Friday, January 24, 2020

Prepare for crowds, changes and commitment: Caucus tips from John Deeth

John Deeth, a caucus organizer for the Johnson County Democrats and political blogger, shared some advice for aspiring caucusers.

Be in it for the long haul

Caucus night is like game day. It’s exciting and we all want the Hawks to win. But you don’t expect to walk in, watch a game highlights clip and go home. You’re there for a long time, two or three hours for the caucuses. And not every play is an exciting thing like a long touchdown pass. Sometimes you’re stopped at the line of scrimmage, the ref throws a flag and you have to sit around and wait while the three refs talk among themselves and figure out the call and everyone else is confused. And you can’t expect to show up 15 minutes before kickoff and get a parking space across the street from Kinnick Stadium.

Prepare for crowds

The caucuses in Johnson County are going to be very, very crowded. It’s important to remember that everyone, including me, is a volunteer and is legitimately trying to do their best in a tough situation. The caucus process was never meant to be a mass participation event that was the equivalent of an election. It was meant to be the handful of core party activists in the precinct — 20 or 40 people who were familiar with the process and rules and were meeting at their friend’s house. In some parts of Iowa, it’s still like that: In 2016, the mean average attendance statewide was 102 people, and the median was just 65, so that kind of process still works in most of the state. But in Johnson County, the average was 342. We had seven of the 10 biggest precincts in the state and 19 of the top 40. Our biggest was 945 and we expect to top 1,000 some places this time. And a process that was designed for 20 to 40 people does not scale up well to a crowd of 1,000.
Find your caucus location: Registered Democrats / Registered Republicans
We’ve done better with rooms than we did in 2016 but there are some places where the biggest room in or near the precinct is not big enough to hold everyone we expect to attend — and there’s nothing that can be done about that. There is not going to be enough parking anywhere, so walk or carpool if you can.

Things may look different than past caucuses

There are a couple changes to the alignment process this year. The biggest is that the raw vote count at the end of the first alignment will be reported. In the past, the Democrats never reported vote counts at all, just delegate numbers. So a caucus-goer who is supporting a non-viable candidate on the first alignment will need to decide: do I realign now, or do I stay with my first choice candidate to get my vote counted, and then move at re-alignment time?
The other change is that, once you’re in a viable group, you can’t move. It used to be that campaigns would send people over to another group to make them viable and hurt a different candidate. Example: We had a place last time where Hillary was at two delegates, Bernie at one and O’Malley was just short of viable. Hillary’s crew sent some spare people over to O’Malley to make him viable so that Bernie would not get another delegate. You can’t do that anymore.

Do some research, and choose a strategy

It will help to have a realistic and honest assessment about your candidate’s chances. I’ve never been in a situation where my candidate was not viable in my precinct, but there have been years when I knew my candidate’s chances in the big picture were poor, and that’s emotionally hard.
A friend of mine who supported a candidate who has dropped out had this advice: “I used to have a candidate, now I have a choice.” You can move to a second choice, or you can move in a way that hurts the candidate you like the least. That’s a tiebreaker you can decide for yourself. Is it more important to me that my first choice be recorded for the history books, even though they’re doing poorly and may drop out later tonight? Or is the overall direction of the party and campaign more important?

Undecided? Get ready to commit.

One thing I worry about here: In the past, a lot of undecided people would just go to the Uncommitted group, and then make their decision at realignment time. This year, there’s a risk of getting stuck in an Uncommitted group that’s accidentally viable. So if you’re Uncommitted, you need to keep track of that, and you may need to move sooner than you want to.

Feel free to dress to impress

This isn’t an election, where campaigning in the polling place is illegal. This is a party meeting and you’re allowed to try to persuade people. Nothing is secret. (That’s actually one complaint about caucuses versus primaries — some people very strongly want to make their choice in secret. In other states, there were complaints in 2016 about bullying in caucus settings.) Shirts, stickers and buttons are OK. So are signs — though we are telling campaigns in Johnson County not to put signs on the walls. Candidate signs should be held. Our site hosts are concerned about messes and damage, and they’re being very gracious about letting us use their buildings (even though in some cases they’re required to by law, it’s still appreciated).

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Goodbye To My Buddy

For the first time in 22 years, I do not have a cat. My buddy Dylan had 19 years of adventures, the last 15 of those with me.

Dylan was active and frisky until pretty recently - he gave us all a scare back on October 12 when I left the door open and he was outside for 12 hours (he was an indoor cat). After that I started spending extra time with him, grateful he had come home.

