What Gubernatorial Campaign Strategies For The Iowa Caucus May Look Like

By Pat Rynard

February 1, 2018

The next governor of Iowa and member of Congress from the state’s 3rd District could be determined by what happens on Monday when Democrats gather for their off-year caucus. Attendees at the February 5th Iowa Caucus will kick off the caucus-to-convention delegate process, one that chooses who the party’s nominee is if no candidate receives 35% in the primary. With so many well-funded candidates in the gubernatorial and 3rd District primaries, that scenario is a distinct possibility.

Every campaign has been gearing up in a big way to ensure as many of their supporters as possible end up as delegates and alternates for the next step in the process after Monday night. While all would prefer to simply win outright on June 5, each is ensuring they have a strong backup plan for convention.

Here’s how the night could play out and how campaigns are strategizing for the caucus.

The Rules And Preference Groups

In most non-presidential year caucuses, Democrats simply meet for party business and to elect delegates and alternates, but don’t break out into preference groups. This year is obviously different.

After the introductory section of the evening, attendees divide into their precincts. At this point, a caucus-goer can make a motion that their precinct divide into preference groups for purposes of selecting delegates. That person has to specify which kind of preference group – gubernatorial, congressional or issue-based. The precinct takes a vote on the motion. It only requires 15% of the people in that precinct to vote in favor in order to use that proposed preference group.

Whoever makes the motion first or is called on first gets the first shot at a vote on their preference group idea. If the vote fails, others can motion for different kinds of preference groups if they want. If those fail, delegates are just selected as they usually are in non-presidential years, with no affiliation to anything. So, you could have someone motion to divide by congressional preference group, that fail with only 10% voting in favor, and then someone motions to break up by gubernatorial groups, which could then get 20% and pass.

We’ll cover this later, but a key thing to remember is this: a choice in any preference group is “uncommitted.”

If a precinct breaks into a preference group, the night plays out the same as it would for a presidential year caucus. People divide into their subgroups – if a group doesn’t hit the 15% viability threshold, they’ll have to realign into a different, viable group or sway enough people over to make theirs viable. Each precinct has a set number of delegates to elect, and caucus math is used to determine how many each group gets.

If a precinct does not break into a preference group, they will simply vote as a whole on who becomes delegates and alternates to the county convention.

The Reporting

Late on caucus night, the Iowa Democratic Party will report out several initial numbers: the overall turnout, the percentage of precincts that broke out into preference groups and what percentage of that chose to do gubernatorial or congressional or issue preference. What they won’t be reporting until a week or more later is the percent of delegates that each candidate received from preference groups.

The reasons for that is several. For one, the party wants to make absolutely sure they have all of the “hard” numbers in and verified before releasing information that could have an impact on the governor’s race. Volunteer precinct chairs are sending in their information through a simple Google Form reporting system, but it will take time to verify and compile everything. There’s also nearly 1,700 precincts in the state – every caucus, there is always a number of precincts that don’t report in on time, and party staff and volunteers spend hours into the night and early morning tracking down wayward precinct chairs.

The non-presidential year caucuses also weren’t ever intended to be a large media event. As IDP Chair Troy Price noted in a press call this week, due to how a gubernatorial convention would play out, it will be very difficult to extrapolate a candidate’s standing from the results of the precinct-level caucus.

Potential Strategies

So, with those rules in place, how does a campaign come out of Monday night feeling like they’re in a good place for a potential contested convention?

The biggest internal goal is obviously to get as many of your die-hard supporters elected as delegates and alternates in whatever way possible. Whether that’s by electing them in your own preference group, through an uncommitted group or just as a general delegate from a non-preference group precinct, it may make little difference. You just want as many supporters as possible to be eligible to move on to the county conventions.

What the best way is to get the most of those people elected is up for debate.

Breaking into preference groups could ensure that you get a set number of delegates for your candidate – and if you have a lot of your supporters show up in a precinct, that could make all the more sense. Alternatively, you could send all your supporters into the uncommitted group (or vote against forming preference groups in the first place) and try to get as many of your folks elected delegate regardless of your total support in the precinct. You might get even more of your backers elected this way. But there’s a danger if an opponent’s campaign is better-organized and does a better job of electing their people in that uncommitted group than you.

There’s also the potential external goal. If some campaigns push for preference groups and then win the biggest percentage of delegates for a candidate out of that, they could use that result to show momentum and organizational strength.

