Friday, July 16, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 5: Friendly (?) Advice

Because I'm openly in favor of ending the caucuses and going to a primary, even if it costs Iowa First, I've been persona non grata at Iowa Democratic Party headquarters since the Dvorsky Administration. It was worst while Andy McGuire was chair, when I was very pointedly and publicly excluded from a caucus review committee, even when they re-opened it to add more members. I'm well aware that the 2016 committee was a Remain Calm, All Is Well sham, but excluding me was still a slap in the face.


Actual footage of caucus sign in at Iowa City Precinct 17.

So for the last few years, since I'm not allowed behind closed doors and no one ever reaches out to me, I've had to make my case in public. I don't have a lot of followers, but I know that the people who do hear what I say are people who matter in this process.

I've know new IDP chair Ross Wilburn a long time, back before his Iowa City mayor days, and I like him. I know he's reasonable, but I also know he has to deal with a certain set of expectations regarding First. So I'm still going public here, but I look forward to talking with anyone who will listen.

So here's my suggestions for how we can improve the caucuses, in decreasing order of severity. 

Have a primary.

I won't go too deep into that here, especially since that would require legislation and bipartisan cooperation, and the Republicans have no interest in changing the process. But the bottom line is, a primary is a more democratic process than a caucus. We need to talk about this and we need to stop the denial. 

Even if the Iowa political/media establishment will not give up First and the caucuses willingly, we need to prepare for the likelihood that it will be taken from us. At some point soon, the DNC is going to ban caucuses, and we will need to adapt. In fact, assuming President Biden runs again, a re-election year when the stakes in the nomination contest are low would be the best opportunity for the DNC to make that change.

I'd like to see legislative Democrats make an actual effort to go along and introduce primary legislation, even though, given the Republican trifecta and their party's commitment to not changing the caucuses, it would be doomed to fail. Still, I  would like us to be national team players.

Maybe you could still have a small, off-year style caucus for party business. I don't really care. I've long argued that the whole platform process should be abolished, because it's not binding on candidates and officials and thus, to me, meaningless. And in other states, the delegates and party committee members are either slated by the campaigns or appear on the primary ballot itself. You can argue about those things if you want - but presidential preference should be handled in the most democratic way possible.

The math is easier with a primary, too.

But I'm not just about "have a primary." If we are going to have a 2024 caucus, which I expect even if the DNC bans caucuses, I want a better caucus. So let's keep improving...

Put the needs of ordinary voters first, not the needs of the political and media elite.

Who cares about first? 

The bipartisan political elite - the inner circle of activists and the next circle out who love the attention and the selfies and the big names at small county fundraisers and the personal phone calls from senators. And the state news media who love to play out their national anchor fantasies. That's a big part of why the state media downplays anti-caucus views.

I know how much losing First would cost these elites, because I'm one of them.  I know that losing First means we will never see a presidential candidate again. And I'm not going to argue that my adopted home state should not be first.

But most Normal People do not care about First. They don't attend candidate events. They don't meet candidates. Regular people have busy lives and busy schedules outside of politics. They just want to vote, and we should give them what they want.

Stop caring about what New Hampshire thinks. 

F🤬🤬k New Hampshire. It's not 1984 anymore and New Hampshire is not our friend. We need to plan a nomination process that works best for Iowans, and not worry about what a vain and self-important official in another state is going to do.

I don't see any scenario where we keep First. But let's say by some lightning strikes chance that we do. If we make a change to our nomination process that benefits Iowans, and the DNC OKs it, then we've played by the rules. Then if the New Hampshire Secretary of State says "nope, that's a primary," and moves ahead of us, then it's New Hampshire breaking the rules and New Hampshire that should be sanctioned.

(When we lose First, which we will, I want New Hampshire to die with us.)

In that regard:

Absentee Ballots. REAL absentee ballots, pre-printed with candidate names, that you can mark in secret at home. 

We are the party of voting rights. Every election cycle  we push voters to get their vote in early, fill out ABRs or come to an early voting site.

Except on caucus night, when we insist you show up. And some people just can't.

We need absentee ballots for the sake of fairness and access, and we need absentee ballots to get people out of our most overcrowded caucus rooms. This is the best and fairest solution for rank and file non-activist Iowans.

Virtual Caucus 2.0.

It's ra-a-aaaain on your wedding day ironic that just months after Iowa Democrat's phone-in "Virtual Caucus" was shot down as a "security risk," the entire world adapted overnight to virtual meetings - including the Democratic Party, which held virtual conventions from the local to the national level. A Zoom-trained world might be more ready to handle some sort of virtual caucus. It won't work for everyone, but it's better than nothing. Real absentees are better - but if for some reason that's not an option, Virtual Caucus 2.0 is worth reconsidering.

One person one vote. 