But he went downhill not long after that, and it had become clear that he wasn't going to be here much longer. Saturday night I stopped what I was doing and just sat with Dylan on my lap, watching the fireplace, with a sense that it was the last time.

I had a vet appointment scheduled for tomorrow but I knew it was just a matter of them telling me what fatal diagnosis it was and how much time was left.  But just last night he was being silly - I was afraid his face was bleeding until I smelled ketchup.

Dylan was a long time Democat, supporting the ticket in 2004.
Last night he curled up and slept by my head. like he so often did - he had the head and his son Xavier used to keep my feet warm.

He had an accident and couldn't get to the box, which woke me up at 5 AM.  It wasn't the first time he didn't make it, and I patiently did laundry and worried.

I couldn't get back to sleep, so right before I went to work I gave him his second, or was it third, breakfast of the morning.

That's where Koni found him, curled up by the food dish. We don't know what happened and don't need to.

So now he's with the great cat herd in the sky with his son Xavier, with Butter and Spot, and with Shadow.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

In 2016, Rural Counties Had Less Caucus Goers Per Delegate

Since I'm not really writing anymore - I am way too busy DOING right now trying to get our caucuses off the ground -  I resemble a classic rock dinosaur band that trots out on the circuit during state fair seasons and plays the greatest hits. This is a rewrite of a post I write every cycle, in 2007 (covering 2004) and again in 2016 (looking at 2008).

Since the Iowa Democratic caucuses are a representative democracy, not a straight one person one vote, not every caucus goer carries equal weight.  Several of the candidates have spent a lot of time in small courthouse towns. Amy Klobuchar and the hapless John Delaney have completed the "Full Grassley" 99 county tour. That's because the way the results are counted, the small counties weigh in disproportionately.

The delegate allocation formula is based on past general election voting for the top of the ticket. The caucuses take place in a mythical, projected version of a general election voting population. This cycle, it's based on votes for Hillary Clinton and Fred Hubbell; four years ago it was based on Jack Hatch and on Barack Obama's 2012 total.

This means candidates can't run up the score with big wins in big counties, and it mutes the impact of isolated turnout waves.  No matter how many people show up, the same number of delegates are at stake.  

The problem is, some counties are full of go-to-meeting activists who are more likely to attend a caucus. Others have more people who may vote, sometimes even for Democrats, but are otherwise less active.

You may not call that a problem - indeed, some caucus old timers will tell you that the formula, which is locked into the Iowa Democratic Party's constitution, was specifically designed to under-count the student vote in Iowa City, Ames, and other college towns.

Obviously, from my perspective, that's a problem. In fact, the obscure allocation formula likely skewed the national interpretation of the outcome of 2016.

Hillary Clinton won a razor-close margin of the state delegate equivalents (SDEs), the only total that the Iowa Democratic Party has historically released. However, Bernie Sanders won big margins in the college towns - which, as you'll see, had a higher share of the turnout than they did of the delegates. In fact, I'll go so far as to say Sanders probably had more bodies in the room than Clinton, and you know I'm not saying that out of any love for Bernie Sanders.

The impact of this under-allocation of delegates to high turnout areas is mitigated somewhat by new DNC rules this year that will require, in a first for Iowa Democrats, the reporting of a one person one vote raw vote count. But the delegate count still matters toward the nomination and to perceptions. The Associated Press announced this week, wrongly in my opinion, that they will "declare the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate receives."

That means my vote in high turnout Johnson County will matter less than the vote of an Iowan in a low turnout rural county. But exactly how much less will it matter?

An analysis of 2016 caucus attendance shows that, on average statewide, it took just over 122 people to elect a state delegate equivalent. But that varied dramatically by county, and (while I won't dive into details) by precinct within counties.

The easiest place to elect a delegate was Fremont County, where it took 45.33 attendees to elect a state delegate equivalent. Five other counties were at or below 61 people per SDE, less than half the statewide average. The bottom ten is filled with small, rural, population losing, Republican counties.

And as always, the same places stood out as the most difficult places to elect a delegate: campus communities most of all, urban areas, and high growth suburbs.

Four counties are bunched at the top, in a near dead heat. In these places, you needed 211 to 213 people to earn a SDE - nearly twice the state average and 4.7 times Fremont County. Put another way, a vote in Fremont County was worth nearly five times as much as a vote in these four counties.