Two things will make that tricky. For one, the party won’t release the candidate delegate breakdowns until a week or more later. It’s also quite likely that uncommitted takes the biggest share of the vote (some candidates may intentionally tell their backers to go uncommitted regardless). And you’re not going to have one, uniform way that precincts break out.

A candidate could come in first among the others with 20% of the delegates, but if uncommitted/non-aligned delegates are 60%, does that make it as big of a deal? Then again, if a candidate does greatly out-perform another one in delegates from specific preference groups, they can use that as a talking point of how their campaign is well-prepared for a convention and has broad support.

Every campaign will probably be able to declare some sort of victory after Monday, but everyone also seems to realize that it’s still early on in the process.

And the reality is that there actually is a lot of people still undecided in the gubernatorial and congressional primaries. Even if someone is leaning strongly toward a certain candidate, they might prefer to join an uncommitted group instead (it should be noted that being a delegate for a specific candidate’s preference group doesn’t mean you have to back them later on in the process, though).

The other important thing to remember is this: not every person heading to the caucus is thinking in terms of the gubernatorial or congressional races. They’re just there because they’re a good Democrat. They’ll probably vote for people for delegate just because they like them.

Most of the campaigns were pretty guarded when asked whether they plan on breaking out into preference groups or not. But the rumor mill around town believes that Cathy Glasson and John Norris would prefer preference groups, while Fred Hubbell, Andy McGuire and Nate Boulton do not [update/of note: the rumor mill is sometimes wrong, as it seems to be with Norris’ plans]. All, however, have specific plans in place for whichever scenario arrises. And any plan – real or rumored – is subject to change before Monday night.

As for other, more intricate strategies – they probably won’t happen. Some have speculated you could prevent gubernatorial preference groups by having a supporter first proposing some issue group preference group and voting for that. But those kind of tricky moves that only veteran caucus-goers know how to pull off likely can’t be coordinated in a meaningful way across nearly 1,700 precincts to make a difference (and its not clear how effective such tacitcs are, anyway).

The smart thing for everyone will be to simply play nice. A lot of legitimately uncommitted Democrats will be showing up on Monday night. Even if a campaign doesn’t get as many of their people through as delegates as they’d like, there’s still a lot of time and opportunities to win people over before the county conventions. The county conventions, however, will likely be much, much more contentious.


As for the congressional campaigns, with so much of a focus on the gubernatorial race right now, it will probably be hard for many people to convince their precinct to break out into congressional preference groups. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of opportunity for those candidates.

They just need to make sure they have plenty of their own activists out at the caucus, preferably ones who overlap their loyalties with other successful candidates. One campaign for governor noted that a certain congressional campaign had rolled out a list of endorsers filled with a lot of the same people on that gubernatorial candidate’s own local activist lists from earlier. By figuring out which caucus-goers are likely to run as delegates for the gubernatorial candidates, the congressional campaigns can target and woo those people early on to double up with them.

Gubernatorial Candidates’ Advantages And Preparation

Each campaign has been preparing for caucus night for months. You don’t get the sense that any believe this is a do-or-die moment, but it’s clearly still key to most candidates’ plans. Each gubernatorial contender goes into the night with some important advantages.

John Norris personally has the most caucus experience and strategy knowledge of any of the candidates, along with a good team with Iowa experience. He also draws his base of support from longtime activists and old campaign hands, which have been helpful in training caucus volunteers and finding leaders in counties they don’t have as big an infrastructure in.

Having pushed a rural message and organizing strategy from the start, he has good coverage of many precincts outside the urban areas. The Norris campaign plans to have a surrogate speaker program to get well-known Democrats out to pitch his campaign at various caucus locations. Many old friends of Norris will give their personal stories about how they know him. Meanwhile, their campaign has four precinct leader calls planned for the final week leading up to the caucus. They also believe they can persuade many of the undecided delegates before county convention.

Nate Boulton will benefit from his support from organized labor – many of those unions are running programs to turn their members out to the caucus. Union membership is pretty well spread-out across the state, giving Boulton active supporters in lots of precincts. AFSCME members started changing their Facebook profile pictures to ones of them with Boulton and overlaid text saying they’re caucusing on February 5.

Boulton himself has been on a statewide pre-caucus tour to mobilize supporters, and their campaign has held plenty of trainings. Those trainings include not just lessons on how the caucus night works, but also the importance of things like getting on the rules and credentials committees. The Boulton staff also largely comes from 2016 Iowa Caucus campaigns.

