top of page
  • Hans Noel

The Iowa Caucuses look crazy from a distance, but you should see them up close...

Cards used to tally the first alignment in Iowa City precinct 9 at Iowa City West High School.
Cards used to tally the first alignment in Iowa City precinct 9 at Iowa City West High School.

This year, I took a group of Georgetown's best students to Iowa to see the nation's first caucuses unfold. (I'm taking groups to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as well).

As first-time caucus observers, they saw things that veteran reporters don't always report.

We spent caucus night at Iowa City West High School, where Democrats from three precincts from Iowa City (2, 8 and 9) met -- one in an auditorium, one in a gym and one in a cafeteria. (Republicans also met downstairs, where there was less drama.)

Things unfolded differently in every room. Even under the same rules, caucus chairs have some discretion in how they run things, and no two caucuses are the same.(For my own take on our observations, see here.)

Here's what we saw:

Real people just showing up

Erin Doherty @erin_dohh

Try to forget about the chaos and uproar generated by the technology mishap, err fiasco, in Iowa on Monday night – difficult, I know. But bear with me just for a minute or so.

Volunteers check in caucusgoers.

Behind the newspaper opinion pieces calling for the immediate end to Iowa’s status as the first state in the process, the articles describing the Democratic candidates’ “victory” speeches, and the beratement of the godforsaken app, lie real people just showing up.

At the precinct, I was greeted by friendly volunteers who were directing crowds of people to their precinct location. I saw an elderly man, probably seventy or so, proudly proclaim that he was attending his first caucus ever. And I witnessed couples go their separate ways to caucus for their preferred candidate.

In the gym where I watched the caucus unfold, most caucusgoers displayed a genuine excitement about the candidate they were supporting. Chants echoed from many of the candidates’ assigned section of the bleachers, out of state guests, such as Congresswoman Katie Porter of California, a native of Iowa and of Iowa City's Precinct 8, travelled to the state in an attempt to win over support for their preferred candidate, and during realignment, the sections of support for the candidates erupted, as if we were at a football game, when a caucusgoer realigned to another side.

As a native of Washington, D.C., I often find it hard to believe that there are places where candidates actually go, and where voters actually show up with enthusiasm. I’ve never been contacted by a campaign, I’ve never been able to go to my high school and hear a candidate’s surrogate speak, and my vote, at least for the time being, will likely never be a decisive one in a tight primary race.

Yet in Iowa, direct contact with candidates is the norm. I got a glimpse of this reality during the four days I was in Iowa. With relatively little difficulty I managed to hear from six of the leading presidential candidates, I snagged a selfie with former mayor Pete Buttigieg and a photograph with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and candidate paraphernalia was practically thrown at me.

There’s something to be said about this clear and direct connection that Iowans have to the process. The process is certainly not perfect, and I’m still not convinced that Iowa is the state that deserves to go first (especially after Monday). But on Monday night, I saw real Americans connect with each other and their candidate because they wanted them to be president. I saw candidates – even if for competitive purposes – spend time in high schools gyms, arenas, breweries, and hotel lobbies. If nothing else, the process of the Iowa caucus forges connections. Whatever happens in the next cycle, I hope there is something about this that remains.

In Public

Katie Morgan

One element of caucusing that may not be immediately obvious is how uniquely public an experience it is. It’s hard to think of a more acute antithesis to the secret ballot American voters are used to than gathering in a room with all of your friends and neighbors to not only publicly declare your preferred candidate, but to demonstrate your commitment to a political party by your very attendance. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that what was considered high caucus turnout in 2016 was only 15.7%.

Iowa City precinct 9 caucused in a high school auditorium, the rows of seats divided into seven sections for seven candidates. The eighth section, a designated area for those caucusing “uncommitted,” was a few rows of chairs up on the stage, in clear view of the rest of the room. Four or five people sat there, dwindling as enthusiastic caucusers for one candidate or another drafted them into their ranks. After the first alignment, I asked one of the men why he was caucusing uncommitted. He hesitated a bit and seemed to have difficulty finding the right words. He told me he wasn’t a “strong” democrat, that he wasn’t squarely in the corner of any one person and then, holding a hand over his mouth in a stage whisper, told me he voted for Trump in 2016 and not to “hold it against him.”

I asked if he would be realigning, and he answered definitively. He was here to make a decision.

There’s no question that caucusing has its weaknesses (you’d be hard-pressed after Monday night to find someone to defend it as a perfect system), but its strengths lie where it takes its shape as a microcosm of democracy. I kept my eye on that caucusgoer the rest of the night, and while he never quite seemed comfortable, shuffling between candidate groups and sometimes retreating back to the safe realm of “uncommitted,” he did turn in his preference card at the end of the night with a candidate’s name.