As I've been pointing out for years, Iowa's complicated "state delegate equivalent" formula that allocates delegates by county based on past general election voting skews the results. It undercounts high turnout, high growth, increasingly blue counties, and rewards low turnout, population losing, increasingly red counties. In 2020, Johnson County had 12.3% of statewide Democratic caucus attendance, but only got 7.7% of the state convention delegates.

The convoluted math formula is one of the things the rest of the nation, the press especially, hates the most about Iowa. It's time to end it. We need to lose all the state delegate equivalent crap and just report the vote totals. Base the national delegates on one person, one vote at the congressional district level that the DNC allocates delegates.

That's what the public wants, that's what the press wants, that's what everybody except a tiny handful of small county caucus activists wants. 

If the small counties don't like it, they can do what Johnson County does and show up.

Any absentee process needs to be counted on an equal basis as in-person attendance.

Before the DNC, out of the blue, banned Virtual Caucus, IDP had made a decision that the phone-in process would only count for 10% of the delegate allocation, no matter how many people attended. That was even though up to a third of caucus goers were interested in the option - I think in the end, as word got out, it would have been much higher.

As I was meeting with organizers, I learned that every campaign was downplaying Virtual Caucus, because it "counted less." I argued loudly against it and it's still unacceptable.

I was never able to figure out the math on satellite caucuses, the absentee plan that IDP had to pull off the shelf when Virtual Caucus was killed. I had enough other stuff I was doing. But it was also not weighted 1:1 with in person attendance. 

If absentees aren't counted equally, people won't use them and will continue to show up at the most overcrowded sites...

Overcrowding needs to be taken seriously.

I have been telling higher ups since at least 2008 that the overcrowding in my county was at crisis levels. This concern has been repeatedly and consistently dismissed by IDP. At one time we were directly told, "that's just a Johnson County problem."

Which does not solve the problem.

754 people at my Iowa City Precinct 5 caucus.

Unfortunately, IDP has put the demands of rural counties first here. They insist that mandatory meeting attendance is critical, because otherwise they will be unable to fill their committees. It's possible that one size does not fit all here - but our problem, and the problem in some precincts in other metro counties, is that we literally cannot fit everyone who wants to attend into the biggest room in or near the precinct.

It's simply not possible to conduct a meaningful process, which is designed for 30 people in a living room, when you have crowds of 500, 600, 700... up to 945 in our biggest precinct in 2016. And since we're already in the biggest rooms that exist, the only solution is to get some bodies out of the rooms. Which is also important because...

90% of attendees do not want to be at a meeting. Give them what they want.

Everyone has seen this every caucus cycle: the moment the delegate allocation is locked in, the overwhelming majority of people leave. The crowd dwindles down to the same 30 people who would have been in the living room in 1976, and who will be at the governor year caucus in 2022.

At my 2016 caucus, 430 people crammed into and overflowed a room meant for 200. As soon as I announced the delegate count, 400 left.

Why are we making those 400 people stay for two hours? They're not interested in the platform or the central committee or "party building." They want to vote and go home. Let them. If you are not going to have absentees, and are going to insist on in-person attendance, give people the option of voting at sign-in and leaving.

Literally every person I have talked to who has attended both a Democratic and a Republican caucus prefers the Republican process. You sign in, you vote, you leave if you want. We can probably streamline it even more as I'll explain below.

If we are going to insist on doing this the hard way, we need buy-in from all the key institutions in the state, by law if necessary.

Let's say all my suggestions above are rejected and the IDP is going to continue to require mass in person attendance at a long meeting, we need all hands on deck, and I don't just mean all Democrats or all political people. This is civics. not politics.

We need to stop everything else in the state that night. We need every large indoor space. I've worked on this for years and it's hard. Some publicly funded locations who are on paper required to offer space have found ways to refuse, or provide sub-optimal spaces. Usually the claim is that school events take precedence. My interpretation of the code is that "shall provide" means shall provide, not "may provide unless there's a ball game or choir practice," but we've never had time to test that in court.

We could clear that up in the law. We need to require the schools, pre-K through grad school, to cancel all classes, events, games, and practices and open their doors at no charge. (This has been proposed in legislation that hasn't advanced.) We need to strongly encourage the churches to do the same and we need to work across the aisle to make sure parishioners of one party don't scream at the pastor for letting the other party have a meeting space. Stores and non-essential services need to shut down so people can attend. Absentees would be better, but if we're rejecting that because oh noes, it might make New Hampshire mad, then we need this.

Stop giving lip service to accessibility, especially child care.

We're the state of Tom Harkin, the father of the ADA, but when it comes to caucus night we treat accessibility as an inconvenient box to check off. It's expensive and impractical, but by rights every site should have a sound system, a sign interpreter, adequate parking, and unblocked entrances. I think my county did better this time, but we had a long way to go. And of course nothing is truly accessible when 700 people are in the room. 