Jefferson County, with its very active meditator community and Maharishi International University, was at the very top at 213.22. Story and Johnson, home to the two biggest Regents universities, were number 2 and number 4. Poweshiek County was third - and that statistic was almost entirely driven by the 925 people who attended the caucus for the Grinnell College precinct.

In Winneshiek, home to Decorah's Luther College, it took 154.64 people to elect a state delegate equivalent, putting them in fifth place (they were the hardest place to earn an SDE in 2008).

Another half dozen counties were above the state average of 122 voters per SDE. Two were the two biggest in the state, Polk and Linn. Two were in rural outlier counties, Decatur and Sioux, where the novelty of having a large number of Democrats in one place may have spurred attendance (though the county grand totals are still far below an east side Iowa City precinct).

And two were in high growth suburban Dallas and Warren counties. High growth makes it harder to elect a delegate from your county. A voter who moved to Dallas County three years ago won't count in the county's presidential vote totals used to calculate delegates, because they voted somewhere else.  A voter who moved in after the gubernatorial election wouldn't count at all toward the delegate count.

The flip side is, people in shrinking rural counties who moved away or passed away still contribute to the county's delegate allocation, meaning it takes fewer LIVE bodies to win delegates.

Ultimately, the apportionment rules mean candidates have to carefully allocate their resources and fight on all fronts at once, and part of that allocation is making the effort where the most bang for the buck is available -- the small towns.

Is that fair? Depends on where you live. I'd like to see someone take on the formula at the state convention this June. If we're going to keep having a caucus, which I don't think we should, we could at least get closer to one person one vote. If the rural counties don't like it, they can do what my county does and show up.

State Delegates and Caucus Attendance, 2016 Democratic Caucuses

Rank County Delegates Attendance Attendees per delegate
1 Jefferson 9 1,919 213.22
2 Story 46 9,757 212.11
3 Poweshiek 9 1,904 211.56
4 Johnson 92 19,407 210.95
5 Winneshiek 11 1,701 154.64
6 Polk 228 35,181 154.30
7 Dallas 29 4,209 145.14
8 Decatur 3 428 142.67
9 Sioux 4 541 135.25
10 Linn 121 15,026 124.18
11 Warren 22 2,731 124.14
12 Van Buren 2 237 118.50
13 Madison 6 696 116.00
14 Scott 82 9,503 115.89
15 Muscatine 18 2,073 115.17
16 Washington 9 1,019 113.22
17 Cedar 8 882 110.25
18 Marion 13 1,431 110.08
19 Boone 13 1,428 109.85
20 Black Hawk 69 7,459 108.10
21 Henry 7 742 106.00
22 Dubuque 48 5,056 105.33
23 Hamilton 6 629 104.83
24 Iowa 7 719 102.71
25 Jasper 18 1,843 102.39
26 Guthrie 4 409 102.25
27 Marshall 18 1,835 101.94
28 Pottawattamie 31 3,082 99.42
29 Union 5 497 99.40
30 Des Moines 20 1,967 98.35
31 Davis 3 293 97.67
32 Jackson 9 877 97.44
33 Bremer 12 1,165 97.08
34 Mahaska 7 678 96.86
35 Clayton 8 762 95.25
36 Greene 4 376 94.00
37 Wapello 15 1,404 93.60
38 Carroll 8 748 93.50
39 Winnebago 4 364 91.00
40 Woodbury 36 3,263 90.64
41 Harrison 5 453 90.60
42 Ringgold 2 181 90.50
43 Buena Vista 6 542 90.33
44 Louisa 4 361 90.25
45 Sac 3 270 90.00
46 Clay 6 540 90.00
47 Appanoose 5 449 89.80
48 Montgomery 3 266 88.67
49 Lucas 3 266 88.67
50 Emmet 3 266 88.67
51 Page 4 354 88.50
52 Clinton 24 2,121 88.38
53 Cerro Gordo 22 1,938 88.09
54 Audubon 3 264 88.00
55 Adair 3 263 87.67
56 Lee 17 1,489 87.59
57 Floyd 8 698 87.25
58 Hardin 7 608 86.86
59 Webster 16 1,369 85.56
60 Mills 5 417 83.40
61 Monona 3 249 83.00
62 Benton 12 991 82.58
63 Tama 9 738 82.00
64 Grundy 4 328 82.00
65 Dickinson 7 574 82.00
66 Buchanan 10 809 80.90
67 Lyon 2 161 80.50
68 Cherokee 4 321 80.25
69 Humboldt 3 239 79.67
70 Clarke 4 316 79.00
71 Allamakee 6 474 79.00
72 Fayette 10 788 78.80
73 Jones 9 703 78.11
74 O'Brien 3 234 78.00
75 Calhoun 4 309 77.25
76 Keokuk 4 308 77.00
77 Plymouth 7 535 76.43
78 Wright 5 376 75.20
79 Butler 6 449 74.83
80 Howard 4 297 74.25
81 Kossuth 6 445 74.17
82 Chickasaw 6 433 72.17
83 Wayne 2 143 71.50
84 Monroe 3 214 71.33
85 Hancock 4 285 71.25
86 Shelby 4 284 71.00
87 Franklin 4 284 71.00
88 Cass 5 351 70.20
89 Ida 2 137 68.50
90 Worth 4 272 68.00
91 Mitchell 4 272 68.00
92 Osceola 1 67 67.00
93 Adams 2 130 65.00
94 Pocahontas 3 183 61.00
95 Taylor 2 121 60.50
96 Crawford 5 302 60.40
97 Delaware 8 454 56.75
98 Palo Alto 4 222 55.50
99 Fremont 3 136 45.33
State 1401 171290 122.26