Caucusing takes bravery. Democracy takes bravery, and in a time where we can spout our opinions behind the mask of a computer screen or take refuge in communities where people will never disagree with us, the Iowa caucus is one place where the value of taking a stand, literally and publicly, is practiced. To stand before the world in a high school auditorium and make a decision about your beliefs takes guts, and to stand there without shame and say, “I’ve changed my mind,” like that Trump voter, is even more powerful.

Caucuses are for party building

Susanna Blount @susannablount

The Iowa caucus is an experiment in participatory democracy that seems to have failed miserably this year. However, it is also a valuable opportunity for local party operations to expand their footprint and involve more people in their work.

Rep. Abby Finkenauer addresses a crowd before a Joe Biden rally in Cedar Rapids.
Rep. Abby Finkenauer addresses a crowd before a Joe Biden rally in Cedar Rapids.

Each candidate event highlighted local issues and elections, with a state senator speaking at a Buttigieg town hall in Davenport and a different state senator rallying a crowd of thousands before Bernie Sanders’ joint rally-Vampire Weekend concert. This is an unparalleled platform for local party officials and state-level elected representatives to connect with their communities – how many other state legislators get to speak to crowds of that size?

It is also notable that candidates make specific efforts to gain endorsements from local officials and work to get local organizers to serve as their precinct captains. This work of bringing people into presidential campaigns gives them experience and skills that will pay dividends in local and statewide races. The caucus can be seen as almost a campaign crash course, and the high level of political engagement helps build a strong party apparatus in areas that would not ordinarily have a Democratic presence. This is evident in the presence of an official county party organization in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

The caucus itself incentivizes Iowans to be involved in their party by requiring that they be registered members to participate. The requirement that alignments not begin before 7 p.m. also allows for local party business to be conducted with the involvement of the community: at the precinct we observed, donations were collected for both the county- and state-level Democratic party operations, and a candidate for county sheriff got to speak to the crowd of over 500 people.

People can also become involved in the caucus experience from a young age due to the Iowa Democratic Party’s policy of allowing youth observers. I spoke with a group of high school students who had come to observe the caucus and were gathered doing homework during the second alignment period. They had each thought about who they might vote for (two for Warren, one for Klobuchar), and who their second choice might be. This is an opportunity to inculcate voting behavior and establish a community expectation.

The caucus is an opportunity for Iowa to develop its local organization, expose local candidates to wider audiences, and train future organizers, but the same could be said of every state. Now that Iowa has benefited from the infrastructure-building of the caucus for decades – without managing to build the infrastructure to successfully manage the caucus – maybe it’s time to think about letting other states do the same. The Democratic Party would be better off if each state had a similar chance.

A Small Hero of the Iowa Caucus

Jacob Livesay @JFLivesay

In the auditorium of Iowa City West High School, I met a superstar.

Jacob Livesay and Melissa Myambo at the Iowa Caucus.
Jacob Livesay and Melissa Myambo at the Iowa Caucus.

Her name was Melissa Myambo, and she was an enormous contributor to the victory of Bernie Sanders in that precinct. While we sat in the observer section, she asked me a number of questions about the caucus rules. I explained viability thresholds and the realignment rules, and she asked me to help her tally a rough estimate of the first alignment. She gasped for joy when we estimated that Sanders had won the first alignment by about 30 people. Even though she didn’t fully understand the rules of the caucus (and who does?), she knew she had helped tip the scales in Bernie’s favor.

“I just knew I had to get people here, so that’s what I did,” she told me. She then pointed to a large group of African-American women in headscarves sitting in Bernie’s section and explained to me that they were all Sudanese immigrants. According to Myambo, most of them did not speak English. Many of them had not been in the country for long at all, but she helped register, translate for, and transport more than 30 of them to the high school to caucus for Bernie Sanders.

In a precinct with less than 500 people in attendance, 30 people makes an enormous difference. In the first alignment, Bernie Sanders had the largest numbers, with 147 supporters. Elizabeth Warren was in second with 119. Not only did Myambo’s gathered caucus-goers make up more than 20% of Bernie’s support in that precinct, but they were also enough to put him above Warren. In the second alignment, Bernie held on to his lead with 160 caucusgoers to Warren’s 141. Again, Myambo’s people were what made the difference.

Myambo was instinctively doing something both parties focus on each election cycle — expanding the electorate. By bringing such a large number of first-time attendees to this precinct’s caucus, Myambo had introduced a new slice of the population to the vote count, and Bernie excelled as a result.

Small heroes are vital in the caucuses, an extremely unique factor of this system that one wouldn’t observe as clearly in a primary. When pundits zoom out and talk about percentages and big picture statistics, it’s easy to forget the small heroes of democracy like Melissa Myambo.

