly stuck with him even as he’s failed to gain traction. Unfortunately, the mass appeal for O’Malley never came through, and it was difficult to grow beyond their early numbers.
The reasons they were drawn to O’Malley, however, vary, and is why they may not move en masse to either Clinton or Sanders. Some back O’Malley because they like his executive experience and that he seems like a highly electable candidate for the general election. Those folks might lean toward similarities they see in Clinton. Others prefer O’Malley because he’s a fresh face and has promoted very progressive policies. And some chose him because they simply don’t like Clinton on a personal level. Those may chose Sanders’ corner.
“My second choice would definitely be Hillary,” said Lu Ann Pedrick of Urbandale. “But I think you’re going to see it all over the board … I think there’s going to be some people who just go with who they support if O’Malley was not in the race … Of the ones I’ve spoken to, they’re all leaning Hillary.”
“From my perspective, my second choice is Hillary Clinton by far,” noted Taylor Van De Krol of Jasper County, though he has so many O’Malley backers in his smaller rural precinct that he thinks O’Malley should win his precinct outright. “I think she is a valid candidate, she has the experience needed. I don’t think a President Sanders will be able to get anything done with a Republican Congress.”
Another precinct O’Malley is almost certain to score some delegates in is the Sherman Hill neighborhood precincts near downtown Des Moines, filled with apartments home to many political professionals (and where O’Malley himself played guitar for a crowd at Carl’s, the local dive bar). But an O’Malley volunteer there says he expects most of his friends there would go with Sanders otherwise. And in the two largest western Iowa counties, Starting Line hears most O’Malley backers are leaning toward Sanders as their second choice.
“I’ll be going with Sanders in the second round if O’Malley’s not viable in my precinct,” plans one county chairman in eastern Iowa. “I’m worried Clinton is too divisive for the general, and I like what Sanders is saying on Wall Street reform better anyway.”
“There are going to be some individuals who are anti-establishment and will go with Bernie,” added Van De Krol.
Most admit they don’t see an overwhelming shift to one candidate or the other.
“I think in my precinct, most of O’Malley’s 2nd choice is Sanders,” suggested a Democratic insider who lives near downtown Des Moines. “But I could see it being a split decision statewide.”
There has been surprisingly little polling that gauges O’Malley 2nd choices, but one recent PPP Poll showed O’Malley backers favor Sanders over Clinton by a wide 43-20 margin. Starting Line didn’t find that lopsided of support in conversations, but it’s entirely possibly that the non-activists turning out for O’Malley are part of the anti-Clinton crowd.
Who’s Reaching Out?
A lot of where those 2nd choicers end up could depend on what the Clinton and Sanders teams are doing right now to woo potentially non-viable folks ahead of time. The Clinton campaign surprisingly forgot to implement a full program on this in 2008, often leaving people identified as supporting Biden, Dodd or Richardson out of their contact lists. Both Obama and Edwards kept in close contact. There was also a deluge of anti-Clinton advertising in Iowa that time (because she was the front-runner for most of it). All those factors combined to badly hurt Clinton in the realignment phase.
This time is different it seems. Nearly everyone Starting Line spoke with noted that they’re still being contacted by both campaigns, even though they’ve identified as being with O’Malley. So at the very least, both sides are keeping O’Malley folks in their lists.
“I’m already feeling the pressure [from both campaigns],” said Bev Strayhall, a key eastern Iowa activist in Scott County with O’Malley.
It also sounds like there’s been outreach at higher levels from the Clinton campaign as well.
“There’s some precincts where we won’t be viable in, and seeing where people will line up, right now those conversations are looking like we’ll line up with Hillary,” said one Democratic activist in a liberal precinct near downtown Des Moines, noting that top Clinton Iowa staff and local volunteer leadership have courted them heavily. “We feel that she would be the person who would be able to get our goals accomplished. It’s not that we don’t believe in Bernie, it’s just he’s be in DC for 30 years and his ideas haven’t come to fruition.”
A lot will depend on the relationships that local field staff have built up with caucus-goers in every county. That might give Clinton a slight advantage considering they were on the ground longer. Clinton has also landed the endorsements of many Iowa elected officials and long-time activists – the same type of people that O’Malley counts in their volunteer leadership.
“Ever since the candidates announced last spring, Governor O’Malley has had the same organizer there for Jasper County. So has Hillary. For Bernie we’ve had at least five different ones,” Van De Krol points out of the dynamic in his county.
Will Anyone Make O’Malley Viable?
A common tactic employed in the Democratic caucus is to help make a non-viable group viable if you fear their members would all move over to your rival. A John Edwards group may have sent three of their people to a Bill Richardson corner to get him to the 15% viability threshold so that they didn’t all switch to Barack Obama and give Obama an extra delegate. Sometimes deals will be made, like the Richardson group elects the Edwards supporter that comes over as their representative to the county convention.
This type of maneuvering is hard to predict and plan for. You can go in with a strategy, but the dynamics of every precinct on caucus night can vary wildly. Since the Democrats’ caucus is a public vote, neighbor’s relationships can have a big impact.
Fortunately for O’Malley, his precinct captains are professionals at this and know how caucus math works.
“I’m wondering what kind of deal I can make,” said Strayhall in Scott County. “If the Hillary people say we’ll give you some people, and make you viable, and that will deprive Bernie of a delegate. I’m not sure how this will play out, and I don’t think I’ll know until caucus night … I expect to be approached by both. I’m looking at how I can maximize getting a delegate for Martin O’Malley. If you understand the long-range strategy of the caucus, it helps to make alliances … I hope all our supporters realize how to maximize our leverage on caucus night.”
The difficulty for O’Malley will be coming close enough to viability in many of these precincts to make this kind of strategy useful for Clinton or Sanders. You might send 5 people over from your group in order to make another one viable. But you probably wouldn’t send 20 people. At that point, you’re risking hurting yourself.
If his groups are able to pull off this strategy, O’Malley might even end up with a higher percentage in the caucus than what he’s currently polling at. But to do that effectively the Clinton or Sanders groups would need to fear O’Malley backers will switch en masse to one candidate. It doesn’t seem like there’s a uniform 2nd choice, or at the least that it’s not going to break 80-20 for one candidate.
So O’Malley caucus-goers could certainly still give that extra 1 or 2% boost to push Clinton or Sanders into the lead in Iowa. The smartest campaign may be able to arrange that on caucus night, using the months of work they’ve already done in the state. As it always is with everything else in the Iowa Caucus, it will all come down to personal relationships in local neighborhoods.
by Pat Rynard