Accessibility also includes child care. But even if there is sufficient space for a Kid Room on site,  who's going to leave their kid with J. Random Volunteer? Do it the simple way: just give people who need child care the money to pay their regular provider (and give those providers absentee ballots - or, hear me out, just give the parent the absentee ballot in the first place).

Give the locals money.

All those space rentals and disability accommodations we mentioned cost money. We managed, but it was a big expense and luckily we're a big rich county. But we had four figure rental bills for some sites. Once you get up over the size of a grade school gym, space is rare and expensive. As for smaller counties, budgets are one of the reasons some of these items get short shrift.

If the state party is going to insist on continuing this difficult and expensive process instead of supporting a tax funded primary election, and if the state party is going to refuse to let us have absentee ballots and force us to book large venues, then the state party should pay for sites and sound systems and other necessities, not locals.

(Also: End the old school legal publication in a dead tree newspaper requirement. It's the 21st century. Post it on line. The print papers should be running the list of sites as a community service anyway.)

Expand the use of out of precinct volunteers.

Some precincts have a surplus of activists, while others just don't have a person who can handle running a caucus. We had a very limited program in 2020, which was kind of a holdover from the canceled Virtual Caucus: Local parties were allowed to name one chair and one secretary per precinct from outside the precinct. That's why my wife and I caucused in a campus precinct rather than where we live - we had a student chair, but he was a rookie and wanted help, so we were "chair" and "secretary" on paper until the caucus elected the real chair.

For that matter, assuming we have a one person one vote system (which we should) and assuming we are still requiring in person attendance (which we shouldn't), just let people caucus at any precinct in the county. If you have to be present to vote, you can't be in two places at once. People could avoid known overcrowded places and go someplace with more space and better parking. (Of course, every precinct in our county is overcrowded, but they could go someplace less bad.)

Make the "preference cards" more intuitive.

I knew this was going to happen as soon as I saw them: 

You're really going to give a person who has waited in line an hour something that looks like a ballot, and that a reasonable person not versed in the nuanced history of Iowa vs. New Hampshire would call a "ballot," and then tell them, "don't mark it yet"? 

You're really going to tell people that if they spell "Butigeieieiegegegeg" wrong you have to spoil your ballot - oops, preference card? You're really going to tell people "Mayor Pete" or "Bernie" doesn't count?

You're really going to expect a person managing the chaos of a 300 person mob to carefully log all of that?

Here's how we should have done it: 

"Welcome to the caucus. Here's your ballot. Write your first choice on side one. Do you have a second choice? Side two. Do you want to stay for the platform and stuff? No? OK, you can go home now. Thanks for voting."  

That would make us more like a Republican caucus. And literally every independent-swing-go-where-the-interesting-contest-is voter who I have ever spoken to who has attended both a Democratic and a Republican caucus likes the GOP process better and expects that kind of process: Show up, vote a secret ballot, leave right away. 

Vote-and-leave at the sign in table would also mean not everyone would have to cram into the room at the same time, so you could get by with smaller spaces.

Accept that many supporters of non-viable candidates do not want to make a second choice, and make the math easier.

This one is really small, but turned into a big deal in one of our precincts.

Under caucus rules, at final delegate allocation, you divide attendees in the viable groups by the grand total of attendees, and because you can't have a fractional delegate, you round up or down based on largest remainders. The problem with that formula is, some of the original attendees are not in viable preference groups. Some people go home, and others refuse to realign.

In the past, to make any choice at all, you had to stick around until final alignment was done. Sure, a handful of people still left, but not a statistically huge share. 

It became a much larger issue in 2020 because we began reporting the first alignment vote totals. Many, many, many supporters of non-viable candidates considered that first alignment number, not the Delegate Equivalents, to be their real vote, and having expressed their support decided to leave. IDP did not anticipate this.

We had some problems with the caucus manuals.

 The problem is, when more than a delegate's worth of people leave, the math breaks. You end up not allocating all your delegates and having to round up three or even four times. Here's the math in our problem precinct:

Delegates 11  
Total attendance 395             Delegates
Candidate A 138 3.8430
Candidate B 107 2.9797
Candidate C 104 2.8962
left or did not realign 46  

Viability was 60 people, but in this 11 delegate precinct, 36 people were 1/11 or a delegate worth, and  46 people left or did not realign.

Following the written instructions, our team - a good, smart team including an elected official -  rounded up the largest remaining fraction - three times, for all three remaining viable candidates - and still had allocated only 10 of their 11 delegates. There was no guidance on what to do when you had already rounded up all the viable candidates, and still had delegate(s) left to allocate. They called for help, sat on hold for an hour, got bad advice, and eventually got attacked after the fact by the campaigns and the national press. "Never again," says the elected official.

Change the rules for a simple solution: Instead of using total, beginning of the night attendance, divide the number of people in each preference group by the number of people still in attendance and in viable preference groups. Here's how that would work in our problem precinct.