Coalition Building on the Ground

Ajayan “AJ” Williamson

Monday's difficulties have reinvigorated criticism of caucuses, but one compelling argument in favor of preserving them is their ability to reward campaigns with strong organization while penalizing candidates who might be strong on paper but weak on the ground.

Joe Biden’s underperformance in the caucuses may have provided an example of this dynamic in action. In one precinct in Iowa City, the first alignment of preferences showed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren reaching the 15% viability threshold, with Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Biden each well below the viability threshold. As the caucuses moved into the second alignment, Biden’s supporters had an opportunity to convince the remaining moderates to coalesce around him, ostensibly the strongest of the three candidates left, to ensure viability.

Instead, Biden’s precinct captain was unable to organize the moderates into a coalition. The original group hemorrhaged supporters, with organizers from Buttigieg and Klobuchar poaching a number into their own groups, and many supporters simply leaving the caucuses altogether. In a neighboring precinct, Biden’s organizers seemed to not even realize that groups below viability could merge in the second alignment, providing false information to supporters about their options for gaining support. Ultimately in the first precinct, Buttigieg’s organizers were able to pull the most Biden supporters, joining Sanders and Warren as the only viable candidates.

Extrapolating this case to the wider Iowa results is difficult with the incomplete data available at the time of this writing. At minimum, the returns are consistent with this story occurring in a number of precincts across the state. Buttigieg was able to increase his support from 21.5% to 25.3% between the first and second alignments, while Biden actually lost support between the two rounds, falling from 14.8% to 13.5% of the vote count.

This kind of organizing does not explain all the differences in performance – even in the first round, Biden underperformed expectations. But margins matter, especially for the media narrative that emerges from Iowa. Buttigieg’s organizing is the difference between a strong second place and a plausible claim of victory; Biden’s may yet be the difference between a disappointing loss and a devasting fall out of the top tier.

Even if Iowa does reward candidates with strong grassroots organization, it is not immediately self-evident that this should matter in the presidential nominating process. If the party’s goal is to produce a candidate that can win the general election, does the ability to develop a strong ground game in a small state translate into the ability to win a national general election? The organizing that allows candidates to gain voters between alignments may serve as a proxy for their campaign’s ability to build a coalition of diverse interests, to mobilize its own supporters, or simply to manage the complexity of a presidential election. Many commentators are predicting that this year’s failures mark the death of the Iowa caucuses, and perhaps caucuses at large – as Democrats pursue reforms, they would be wise to work towards a system that preserves the caucuses’ unique benefits while eliminating their undemocratic tendencies.

The Importance of Precinct Captains

Jackson Edwards @jacksonedwards

An Amy Klobuchar supporter tries, successfully, to persuade two Tom Steyer backers to switch.
An Amy Klobuchar supporter tries, successfully, to persuade two Tom Steyer backers to switch.

Much of the conventional wisdom about how to win the Iowa caucuses emphasizes rallies, knocking doors, making calls, and shaking hands. Less mentioned is the organization and gamesmanship behind a successful caucus showing, but oftentimes that organization is the difference between winning delegates and non-viability.

In a caucus, each campaign designates volunteers to serve as a precinct captains, whose job is to consolidate support for their candidate as they work to surpass the viability threshold in their precinct. If campaigns fail to meet the viability threshold, their supporters have a “realignment” period to either: persuade other non-viable caucusgoers to join their candidate in hopes of reaching the viability threshold, move to another viable or non-viable candidate, or leave. A non-viable candidate’s precinct captain’s job is to simultaneously maintain the support of the first alignment while recruiting enough caucusgoers to cross the viability threshold.

In each precinct we saw, Joe Biden’s campaign finished the first alignment on the verge of viability, needing only a handful of people to join their group of caucusgoers to win delegates. Instead, in all three locations, the Biden caucusgoers were the only group to quickly spring from their seats and flock to other candidates’ groups.

Contrasting the quick departure of Biden caucusgoers, other non-viable candidates’ supporters (Buttigieg’s and Klobuchar’s) notably stayed seated during the realignment period, forcing other caucusgoers to migrate towards them. Further contrasting Biden’s non-strategy, Senator Elizabeth Warren deployed Congresswoman Katie Porter (who has endorsed Sen. Warren) to take selfies, shake hands, and charm dozens of people over to the enthusiastic crowd of Warren caucusgoers. Accordingly, Warren gained nearly all of Biden’s initial caucusgoers in that precinct.

While Biden’s precinct captains spent the realignment period inadvertantly spreading false information to their caucusgoers, arguing with the caucus chair, and trying to fully understand the rules, his initial caucusgoers fled to better-organized groups, where they were met with cheers, rally signs, and enthusiastic hugs and high-fives. 

