After Months of Hype, Why Was Caucus Turnout Low?

Photo by Emily Ross

The Iowa caucuses were supposed to be the first moment of sweeping Democratic turnout in 2020. But while results are still trickling in, it’s become clear that turnout was not the giant surge people had hoped and prepared for.

Despite three years of a Trump presidency, a year of interactions with candidates and good weather on caucus night, the turnout was more like the 2016 caucuses, which had lower turnout than in 2008, when Barack Obama helped break records. The current reported turnout from Monday is 176,436, just above the 171,517 that showed up for the Democratic caucus in 2016.

Some counties saw increased turnout, like ones with suburban growth or urban centers with high percentages of college-educated voters. Everywhere else, it dropped.

Initial signs in places like Polk County didn’t point to decreased turnout. Polk County Democrats Chair Sean Bagniewski tweeted out pictures and numbers of turnout figures in Des Moines and surrounding towns.

It just also fell flat in a lot of others.

But some Democrats who spoke with local voters didn’t think that was necessarily a bad sign for one somewhat odd reason: Democrats, by and large, were happy with their choices and didn’t feel the need to pick.

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Megan Suhr, the former chair of the Marion County Democrats, wasn’t surprised when her caucus site saw lower turnout than 2016. She expected the result.

She knocked doors before the caucuses and said she mostly encountered people who said they would vote for whoever the nominee is in November.

“There were a lot of different reasons and explanations,” Suhr said. “There were also a lot of people who said they’d been watching all the hearings and they were watching the trial, and to them, whoever the caucus-goers decided, whoever came out of the primaries, was who they were going to support in the fall.”

After a year of heavy candidate visits, prolonged enthusiasm to oust Trump and over 750 campaign staffers trying to turn out their niche of voters for their candidates, many thought it would be higher.

“That’s what the word on the street was [that turnout was going to be high], but I never felt that,” Suhr said. “Going into it we heard a lot that said, ‘I don’t care who the nominee is.’ I really thought we’d be right in line with 2016.”

National commentators have started to raise the alarm.

“There are more benign explanations, like it is a caucus and the candidates were in Washington and not there to stir up the turnout,” David Axelrod, the chief strategist for President Barack Obama’s campaigns, told the Daily Beast. “But there is another possibility, which is that people just felt dispirited. That’s a danger for Democrats. The Trump effort is infused with cynicism. And propagating cynicism can be a powerful tactic if you’re trying to depress an opponent’s turnout.”

Uncertainty may have also played a role. Even on Sunday, voters at candidate events said they weren’t fully decided and would likely make up their minds at their precincts. Several did at various precincts.

But despite longtime caucus activists predicting people would show up to form “uncommitted” groups, the reality may be that if someone isn’t sure on their choice, they’re not going to spend two or three hours at a caucus just to declare themselves undecided.

“To ask somebody to caucus when they’re not 100 percent behind a candidate is a big ask,” said Addisu Demissie, Cory Booker’s presidential campaign manager. “And that’s why I’m not too worked up about the turnout numbers just yet. Could be a canary in the coal mine, it could be just an indication of the weirdness of this primary.”

He pointed out, too, that this was just the first contest of the primary season, and that caucuses are a different kind of commitment.

“We’ll see in New Hampshire on Tuesday, we’ll see in the rest of the primary process what happens,” he said. “One outcome does not a trend make.”

Linda Nelson, the former county chair for Pottawattamie County, chalked it up to people being burned out from all the campaigns and events happening everywhere and all the time.

In her view, the campaigns had made their case, and voters were ready for it all to be over.

“There was all the doorknocking and phone calls and people reaching out to them and it was like, ‘okay, move on,'” she said. “I think they were satisfied, like somebody just make a decision so we can move on.”

She said it didn’t mean she wasn’t frustrated, though. In her precinct, 247 people turned out four years ago. This time, 112 showed up and 30 were new registrants. Even with the community college nearby, turnout was low.