Delegates 11  
Remaining attendance 349
             Delegates
Candidate A 138 4.3496
Candidate B 107 3.3725
Candidate C 104 3.2779

(For our purposes, "remaining attendance" means "in viable groups." There may or may not have been a Candidate D supporter who refused to realign but was sticking around for platform.)

Here, we only have to round up once to give the 11th delegate to Candidate B. That gives you a fair ratio of delegates and support, while not requiring multiple rounds of rounding.

Let people realign at the higher level conventions.

By the time of our district and state (virtual) conventions, my caucus night candidate had dropped out. I wanted to support our nominee, Joe Biden. But I was not allowed to change my preference. 

From the beginning of time through 2016, delegates were allowed to change preference at the different levels of convention, but in 2020, for vague reasons that supposedly had something to do with First, we changed. Changing back won't affect many people, but will go a long way toward unity.

Go rogue.

Johnson County gets screwed in every possible way at caucus time. We have to manage our massive turnout with a process that's designed for small counties, yet we are not rewarded for that turnout because the delegate math also favors small counties. Since we can't change the formula, maybe we just have to go rogue.

 

If the state party won't let us do any of these things I suggest, and we go into another contested nomination cycle with the present system and present calendar, and if the state party is still making the locals pay for the venues... 

...then we need to vote people at the sign in table. If we can't have absentee ballots, there's no other way we'll be able to fit into the rooms.

"Welcome to the caucus. Here's your ballot. Write your first choice on side one. Do you have a second choice? Side two. Do you want to stay for the platform and stuff? No? OK, you can go home now. Thanks for voting."

That will no doubt mean a credentials fight at the district and state conventions, with the small counties and with whichever presidential campaign would benefit by throwing out our delegates. That's a fight worth having - I dare them to throw out the best Democratic county in the state. 

And if the DNC bans caucuses and/or moves Iowa out of the early state carve-out, but Iowa has a rogue caucus anyway (because the GOP legislature won't authorize a primary), how can the rest of the state attack Johnson or other big counties for breaking rules?

If we decide to make our own rules which will work better for our crowds and more importantly our voters, that fight will require some solidarity within Johnson County, and with the other big counties that are negatively affected.

 

This system is broken. I hope that this week I've stated my case clearly. I've invested a lot of thinking and time, both in this and in making the caucuses happen - and I feel like that thought and that work has earned an equally thoughtful and serious response from IDP and from state leaders in general. You know where to find me.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 4: The Apportionment Problem

Iowa Democratic caucuses defenders, which I used to be, will argue that the caucuses are a representative democracy, much like the House of Representatives, where representation is allocated, rather than a direct democracy.

The Iowa Democratic Party's delegate allocation formula is based on past general election voting for the top of the ticket. In effect, the caucuses take place in a mythical, projected version of a general election voting population. In 2020, allocation was based on votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Fred Hubbell in 2018.

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. That means a caucus vote varies in its impact depending on where you live. Because turnout varies a lot, not every caucus vote carries equal weight.

This is a rewrite of a post I write every cycle:

This data probably hurts my efforts to move away from the caucuses. No one wants to Disrespect The Rurals, and I can already hear them screaming "if we go to one person one vote, no one will campaign anywhere but the big cities." But fair is fair. If Democrats are going to complain about the malapportionment of the US Senate, where small rural states have disproportionate power, we need to look in the mirror as well and implement fairness closer to home.

Some counties, like mine, are full of go-to-meeting activists who are more likely to attend a caucus. Others have more people who may just vote, sometimes even for Democrats, but are otherwise less active. In general, per capita turnout is lowest in rural areas and highest in cities, especially cities with college campuses.

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 here in Johnson County, that's a problem. In fact, the obscure allocation formula likely skewed the national interpretation of the outcome in both 2016 and 2020.

In 2020, for the first time, IDP released the raw vote count from the caucuses - not because we wanted to, but because the DNC forced the issue. Yet we insisted on declaring Pete Buttigeig the "winner" (once we finally figured things out) based on the same tired "state delegate equivalent" (SDE) metric we always used. 

SDEs are an inherently artificial measure, because it breaks delegates into decimal fractions at the precinct and county level in a way that doesn't reflect the reality of the county, district, and state conventions, where delegates are whole bodies.


(If you really need 0.375 of a delegate, I know a guy - but it's gonna be a while before you eat anything from Satriale's.)

I can't stand Bernie Sanders, and I think he should never have been allowed to run in the Democratic nomination process without formally joining the Democratic Party. But dammit, he got the most votes, and I consider him the 2020 caucus winner. 