Friday, January 03, 2020

Cassandra At The Caucus: One Month Out

I have been quite busy since my semi-retirement from blogging, doing rather than reporting. I last attended a candidate event in September. In addition to getting through the city-school election at my day job, I have been doing the leg work for my county's caucuses.

And here we are: the 12 year anniversary of Barack Obama's win, the 8 year anniversary of the Republican dead heat, and one calendar month away from 2020.

One old caucus hand told me I should complain about the caucuses less and do more to help, though I don't know what more I can do besides recruiting almost all the chairs, booking the rooms, helping train the volunteers, answering the questions, and doing more media interviews than I can count.

After doing one of those interviews yesterday via email, I realized that I had more or less written a blog post. It may be repetitive to my long time readers, but I have been shouting the same warnings into the wilderness for four years to no avail, so I may as earn one more right to say I Told You So after the fact.

Essentially nothing has been done to address the issue of overcrowding in the largest urban precincts. But to be fair about this, the Iowa Democratic Party was making a good effort with its plan for a phone-in "virtual caucus." That was mainly meant as an accessibility program, to include people who could otherwise not attend. The campaigns were not buying in because it counted less than in person attendance, but nearly a third of likely caucus goers were telling pollsters that they would consider it anyway. The Johnson County Democrats were planning to make a big push to encourage Virtual Caucus in order to take pressure off our most crowded sites.

IDP spent nearly a year working on Virtual Caucus, and they were assured by the DNC every step of the way that it was a good plan - until all of a sudden in September it wasn't anymore. Had they told us from the start "we think a phone in system is a security risk," we would have had time to come up with another plan (like actual absentee ballots).

But in September, it was too late to come up with any major new changes and build a new system from scratch. Thanks, DNC. Satellite Caucus was dusted off, basically because it was the only plan that was on the shelf and it had been tried in 2016 with limited success. (Four sites statewide - three flopped but Oaknoll, the biggest retirement community in Iowa City, was a smash hit.)

There are 99 satellite caucus sites this year, but some are very obscure, like a guy's house in Tblisi, Georgia at 4 AM local time (which is caucus hour here). Basically, you had to be in the loop during a very narrow window in October and early November to know you needed to ask for a satellite caucus. It will help a few in-the-know snowbirds, the people at Oaknoll, and the nurses at UIHC and the firefighters at the West Side station who have to work that shift. But it won't get a single body out of our most crowded rooms. Basically everyone at a satellite caucus will be someone who would just not have attended otherwise.

(Aside: That term "satellite caucus" is unfortunate. In our county people hear about it and think that means the kind of satellite voting we do, zip into a public library and zip out. They don't realize that it means a mini-caucus at a different location.)

I also appreciate that the severe overcrowding is, to some extent, a "Johnson County problem." I was madder about that type of dismissal till I looked at the numbers and realized that's, well, kind of true.

Of the 11 precincts in the state (out of 1681 total) with over 600 in attendance in 2016, there was the campus precinct in Grinnell, the campus precinct at Iowa State, two in Des Moines... and seven of ours. That's a big burden to place on one county.