“Since early May, Team Boulton has been organizing in every corner of the state,” Boulton campaign manager Joe O’Hern told Starting Line. “Whether it’s support from the labor movement, legislative Democrats, local elected officials or the hundreds of activists that make up this campaign and party, everyone has been chipping in to help build out this campaign’s statewide infrastructure. We are excited about the upcoming caucuses and the hundreds of Iowans who have committed to getting elected as delegates to their county and state convention. From the tried and true activists like Penny Rosfjord in Sioux City to the first time caucus goers like Lucy Karlin in Des Moines, Team Boulton is working every day to build a movement that can win in November.”

Many of those elected officials and longtime party activists will naturally have the best shot of getting elected as delegates, especially in uncommitted groups or precincts that don’t break into preference groups.

By that same token, this may also be why it’s advantageous for a campaign like Glasson’s to break out by preference group. One of their campaign’s big goals for the caucus is testing out their strategy of expanding the electorate for the primary and the general election, bringing in new or disengaged voters into the process. They’ve been hard at work at mobilizing those voters, holding town hall meetings with CCI around the state in key Democratic areas, as well as their own. CCI, the progressive advocacy group that endorsed Glasson last year, has members in all 99 counties, which helps Glasson’s precinct coverage.

The campaign has over 1,000 statewide volunteers and over 230 precinct leaders trained up. They’ll also likely get some assistance from many of the national progressive organizations that have endorsed, like Our Revolution and National Nurses United, who will push their local members to get involved. Glasson should do well in progressive strongholds in Iowa City and parts of Des Moines, but it’s useful to remember that Bernie Sanders, whose past base of support she’s largely drawing from, won many Western and Eastern Iowa rural counties.

Andy McGuire benefits from all the personal relationships she built up with party activists during her time as state chair. A big part of that role is knowing and keeping in touch with Democrats who serve on constituency committees, run county parties and deal with process stuff like rules and credentials committees. That’s the kind of person certain to show up to an off-year caucus, including ones who may be undecided and are open to persuasion.

But McGuire’s campaign also pointed out they too will have first-time caucus-goers showing up that support her.

“I was intrigued by Dr. McGuire’s medical background and health care expertise,” said Tyler Loew, an Iowa State University freshman who got involved with McGuire’s campaign after the Fall Gala. “I recently registered to vote in Story County where I live and attend Iowa State University. I’m looking forward to my first Iowa Caucus experience on Monday night. This is what grassroots campaigning looks like.”

“The number one thing our campaign is doing is spreading the word and increasing awareness about the upcoming caucuses,” McGuire campaign manager Monica Biddix told Starting line. “We are using some of our validators to urge folks to go out and caucus on February 5th and get involved at the local level. The rules in an off-year caucus are different than in a presidential year in that they do not require precincts to align into preference groups, and if precincts choose to align, they could do so by any candidate – or by any issue – not just one level of the ticket. And so we won’t have any kind of uniformity coming out of February 5th to really serve as a yardstick the way we do in a presidential year.”

Fred Hubbell appears to have the largest field team of any of the candidates, and those organizers making calls and building relationships with activists and supporters matter for competing in every precinct. Each candidate has specific geographic areas of support and good activists already in place in many counties. With a larger staff, Hubbell can spend more time finding leaders for precincts that lack them, ensuring they’re present in as many as possible (remember, each precinct has a set amount of delegates, so you can’t just run up the score by dominating a few).

Their campaign has been organizing in every county, training caucus night leadership teams and launching weekly phone banks and canvasses in several places around the state. His months of TV ads also give him the best name ID and some extra support, which could bring some extra people into his group if people break out into preference groups.

“From day one, our goal has been to work hard engaging every voter across the state, sharing Fred’s vision to get Iowa growing,” Hubbell communications director Remi Yamamoto told Starting Line. “Our statewide organizing efforts are part of that, ensuring that our supporters are informed and energized to turn out for Fred.”

Party Building Focus

The biggest thing that every campaign stressed was that they simply hope the Iowa Caucus turns out to be a success in its main purpose: party building for Democrats. Whichever candidate ends up as the nominee benefits from a strong turnout of excited, engaged activists. With the competitiveness of this year’s gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, attendance should be far above any other non-presidential caucus.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 2/1/18

  • 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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