Sanders almost certainly got the most raw votes in Iowa in 2016 as well, but those totals weren't officially released (though we know the numbers exist in some IDP memory hole, because precincts were required to report alignment totals on caucus night 2016). In both 2016 and 2020, Sanders (and to a lesser extent Elizabeth Warren in 2020) did well in the college towns - which, as you'll see, had a higher share of the turnout than they did of the delegates. A vote in high turnout Johnson County mattered less than the vote of an Iowan in a low turnout rural county. 

But exactly how much less?

An analysis of 2020 caucus attendance shows that, on average statewide, it took 81.67 people attending a caucus to elect a state delegate equivalent. But that varied dramatically by county, and by precinct within counties.

(For this analysis I'm leaving aside the satellite caucuses, which accounted for just 2.4% of the grand total attendance. Though it's worth noting that the two biggest satellites, at the UI campus and the Oaknoll senior complex, were both in Johnson County.)

The easiest place to elect a delegate was Osceola County, where it took just 23.33 attendees to elect a state delegate equivalent. Two other counties, Taylor and Adams were at or below 40 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.

Jefferson County, with its very active meditator community and Maharishi International University, was at the very top at 147.42 attendees per SDE. The People's Republic Of Johnson County was a close second at 131.22. Poweshiek County was third - and that statistic was almost entirely driven by the 830 people who attended the caucus for the Grinnell College precinct.

Ten counties were above the statewide average of 81.67 bodies per SDE - these counties accounted for half of the total attendance. They include all the usual suspects - the campus counties and the largest counties. The top ten also includes, again, Sioux County, the most Republican in the state. My theory there is that being a Democrat in a place like that, like being a Republican in Johnson County, is a statement, and the few-but-proud Democrats are activist types who show up.

And three of the top ten were high growth suburban Dallas, Madison, 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.

The gap is less than it's been in past years, in part because Democrats did so poorly in the rural counties in 2018 and 2020 that those places lost delegates, and because Johnson County did so much better for Clinton and Hubbell than anyplace else that we were rewarded with more delegates. Still, it took six times more people to elect a delegate out of Poweshiek than out of Osceola, and that's not defensible.

If you want to drill really deep, to the precinct level, the easiest place to earn a delegate was Sherman Township in rural Story County, where it took just 9.6 people to earn an SDE. In Ames Precinct 4-4, it took 176 people. That's an 18 to 1 difference within the same county.

The single hardest precinct in the state to get a delegate was that Grinnell campus precinct, where it took 247 people to earn an SDE. The caucus I attended in Iowa City Precinct 5, also a campus precinct, was fourth hardest, at 205 attendees per SDE.

I'd like to see someone take on the delegate allocation formula at the state convention next year. 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, 2020 Democratic Caucuses

Rank County Delegates Attendance Attendance per delegate
1 Jefferson 12 1769 147.42
2 Johnson 162 21257 131.22
3 Poweshiek 14 1768 126.29
4 Story 83 9877 119.00
5 Winneshiek 16 1874 117.13
6 Dallas 58 5804 100.07
7 Polk 392 37834 96.52
8 Sioux 7 668 95.43
9 Warren 35 2944 84.11
10 Madison 9 740 82.22
11 Linn 189 15113 79.96
12 Decatur 4 317 79.25
13 Mahaska 8 624 78.00
14 Bremer 17 1292 76.00
15 Washington 13 976 75.08
16 Marion 18 1336 74.22
17 Dubuque 72 5186 72.03
18 Allamakee 7 501 71.57
19 Boone 19 1356 71.37
20 Scott 125 8862 70.90
21 Cedar 12 849 70.75
22 Iowa 10 701 70.10
23 Black Hawk 101 7033 69.63
24 Henry 10 688 68.80
25 Jasper 23 1582 68.78
26 Muscatine 25 1711 68.44
27 Des Moines 27 1832 67.85
28 Keokuk 4 271 67.75
29 Audubon 3 203 67.67
30 Page 6 404 67.33
31 Dickinson 10 666 66.60
32 Plymouth 9 596 66.22
33 Winnebago 6 395 65.83
34 Jackson 12 781 65.08
35 Emmet 4 260 65.00
36 Clay 8 514 64.25
37 Fayette 12 768 64.00
38 Montgomery 4 256 64.00
39 Clayton 10 638 63.80
40 Clarke 4 255 63.75
41 Davis 3 191 63.67
42 Woodbury 51 3234 63.41
43 Pottawattamie 48 3043 63.40
44 Cass 6 376 62.67
45 Hardin 9 558 62.00
46 O'Brien 4 248 62.00
47 Lyon 3 185 61.67
48 Grundy 6 368 61.33
49 Louisa 5 306 61.20
50 Butler 7 428 61.14
51 Wapello 18 1093 60.72
52 Fremont 3 182 60.67
53 Buena Vista 9 545 60.56
54 Humboldt 4 242 60.50
55 Mills 7 423 60.43
56 Greene 6 362 60.33
57 Hamilton 9 543 60.33
58 Marshall 24 1446 60.25
59 Appanoose 6 360 60.00
60 Pocahontas 3 180 60.00
61 Guthrie 6 358 59.67
62 Floyd 10 594 59.40
63 Harrison 7 413 59.00
64 Webster 20 1180 59.00
65 Cerro Gordo 31 1828 58.97
66 Buchanan 13 762 58.62
67 Lee 21 1227 58.43
68 Union 6 348 58.00
69 Mitchell 6 347 57.83
70 Adair 4 229 57.25
71 Kossuth 8 456 57.00
72 Carroll 11 624 56.73
73 Sac 4 225 56.25
74 Wright 6 336 56.00
75 Chickasaw 7 389 55.57
76 Clinton 31 1719 55.45
77 Worth 5 276 55.20
78 Lucas 4 220 55.00
79 Crawford 6 329 54.83
80 Monroe 3 164 54.67
81 Benton 15 813 54.20
82 Howard 5 270 54.00
83 Hancock 5 268 53.60
84 Shelby 5 266 53.20
85 Tama 11 580 52.73
86 Monona 4 207 51.75
87 Jones 12 614 51.17
88 Calhoun 5 255 51.00
89 Palo Alto 5 255 51.00
90 Franklin 5 248 49.60
91 Ida 3 147 49.00
92 Van Buren 3 147 49.00
93 Ringgold 3 146 48.67
94 Delaware 9 433 48.11
95 Wayne 3 135 45.00
96 Cherokee 6 266 44.33
97 Adams 3 107 35.67
98 Taylor 3 97 32.33
99 Osceola 3 70 23.33

