Much Of Caucus Criticism Misplaced Or Misunderstood

By Pat Rynard

February 5, 2016

Guest post by John McCormally

The Register’s recent editorial “Something smells in the Democratic Party,” perpetuates misinformation about the historically close Iowa caucuses. Here’s the truth: The results were really close. When the results are so close, every little thing seems like a big problem. In reality, problems were minimal. There were 1,681 caucuses, and the overwhelming majority ran smoothly. Only the tightness of the race is unusual.

The Register’s editorial seems rooted in a misunderstanding of the Iowa caucuses. As someone who actually chaired a precinct caucus and also spent significant time in the Iowa Democratic Party reporting center caucus night, I would like to address some key points.

The Register criticized the IDP for refusing to release the “vote totals.” This request displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the caucus process. A caucus does not record “votes” for each candidate. The “accounting” some people are demanding is the one used for delegate apportionment and it cannot provide an accurate summary of the caucus results. That is because caucuses involve alignments, and then realignments, before delegates can be selected. For example, most precincts recorded no “voters” for Martin O’Malley. However, O’Malley had some initial support nearly everywhere–just not the 15% needed for viability. O’Malley’s numbers were never recorded because only viable preference groups were counted. O’Malley voters simply folded into other groups or left. In the end, delegates are awarded not based on raw votes, but with a delegate formula tied to county convention delegate allotment. In a caucus, it is delegate numbers that truly matter, and those are publicly available.

Many people are also confused about the occurrence of coin flips. As the Register’s own Jason Noble has explained, coin flips are a part of the process—that every campaign is aware of—and represent fractions of the final result. This is because the coin flips that occurred in a handful of precincts only determined the allocation of county convention delegates. On caucus night, over 11,000 Iowans were elected to be delegates to their county’s Democratic conventions. Coin flips determined the outcome of a few of those. These county delegates will elect delegates to the State Convention. The State convention will consist of approximately 1,400 delegates. It would take an unusually high number of coin tosses disproportionately won by one candidate to make even a negligible change in the results. That didn’t happen.

The Register also criticized “untrained caucus chairs.” Even if one fails to appreciate the herculean effort required to find and train nearly 1,700 volunteers from every corner of the state, surely you must appreciate that one of the fundamental tenants of a democracy is that it is run by the people. People have lives, and stuff happens. In one Des Moines precinct, the designated chair failed to show up due to a personal emergency less than an hour before caucus. That happens in real life. Local leaders worked double time to create new caucus packet, and a new temporary chair took over after a brief training. It was far from ideal, but it’s one of those things you must accept in a democracy—the process is only as perfect as the people themselves.

As to the overcrowding that occurred at some precincts, the party worked hard to secure the largest public spaces but was not always successful. Many schools denied both parties access. My own precinct caucus took place in an overcrowded union hall, when there was an elementary school and its spacious gymnasium literally across the street to which we were denied access.

Nevertheless, the 325 people in that room caucused for their preferred candidate. Of those, over 200 had to fill out voter registration forms, indicating they were new caucus-goers. The turnout was twice what both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns expected in our precinct. That new-voter enthusiasm tells you that people are hungry for democratic participation—but also explains why there are so many criticisms of the process. Caucuses are not primaries—they are party building events rife with idiosyncrasies. If you’ve never participated, they seem weird. They don’t always lend themselves to clear results, and this one in particular doesn’t fit into our cultural obsession with picking a clear winner and loser. Caucuses are nuanced, and nuance doesn’t translate to 10 second soundbites and 140 character tweets.

The reality is that Democrats had two very strong candidates who head out of Iowa with virtually equal support. That’s not something to be investigated, its something to be celebrated.

The Iowa Caucuses are special—but they were never built for the horse race journalism that pervades today’s media. At the end of the day, the caucus is for assigning delegates and building a party. We had two strong candidates who were assigned virtually equal delegates. Over 170,000 Iowa Democrats debated the future of our country by standing with their neighbors in 1,681 neighborhood precincts spread over 99 counties. That’s pretty amazing. Kudos to the entire Iowa Democratic Party staff–I’m proud to have been part of it.


by John McCormally
Posted 2/5/16

John McCormally is a Des Moines attorney and Democratic party volunteer.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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