In 2016 the mean average attendance statewide was 102 people. The median was just 65.  In Johnson County, the average was 342. We had seven of the 10 biggest precincts in the state and 19 of the top 40. The last time I saw anyone with 7 of the top 10 and 19 in the top 40 was when Drake dropped an album.

The caucus process was never designed to be a mass participation event that was the equivalent of an election. It was meant to be the handful of core party activists in the precinct - 20 or 40 people who were familiar with process and rules and were meeting at their friend's house.

In some parts of Iowa it's still like that. In off years it's still like that in Johnson County. And at that size it still works.

As we argued last spring over the way the late unlamented virtual caucus vote was being allocated, it became clear to me that the caucuses are yet another rural-urban split in Iowa. The rural counties are convinced that without mandatory in person attendance to vote, they will not be able to organize their counties - and I understand that, and I understand that we are supposed to be all about Winning Back The Rurals this year.

A 2008 caucus on the east side of Iowa City, with 719 people attending.

But what about the BEST county? What about the county that for the last three cycles, in every state and federal race, has voted 13 to 15% more Democratic than any other county in the state? We are ALREADY organized, and this process hurts more than it helps. Knowing that's it's mostly a Johnson County Problem does not solve the problem. And - and this is what I'm still upset about - it does not mean the problem should just be dismissed.

We simply need a different system for the urban counties, a system that recognizes our lifestyles and needs and political folkways - and that rewards our outstanding performance each general election. Win back the rurals, yes, but give Johnson County and Polk County some credit and some respect. And in Johnson County, what we like and what we want and what we need is convenient multi-option early voting.

The biggest precinct in the state in 2016 was Iowa City 17 with 945 people. (We beat the Grinnell campus precinct by ten voters.) Our biggest in 2008 was 720 in precinct 18 - but remember that 2008 was on January 3 during UI's winter break, which suppressed turnout. We expect to top 1000 in both these precincts this time. We expect to be over 500 in dozens of our 57 precincts. And a caucus process that was designed for 20 to 40 people does not scale up well to a crowd of 500 to 1000. Once you get past the grade school gym capacity of 200 to 250, you can't do any "organizing." It's just crowd control and anger management.

You can do a lot to prepare for 500 people. You can train better, you can get more volunteers. But you can't solve the problem of the biggest room in (or near) the precinct being too small to hold the crowd you KNOW will be there. What is my county party supposed to do, build an 8000 seat arena with a 6000 car parking lot on the east side of Iowa City?

We've done better with rooms than we did in 2016. Sometimes that was due to better cooperation from the University and the schools but sometimes it was rented space at considerable expense to the county party. For example, we outgrew the free location at the Iowa City Public Library, so we rented out the Englert Theater. We had a hotel ballroom on the far north side of Iowa City that we turned down for the cost in 2016. We regretted that and we took it, at a slightly higher cost, this time.  It's money well spent - but it's another extra burden on a local party, in a community that is already expected to export money to other races across the state.

In some places, residential precincts full of single family homes, there's not an option like the Englert and we have to take a too-small school. There is not going to be enough parking anywhere, so walk or carpool if you can.

So my advice to Johnson County Democratic caucus goers is to set your expectations appropriately and be prepared. It's important to remember that everyone, including me, is a volunteer and is legitimately trying to do their best in a tough situation.

I know sports analogies are overdone, but my dad was a coach and my Packers are in the playoffs so I'm using one. Caucus night is like game day. It's exciting and we all want the Hawks to win. But you don't expect to walk in, watch a game highlights clip, and go home. You're there for a long time, two or three hours for the caucuses. And not every play is an exciting thing like a long touchdown pass. Sometimes you're stopped at the line of scrimmage, the ref throws a flag, and you have to sit around and wait while the three refs talk among themselves and figure out the call and everyone else is confused.

And you can't expect to show up 15 minutes before kickoff and get a parking space across the street from Kinnick Stadium. Expect to walk. If you can't, make plans for a ride, and remember that your candidate has more resources for that than the county party.

And frankly, think about whether you should even do this.

My parents are in Wisconsin, not Iowa, and never miss an election. They are 85 and 84 and having more trouble moving around than they used to. I've told them: "If you lived in Iowa City 17 and had to walk four blocks from your parking place to attend a three hour meeting with 1000 people, I would tell you, don't go. Don't do that to yourself. And then I would tell you to call your legislators and tell them what you think of that process."

I'll have more to say soon about some small process changes and maybe some candidate related thoughts.