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 3: The Crowd Crisis

Defenders of the caucuses have for decades argued that an in-person meeting is a great organizing opportunity for local parties. 

Maybe it used to be, back in the living room days. However, as turnout has grown and and as the caucuses have expanded beyond the original core activist base into become a mass participation event, a de facto primary just with difficult voting rules, the organizing has gotten lost. An overwhelming majority of attendees leave the moment presidential preference is locked in, and many resent the time they've spent.

Nothing about the post-2000 caucuses is set up for the good caucus night experience of an average person who just wants to cast their vote. The kind of mega-caucuses we see in Johnson County do active damage to our organizing efforts.

Sometimes at work people don't know Who I Am, so I hear over and over again in the spring of leap years: "The caucuses were so crowded and disorganized! I'm never going to anything for the Johnson County Democrats again." Never "the Iowa Democratic Party." Never "the DNC." Always "the Johnson County Democrats." We locals don't make the rules that require in-person attendance with no absentee option, but we're the ones who get blamed.

We don't lose Democratic votes over it in the fall, and eventually they caucus again, only because they have no choice. But we lose people. People who might be donors or volunteers instead sit on the sidelines because they are convinced the local Democrats are a shit show - because their first experience when they try to join is getting told "go stand in the corner for three hours to vote."

The rules and process that still work sorta OK for small rural counties (for people who are able to attend, that is) are hopelessly broken in cities and on campus. 


This is the biggest 2020 caucus in the state: 860 people in Iowa City Precinct 17. You don't see an entire upper auditorium level in the photo. There were 72 whole counties that had fewer people attend their caucuses. 860 people isn't a caucus - it's a state convention.

At the state level, caucus turnout ramped up and peaked in 2008, then leveled off for 2016 and 2020.

1984    75,010
1988    124,955
2004    124,331
2008    239,000
2016    171,290
2020    176,352

However, turnout has continued to grow in the biggest counties and precincts. As far back as 2004 in Johnson County, we started to exceed the capacity of the rooms, and it's only gotten worse even as we rent bigger spaces. Johnson County turnout was artificially low in the state record 2008 cycle, because the January 3 date excluded most University of Iowa students, who were away on winter break. We set a new local record in 2016 and again in 2020, even as state turnout declined.

2004 11,169
2008 18,363
2016 19,404
2020 21,436

The 2016 and 2020 Johnson County numbers do not include satellite caucuses. 

Show your work, you said? OK, let's get into numbers.

When we learn statistics we learn basics of mode (most commonly occurring total), median (the number in the middle of the set), and mean (add them all up, divide by number of items).

(I'm setting aside the satellite caucuses for now to make this easier and just looking at the 1678 precinct caucuses.)

The mode - the most common precinct caucus attendance total - was just 15, which tells us little except that there are a lot of small rural precincts. The halfway point, the median, tells us pretty much the same thing. Half the caucuses had 61 or more people, half had 60 or less.

60 is on the high end of the traditional, "living room" size caucuses. It's the size group a caucus is designed for. But that smaller half of caucus sites only accounted for 14% of total attendance.

The statistical mean caucus attendance, what most would call the "average," was just under 103 people. Not a living room, but maybe a comfortable grade school gym.

