Much Of Caucus Criticism Misplaced Or Misunderstood

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.

13 Comments on "Much Of Caucus Criticism Misplaced Or Misunderstood"

  • Thank you for this! I was a chair in Johnson County and the amount of volunteer effort was tremendous, and the vast majority of reports I heard from other chairs were that it was very close but they felt good about results. Also to be borne in mind: all campaigns had/have captains or representatives who sign off on the reported numbers.

    I think 2016 has taught us a lot of lessons about how the caucus process could be streamlined and improved, namely: more involvement from those who are retroactively unhappy with it, more insistence from ppl in community that their schools not schedule conflicting events and make their space available, and more efficient counting processes. These are areas that can and should be made better to ensure less chaos and uncertainty. But ultimately, I believe the caucus results were accurate and that everyone should be proud of the work we did.

  • thank you john as a many time pct caucus chair i echo your thoughts here as well it isnt pretty or easy it is unique! proud to b an Iowan!

  • A campaign complaint about individual caucuses is disingenuous. Each and every campaign that had attendees had on site input into the process. Don’t complain about the process if you didn’t know the rules. And don’t complain if you willingly went along without raising your questions.
    I chaired my caucus for about the 16th time and have always been transparent in the process. I don’t tolerate fools lightly, so if people don’t listen to what they hear there is only so much time that can be taken going over the same thing before others get restless. A good friend complained about her caucus and I asked her the one question that revealed the problem. Did anyone object or demand a vote or was anything done secretly? If no, why not?
    Nothing is perfect, but the results of the Iowa Democratic caucuses was just and correct.
    Great job explaining John. Proud to serve our party with you. Peace

  • The process went well in our precinct. My wife who was my precinct co-chair did a great job in leading the caucus and making sure all the counting and math was correct.
    The caucus math is really the easy part. We had 8 delegates and split it 4 for Clinton and 4 for Bernie. However I do think there needs to be some very fundalmental changes. In cities where there are such large crowds and facilities aren’t large enough, I think a Presidential primary is better. Since we have a primary election in June in election years it will be easy for the state to add names of the Presidential candidates. More people will be able to particpate. That is why we are Democrats. More participation. I just hope that the party will consider big changes or without the changes the caucus in Iowa will destroy itself.. We need big changes for the better!!! Caucusus are about party building but we can still do party building without the caucus system. There will always be the wonks who want to be involved. There will never be a perfect situation but without review changes nothing will get better. I will still be a proud Democrat either way this goes but I will personally feel more comfortable about the Democratic Party with some fundamental changes in the caucus system. Right now it appears to be a show of force by the candidates rather than the serious event that it is supposed to be. Now is the time for the Democratic Party to look into changes before it is forgotten about in 2 and 4 years. Pressure needs to be kept up on the powers in the Party .

  • Comment to John McCormally—–Your name grabbed me. My Dad worked in the composing room when John McCormally was the editor of our Burlington Hawk-Eye for many years, including in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter campaigned here and spent some time in the McCormally home that afternoon. By any chance are you that Mr. John McCormally’s son? Then I read your article, and I appreciated how clear and thoughtful your explanation of the caucus was. Thank you very much!

  • The Iowa Democratic caucus system is ironically undemocratic. It discourages voter participation by awarding a lower share of delegates per voter the more people turn out. The result is that some people in high turnout precincts end up having their vote count for less than 10% of the vote of a person in some low turnout precincts. This should be changed going forward to mirror the Iowa Republican Party’s caucus system, which simply and fairly grants one vote per voter.

    Changes like this can all be discussed and implemented later. For now, Iowa needs to display to the country that it has the capability to perform a fair and honest election. That premise is under serious scrutiny. A public audit of the numbers is the only way to prove that the Iowa Democratic Party ran the caucuses competently.

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