In a different precinct, Sen. Klobuchar—whose particularly savvy precinct captain distributed slips of paper with persuasive pro-Klobuchar talking points to her caucusgoers—amassed nearly all of the Biden and Buttigieg supporters in the realignment round.

“I convinced all of them to come to Amy,” he said to a Klobuchar volunteer, gesturing at a crowd of over 100 people.

After the realignment period, Biden—in the three precincts combined—finished with supporters that could be collectively counted on one hand and zero delegates. Ultimately, no amount of name recognition, no number of years of experience, and no number of pushups or rallies makes up for poor organizing—and it cost Biden several precious delegates in Iowa.

Is is all about electability?

Emily Anthony

On caucus night, I was stopped by an older couple sitting in the Joe Biden section of the auditorium. They had been curious about the bright yellow “guest” sticker that I was wearing. Meanwhile, I was curious to find out why they had chosen to support Joe Biden. As the gentleman began to answer my question, he leaned in a little closer to me and whispered, “Neither my wife nor I are big fans of Joe Biden, but he’s electable.” I was surprised to hear this from a couple who from their appearance seemed to tick off each box of the demographic that Joe Biden was appealing to in Iowa. Biden had little support in the auditorium, and so, I asked the couple if they had a second option. The older gentleman was a Warren supporter and his wife was for Bernie, but they had decided to caucus for Joe Biden because they felt he had the best shot at defeating Donald Trump.

The fear of losing a second election to Donald Trump has caused many democrats to prioritize electability this primary season. In addition to speaking with the older couple, on Monday night, I listened to a few of the precinct captains give speeches in support of their candidate. Joe Biden’s precinct captain used part of her one minute speech to highlight Biden’s electability; she told the 500 person crowd that he is the only one who can win in November. Electability may be an important consideration in this race; however, it cannot be all that this primary is about.

Being electable does not mean that a candidate will have the support to make it through a general election, or in Joe Biden’s case, make it through a caucus. Biden’s electability does not translate into loyal supporters nor good coordination. In each of the three precincts that we had opportunity to observe, Joe Biden failed to meet viability. Rather than make an attempt to poach a few supporters from the other unviable groups, the Biden group abandoned their candidate. Whether this was a result of poor coordination or the lack of a strong base, it was apparent to me that Joe Biden did not have the support he needed in order to do well. If Joe Biden continues to run on the notion that he is the “most electable candidate” rather than trying to build and excite a strong, loyal base, he may lose.

In 2016, the Democratic Party ran perhaps the most qualified and electable candidate to run for office in modern times, and they lost. Selecting a candidate who is electable is not the way to ensure a win. Rather, to give itself the best opportunity to win, the Democratic party should nominate someone who voters will turn up for on election day. They need someone who is going to excite their base, and Joe Biden is not that person. Biden’s poor turnout and zero delegates at the precincts in Iowa City West High School lead me to believe that this primary cannot be based solely on a candidate's perceived electability.

The friends made along the way

Adam Ginsburg @aginz3

After midnight, with caucus results still conspicuously absent, one of my classmates cracked a joke.

“Hey, maybe it’s not the results that matter, but the friends we made along the way.”

We all laughed and moved on with our conversation, but the remark struck me. Of course, the Iowa caucus results have been uniquely influential in affecting the presidential nomination process; they have historically propelled some campaigns to the nomination and sounded the death knell for others. But for the most part, campaign finishes and Iowa results are, when we take a broader perspective, relatively transient. After all, we’ve all but forgotten the Chris Dodd or Wesley Clark campaigns (and we will surely forget Tom Steyer’s as well).

But the friends made — and, more broadly, the interpersonal relationships developed, the stories heard, and people who felt seen — are enduring.

This past summer, I knocked hundreds of doors, made thousands of phone calls, and met countless Iowans as an organizing fellow for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign in southwest Iowa.

The extraordinary caucus process, which entails citizens feeling comfortable enough to out themselves politically in front of their neighbors, involves an intense brand of organizing--one that emphasizes personal connection. These types of campaigns make people feel heard, and the stories they illuminate are inspiring.

There’s Julia, the scrappy lady with whom I stayed for 6 weeks who pours her heart and soul into political campaigns. 

There’s Jessie, who despite walking 13 miles per day as a mail carrier, still dedicated time to knock doors.  

There’s Rebecca, who despite initially mocking Senator Warren, had me in her house for 45 minutes, tearing up and eventually embracing me as she described her struggles as a divorced parent.

At the caucus site, there was the Andrew Yang supporter nearly in tears as he was faced with realigning away from the campaign that made him feel seen.

As political scientists, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of evaluating politics in the abstract. But behind every vote, every Twitter account (except those controlled by Russian bots), and every regression analysis are real people — each with their own story to tell.

This year’s caucus results may not be important — and, indeed, may never again be important — but make no mistake: the entire process still mattered.

636 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page