But 71.8% of caucus goers had something bigger yet.

Half of all 2020 caucus goers attended just 260 of the 1678 precinct caucuses, precincts with attendance of 191 people or higher. That's close to the point where a grade school gym is fire-code overcrowded, and close to the point where a meaningful meeting doesn't work well. 

(We don't like to talk about the Fire Marshal. We think they have a don't ask don't tell policy on Johnson County caucuses. If I weren't a team player I would have called them myself on some of our precincts. We did get a threat in 2004 from the University that they were going to have the fire marshal shut down a caucus at the Iowa Memorial Union, but we fast-talked our way out of it.)

Even if you're lucky and the room size is still comfortable, the sign-in line is longer, and thus the event starts later and takes longer. Big rooms often have bad acoustics, that often aren't helped by amplified sound, so people have trouble hearing and understanding directions. The parking is harder and farther away. More people means more new people, and more new people means more people who don't know that this is not a show up, vote, and leave thing (presidential campaigns, in their own self interest, tend to set the expectations a little too easy). All these things put people in a grouchier mood.

A quarter of all caucus goers were at just 88 precincts, with 339 or more attendance. 

And 12% were at one of the 33 mega-precincts that had 500 or more people in the room.

It's a training and public education question, with contradictory needs. The average caucus chair is dealing with crowds in the range of 60 to 100 or smaller. But the average caucus attendee is at a site with 200 or more. If we train merely for what the average chair needs, we're not preparing the chairs, or the caucus goers, for what most attendees will experience.

Now let's break out those 33 caucuses with 500+ attendance by county.

  • One in Poweshiek (the Grinnell College campus)
  • One in Linn.
  • Four in Story.
  • Ten in Polk.
  • Seventeen in Johnson.

Johnson County had 34 caucuses (out of 57) with more than 300 in attendance, and 42 that were larger than the 191 attendance that the average caucus attendee experienced.

Yet despite our dominance of the highest attendance, caucus overcrowding is not "just a Johnson County problem," which I've heard countless times over the years, and which does nothing to actually solve the problem.

Seventeen counties had at least one caucus over that 191 attendance midpoint of what a typical caucus goer experienced, and even that size of a caucus is far, far bigger than this process was ever meant to be. Yet the Iowa Democratic Party insists on playing up the idyllic, median, 60 or less living room town meeting stereotype. 

Of course they do. Because deep in their hearts, despite the desire for First, they know that this is not a way to vote.


This is the caucus I attended in Iowa City precinct 5 (mostly dorms). It was tied for 6th biggest at 754, and was the 4th hardest in the state to get a delegate (207 attendees per state delegate equivalent). Most of these attendees were first time caucus goers, and most were frustrated by the long waits - it was 7:45 before sign in was finished, since nearly everyone had to register to vote or update their address. It took at least another two hours to sort and count and complete alignment.

This is unacceptable.

There's nothing more we big counties can do within the existing rules to make this better. We can't just "get a bigger room." We have already gotten the biggest rooms that exist, without any financial help from the state party that forces this task onto us, and they are still not big enough. And even if the room is big enough, the process itself falls apart into a cluster of crowd control and anger management. Maybe we are failing - but we are being set up to fail, because the task we've been assigned is impossible.

The reputation of our worst caucuses precedes us. I'm one of the few people bilingual in both Election and Caucus, and I have seen this scenario many times:

An elderly voter from the east side of Iowa City. She is a loyal Democrat who has voted in every election since Adlai Stevenson. She knows what to expect. She went to the 700 person caucus four years ago and knows this one will be even worse. She just can't anymore. She cares just as much but she can't stand for three hours. She can't walk six blocks from the nearest available parking space. She is standing at the auditor's counter near tears, not knowing I am Caucus Guy, begging: "can't you please send me an absentee ballot?"

And I have to stay in character and say "Sorry ma'am, but the parties run the caucuses, not our office. They make the rules and they require in-person attendance. You need to talk to the party." (Sometimes I just have to break character and let them know I am Caucus Guy and that I know the situation is just plain morally wrong.)

She is more important than your collection of candidate selfies, or your county fundraiser, or your byline. 

She is more important than First.

When the biggest room in or near the precinct is no longer big enough to hold the people who want to attend, the only solution is getting people out of the rooms. We need absentee ballots - real ones, with pre-printed candidate names, that you can vote at home in secret, no matter what the New Hampshire Secretary of State thinks.

And, importantly, these absentees need to count equally to ballots cast in person. Even before the plug was pulled, Virtual Caucus was fizzling. The presidential campaigns were not buying in and were actively discouraging participation because "it counts less." I didn't blame them - their job was to win, not to solve my space crunch. Instead I blamed the proposed rules, and fought in vain to change them.