Nelson said she saw a number of people wandering around undecided, and she talked to a few who showed up to see how the candidates stacked up against each other.

That probably wasn’t an isolated incident. Some undecided voters in Des Moines precincts still came out to caucus whether to be persuaded or to make a last-minute choice based on how the room shaped up.

That second was the strategy of Gary Johansen, 62, in Des Moines Precinct 20. He sat in the “uncommitted” section of the auditorium at Harding Middle School, and said he hoped enough people would show up to make create a viable group to send delegates to the convention, once more states have weighed in.

His theory was that an unaligned delegate would have more influence at the convention because they could then choose whichever candidate.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the current group of candidates,” he explained. He’s been a Democrat his whole life, and his bottom line is that Trump has to be voted out. Johansen just doesn’t know who the best person is to replace him. However, he did commit to caucusing for Sanders if he had to realign.

Not enough joined him to make “uncommitted” viable.

Many Democrats were hoping for a surge of voters like the country saw in the 2018 midterms that swept enough Democrats into the House of Representatives for the Democrats to take the majority.

Suhr said she couldn’t predict what turnout in November might be like, but she did note the number of new voter registrations her precinct had, and the number of former Republicans who caucused for a Democrat.

“For the last several years, I’ve had a lot of people that have been Republicans who approached me and said, ‘that’s not my party anymore,’” she said. “I don’t know what to expect in the fall, but I do expect we’ll pick up all those people who feel like their party has left them.”

Julie Goepfert, the county chair for Webster County, said the new voter registrations are what people take away from this caucus, not the drama.

In her precincts, she said the turnout was about the same number it always is and she hadn’t really expected any more, even with all of the excitement. The notable thing to her was the number of Republicans and Independents that showed up to register as Democrats.

“I think [Iowans] are waking up. I think they’re realizing the party in power is not doing anything for them,” Goepfert said.

And in Polk County, Democrats rejoiced over the number of new voter registrations they received on caucus night, more even than what they saw in 2008.

Webster County also registered brand-new voters, like a 62-year-old woman who had never voted in her life. If people get excited to vote for Democrats in November, that’s potentially more important than record-breaking numbers of people showing up for a caucus. Despite the low turnout, Goepfert said the 2020 caucuses represented important party-building.

“I wasn’t really discouraged about it,” she said. “I think we’re getting the necessary pieces in place to do the work for November. And really, when you get down to it, that’s actually what caucusing is all about.”


by Nikoel Hytrek
Posted 2/7/20

8 Comments on "After Months of Hype, Why Was Caucus Turnout Low?"

  • Butler County turnout was similar to the past and not the big increase we were led to expect. However, the number of new and changed registrations was way up. I know a lot of people who did not attend but will vote blue no matter who in the fall. …Dave M

  • ours was much higher but not meaningful. a LOT of folks i talked to didn’t care who wins, as long as we can get drumpf outta there–so i agree, turnout at caucus is not an indication of troubles in Nov; my secretary and i both were not feeling it this year–i am pretty sure if i hadn’t gotten her to be secretary she’d have stayed home. i heard that a lot from people here.

  • Part of the low turnout was due to the quality of the candidates. President Obama has a lot of charisma and no one in the 2020 field is in his league. Like it or not he set the bar pretty high.

  • The writer is spot on. The #1 comment I heard from those whose doors I knocked was, “I just want someone who will kick Trump out. I’ll vote for the Democrat nominee, whoever he or she is.”

  • Another possible reason for the low turnout could be that voters consider their choice as a private decision and it is none of their neighbors’ business who they support. Many friendships could be ruined due to the divisiveness of politics and people will sometimes hold grudges for many years.
    The little old ladies in my neighborhood gossip enough without giving them more political ammunition. Sometimes it is better NOT to know what someone is thinking about the many
    controversies that we have to face every day. We have witnessed the demise of the Iowa caucus
    and we can now move into the 21st century by changing to a primary system.

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