It Was The Smoothest Iowa Caucus Ever… Until It Wasn’t

Photo by Emily Ross

By Team Starting Line

February 4, 2020

Many Iowans left their precinct caucuses last night in an upbeat mood, largely enjoying the experience to participate with their neighbors in a process that ran considerably more smoothly than in 2016. Then they got home and saw the mess unfolding on cable news as the hours ticked by with no release of results.

The problems on caucus night became apparent when precinct leaders began trying to report their results to the Iowa Democratic Party.

Though some county chairs and precinct captains have said they had no issues using the cellphone app developed for Monday night’s caucuses, others were blocked by error messages and were unable to enter the data needed to contribute to the statewide results. When the app didn’t work, precinct captains resorted to calling the IDP to manually report the numbers, which sometimes left Iowans on hold for more than an hour as they waited their turn.

But inside the gymnasiums, school cafeterias, libraries and various spaces in which Iowans gathered to caucus, dozens of precinct leaders and caucus-goers have reported a largely smooth process, one where Democrats from all candidate groups worked in a largely friendly manner together in their common goal of defeating President Donald Trump.

“Overall, I saw the process work the way it was supposed to,” said Joyce Godwin, a supporter of Sen. Amy Klobuchar who caucused at Indianola 5.

For Godwin, it was her first caucus in which she supported a candidate who was not viable after the first alignment. The Klobuchar group was able to recruit more supporters, however, allowing her to see the realignment process up-close.

Godwin said it was “about an hour” after she got home that she realized results weren’t being reported. She left the precinct at Simpson College thinking everything was running smoothly.

Sean Bagniewski, chair of the Polk County Democrats, told Starting Line that of their 177 precincts in the state’s largest county, they heard of bad experiences at only a small handful of them.

Although many supporters of competitive candidates ran into that awful feeling — not reaching viability — around the state, there weren’t mass reports of angry caucus-goers storming out of rooms. The reality of the large, fractured field, however, seemed to prepare many Iowans for that possibility.

Democrats were also largely happy with their choices this year. Most polling showed all the Democratic candidates competing in Iowa, where no negative TV ads were run by campaigns against each other, were viewed positively by a large majority of Democratic caucus-goers.

Nathan Thompson, chair of the Winneshiek County Democrats, said “our local 2020 caucuses [were] a terrific success.”

“It’s incredibly disappointing that the narrative about last night is revolving around the reporting problems, which were real and very frustrating,” Thompson said. “But last night’s caucuses in Winneshiek County were a positive experience in community-building and party-building. In Winneshiek County we built a very dedicated and hardworking volunteer team because we wanted to make sure that nothing went wrong on caucus night. And in Winneshiek County, nothing went wrong. What happened with the reporting is out of our control.”

Laura Blanchard, a precinct captain for the Des Moines County Democrats in Burlington 8C, said her caucus, which attracted 187 people, “went pretty well.”

In Burlington 5, however, held at the local high school, there was confusion over the use of presidential preference cards and the realignment process.

“Everybody seemed to separate into their opposing candidate camps well,” said Robin Johnson, a political science lecturer at Monmouth College, who brought a group of students and faculty across the Mississippi River from Illinois to observe a caucus. “But then there seemed to be confusion on the first alignment, and then there was confusion with using those cards (presidential preference cards).”

With 1,765 precincts and thousands of unpaid volunteers running a massive operation in the glare of the national spotlight, no two experiences on caucus night are the same.

As Jeff Fager, chair of the Henry County Democrats, described it, “there’s always some chaos” on caucus night, and that the new preference cards added new elements.

“That added a little bit of confusion to the process but that was OK, we can handle that,” said Fager, who caucused at Mount Pleasant 3 in Henry County. “It really became a problem when folks tried to make the reports.”

When contacted late Tuesday morning, precinct captain Sandy Dockendorff, a seasoned party official, was still at the IBEW Hall in Burlington processing paperwork from Monday night.

Fifty-two people showed up to her caucus site in rural Des Moines County, down from the usually tally of about 100. Caucus-goers finished up at Danville Junior High School by 8:40 p.m., Dockendorff said, but when it came time to report certain results in the app, she experienced technical difficulties.

Some took to social media to combat all the negative headlines emerging about the chaos of caucus night.

From Amber Gustafson, a 2018 Iowa Senate candidate:

And Vanessa Phelan, chair of the Northwest Des Moines Democrats:

And Nate Gruber, vice chair of the Black Hawk County Democrats:

“Compared to four years ago, which was a very unfriendly caucus,” said Roger Ferris, a precinct captain for Joe Biden in Clive 6, referencing the acrimonious 2016 battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. “This time everybody was happy and laughing and joking with one another. No one raised their voice. That was because everyone was headed in the same direction. Everyone voiced that the most important thing was to beat Donald Trump.”

In Ankeny 10, at Ashland Ridge Elementary School, Adam Hook and James McNamara were supporters of Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Their caucus began around 7:05 p.m. and ended about an hour-and-a-half later.

Both were amazed how quickly their caucus wrapped up and were happy about at the efficiency of their 209-person precinct. 

“This was a much smoother caucus,” Hook, 40, said. “This is my second [caucus] in this precinct. We changed buildings from last time, which was a tremendous help, and last time it wasn’t this smooth.”

Rachel Denton, 26, said the night went smoothly. It was her second time caucusing.

“It was fun. I love caucusing,” Denton said. “I think it’s one of the most democratic processes that we can still do to get together and talk to one another about what we think and how we feel. You can see physically the representation of, wow, a lot of younger people over here, older people over there.”

Susan Rhoades, 68, reiterated the effortless nature of the night. 

“I appreciate how congenial everything was. At the caucus four years ago there was a lot of chaos,” Rhoades said. “Four years ago we weren’t here, we were at a smaller school. It was really chaotic. They receive kudos this time.”


By Isabella Murray, Paige Godden, Elizabeth Meyer and Pat Rynard
Posted 2/4/20



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