The Consequences Of Killing The Virtual Caucus

After a year of planning, the Iowa Democratic Party’s virtual caucus will be scrapped by the DNC, the Des Moines Register reported late last night. Security concerns for the phone-in caucus option has led to too many doubts from the national committee, even though the system hadn’t even been fully built or tested yet.

That decision has major implications for how the caucus is run, the strategies of the presidential campaigns and the future of the Iowa Caucus beyond 2020. Here are just some of those consequences.

Accessibility Limited

First and foremost, this will make it harder for many Iowans to make their voices heard in the all-important first state in the nominating process. The caucus structure has always been limiting to participation due to the requirement to come out on a cold winter night for an hours-long meeting with a system that is confusing to any first-time attendee.

The Iowa Democratic Party has made significant strides in accessibility in recent years, and the phone-in option they were developing actually would have made participating here easier than even many primary states. The ranked choice option it would have provided was also a great advance that other states do not have.

[Update: the Iowa Democratic Party says it will continue efforts on making options available for non-present participation. However, at this late of date, it’s questionable just what new program can be devised in that amount of time.]

Joe Biden’s Chances Improve

Politically speaking, the biggest beneficiary of this debacle is Joe Biden. One of the best strategies to winning the Iowa Caucus is to inspire, organize and bring out a lot of new, first-time caucus-goers. Candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Julian Castro are all very well-suited to do just that. While Biden has strong support among the older and long-time caucus veterans who always show up, it is harder to see how he would turn out a whole new generation of caucus-goers like Barack Obama did in 2008 or Sanders did in 2016.

The virtual caucus would have greatly aided candidates who were focused on new voters. Even though they were still emphasizing showing up in person, campaigns would happily direct their supporters who simply can’t make it out on caucus night into the phone option.

However, even if this caucus runs like a more traditional year, Warren’s superior ground game still poses the greatest threat to Biden. But Biden’s chances are certainly better without the virtual option, and any margin of victory from anyone who might pass him may be smaller.

Advertise on Iowa Starting Line

Campaign Plans Thrown Out The Window

The elimination of the virtual caucus will frustrate campaigns who had it as part of their caucus plan. Imagine planning out your field strategy for months and months, only to have the rules of the election changed significantly just five months out from election night. The promise of a more accessible caucus may have even tempted a few campaigns to decide earlier this year to play more heavily in Iowa.

Major Crowding Issues Ahead

One of the best benefits to the virtual caucus was easing the strain on precinct locations, some of which in major Iowa cities have seen terrible overcrowding problems in years past as more people participate in the caucus. This year will almost certainly shatter turnout records with so many candidates bringing in new people.

The one silver lining here is that the Iowa Democratic Party has also been working on many ideas during their reform process to streamline check-ins and the process in the room. That should help with some of the complications, but there’s still going to be too many people packed into precinct rooms.

The Future Of The Caucus

One very important thing here: although some headlines are blaring that the Iowa Caucus’ future is in doubt, everything is still going forward for 2020. Yes, what happens after 2020 is a big question mark, and this makes things more complicated, but some people are getting the impression that Iowa will lose its first-place status this year. That is incorrect. Too much has already been invested in the state, and the national party can grant Iowa a waiver after these plans have fallen through.

However, for future years, something significant is going to have to change for Iowa to keep its place in the nominating process. Either Iowa needs to transition to a primary state or the plan to improve accessibility needs to start and be approved years in advance of the next caucus.

This would all be easier if New Hampshire’s secretary of state, who’s been in office since 1976, would simply relent on his ridiculous insistence that they be the first primary state. They are second in the process. They just are. It doesn’t make a bit of difference that Iowa has a caucus for the purposes of where candidates visit of which state has importance. But because we’re dealing with extremely outdated ideas of process, tens of thousands of Iowa voters get left out.

A More Understandable Result

The only benefit that comes from this is that there won’t be two wildly different caucus night results.

For the first time, Iowa Democrats will release both the raw vote total and the delegate equivalent results from the caucus. In the past, only the delegate numbers were reported, and that’s how a winner was declared by the media and the party. But by also reporting the raw vote of people’s first choice as they enter the caucus, we’re headed for a situation where you could have one candidate win the raw vote, but another win the final delegate equivalence. Some media outlets — and especially the campaigns who do better in the raw vote — might point to different numbers, creating confusion as to who actually “won.”

The virtual caucus would have greatly exacerbated this problem, because it made it much more likely that the difference between the raw vote and delegate equivalence was much higher. With the delegate numbers from the virtual option being capped at about 9% of the total Iowa delegates, candidates whose supporters disproportionately used the virtual option would end up with two very different results.

For all the attention paid to the new virtual caucus, this dynamic still presents the most vexing challenge to the longterm health and legitimacy of the Iowa Caucus. And even without the virtual option, there’s still the danger of Iowa ending up with two different results on caucus night, and there’s no guarantee the media will play along with running with the one the party says is the official number.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 8/30/19

10 Comments on "The Consequences Of Killing The Virtual Caucus"

  • Way back when I wrote a law school these on delegate selection plans through history, focusing on the work done to include more than just old white men into the process. The paper got an A+, my professor wanted to collaborate on a law review article. Instead, I graduated and went right to the DNC to work on the rules and nominations committee to the 1992 DNC Convention in NYC.

    I worked for and spoke with the longtime drafters and managers of the delegate selection process. I learned an early life lesson. Just because the final and the advisory reports sound wonderful, that does not mean that it actually happened as described.

    If the DNC decides a delegation will not be seated after an unapproved process, it gets messy. This happened in the 60s and 70s as the new rules were implemented, and continued into the 90s and I am assuming today.

    Some of this arm twisting was good and necessary, but some were just power clashes. That is what we have here. There must be more going on in the 2020 virtual caucus debate. The Supreme Court has found in the past that party business should get a hands off policy unless there is egregious fraud or discrimination. So court proceedings are not likely to help.

    I am not sure what the answer is here, but I do think something odd is going on.

  • For God’s sake – just get rid of the archaic caucus process and go to a primary. The DNC has to be the grown up in the room and deal with New Hampshire (or Iowa, or whomever else gets uptight about who gets to go first).

  • First, it’s no more ridiculous for New Hampshire to insist on being the first primary state than it is for Iowa to insist on being the first caucus state — or first state overall.
    Second, this decision is no big deal. The results of the ‘virtual caucus’ wrapped into the overall caucus results probably were not going to make that big of a difference anyway in the overall impact of who survives to move on after Iowa and who doesn’t.
    Iowa has been allowed to go first simply because it was a CAUCUS, and a caucus almost by definition is going to have more limited participation than a primary. It would be an improvement if the process could be made more inclusive for folks who are disabled or work the night shift, and hopefully an alternative can be approved. But if not, it’s not the end of the world to conduct the caucus as it’s been conducted for decades.
    I’m glad to know the raw vote totals will be released, and there is ZERO doubt in my mind that these totals are the ones the national media will report — regardless of what the Ia. Demo Party may claim is the ‘official’ result.

  • Disappointed that the virtual caucus is being scrapped – not surprised considering that both the DNC and IDP don’t their act together.

  • -I am not sure what the answer is here, but I do think something odd is going on.-

    Warren is the candidate most hurt by a weakened Iowa caucus. So make of that what you will.

  • Frankly, I’d love to see Iowa go to a primary system; the caucus (as much fun as it is in its own chaotic way) is way too limiting on participation. There have been accusations leveled (not without some merit) that they are anti-democratic. And personally, I don’t give a rat’s patoot what New Hampshire says. Why the DNC (apparently) is just hunky-dory with that is the DNC’s problem (and it has many!).
    That said, the DNC waited an awfully long time to come out with their rejection. Therre are less than 6 months to the caucuses, and changing it up now is going to be problematic.
    I don’t see how this decision will help anyone except the DNC and Biden. I was really hoping that Perez would inject some new, innovative ideas into the Committee. Guess not.

  • The caucus only discourages people from voting. I think, first or not, Iowa should change to the primary system and allow ballot or mail voting only. Virtual is obviously way too ealy to hack.

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