In the summer of 2019, when we were arguing about whether votes at Virtual Caucus should have equal weight to in person votes, rural advocates argued: "If we count Virtual votes equally, then all of my people will vote that way, no one will show up at the 'real' caucus, and I won't be able to organize my central committee." Ff our only model for rural organizing is a mandatory meeting, then we've got worse problems than I feared

The state party and the rural counties have deliberately closed their eyes to the overcrowding crisis that's happening in the cities and on the campuses - and when we complain, they say that we aren't showing enough "respect" and that we "don't care" about rural counties. "You have it easy over there in deep blue Johnson County. Try being out here where our people are scared to put up yard signs because the neighbors will use them for target practice."

Hey, I understand. It's been a long time, but I ran for the legislature in a rural district once. I know that we can't win if we don't win together and if we don't turn around our rural problem. I know that our legislators in our safe blue seats can't do a damn thing without a majority. 

We want to help. Johnson County is working harder at raising money to export across the state, and to send volunteer crews out to neighboring purple and red areas. We've increased our winning margins to 71% for Joe Biden, 15 points more than any other county in the state, just by opening the polls and getting out of the way as the voters stampede in. We aren't looking for trophies.

But we can do better. Could we get to 75% for the top of the ticket if we didn't alienate hundreds or thousands of potential volunteers and donors because they had to endure a 500 body caucus?

The caucuses, as they exist in Johnson County especially but also in other urban and campus areas, are hurting us. On this item, we're the ones who need help from the rest of the state. We just can't function with rules and processes that were made for a different time and place. You need to let us do things our way, and maybe you need to adapt a little bit to allow us to do that.

Tomorrow, we'll see another way that the rules are punishing the best Democratic counties.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 2: The Access Problem

Voting rights are a critical civil rights issue in the post (?) - Trump era. Election law has increasingly become a partisan fight in the two decades since Bush v. Gore, and that trend has accelerated to unprecedented and dangerous levels in 2021, with Iowa unfortunately at the forefront.

Through all this, Democrats in general, and Iowa Democrats specifically, have positioned themselves as The Party Of Voting Rights. We want to encourage voting by mail and longer in person early voting and more drop boxes and satellite sites and more ID flexibility. We want to make voting easy, not hard. 

Unless it's a Monday in February. Then Iowa Democrats say no, you have to show up in person, at one time and one place only, and attend a long meeting in order to vote. If you can't? Well, then, as one IDP chair said in the late 2000s decade, "you can always caucus next cycle."

The reason for this hypocrisy, as I discussed in part one, is that Iowa's political leaders (of both parties) are afraid that any process that too closely resembles an "election" will trigger the New Hampshire Secretary of State, who would respond by moving his state's primary ahead of the caucuses and take First, Our Precious, away.

I was still a pretty enthusiastic Caucuses! and First! person through the Obama era, and I still fell into the group-think of not wanting to upset New Hampshire. As I look back, I was seeing the warning signs as long ago as 2004, when turnout took a Great Leap Forward and we started to over-fill rooms, which I'll discuss more later.

2016 was the deal breaker for me. We made yet another Great Leap Forward in crowd size, and after the caucuses we went through a long and nasty nomination fight with three levels of contentious conventions and the accompanying game-playing.

But I have to be honest, the real last straw for me was when disenfranchisement hit me close to home. My wife got hit with last minute mandatory overtime on February 1, 2016, and was not able to attend the caucuses.

I was aware of the issue before that, of course. A caucus process disenfranchises many classes of people, not just people who have to work that night. People with child or adult care issues - my wife also opted out of 2008 because our sons were young and didn't want to attend a long boring grownup meeting. (Child care at caucuses has generally been lip service rather than real.)

Other people who get left out include people with transportation issues. Either they have no wheels and the site is too far away, or they simply aren't comfortable driving at night. I tried to address geographic accessibility as best I could in 2020, but the bottom line was the main factor in site decisions was capacity. In some cases we had to take a farther out room that would hold (or almost hold) the crowd over a more geographically accessible but smaller space. We made efforts to line up free shuttle buses, but the effectiveness of that depends so much on people happening to hear about it.

Disabilities, of all sorts, are also an issue. Nothing is truly "accessible" when crowds grow over room capacity. It's not just physical disabilities. As someone on the autism spectrum, the noise and crowding and confusion and uncertainty of caucus night are challenging for me.

Snowbirds were also left out. It's a little harder for me to fret about people who can afford a winter and summer home, but I do want everyone to vote.

There's also the anonymity issue. While Iowa Republicans have a secret ballot at their caucuses, Democrats do not and the act of voting is a very public walk to a corner of the room - subject to intimidation by bosses or abusive partners or bullies from an opposing campaign. 

These guys have "suggestions." You gotta problem wid dat?

The DNC was also well aware of these issues and passed a rules change for 2020: any state with a caucus was required to offer an absentee process.

Nevada had a very successful caucus early voting program with real absentee ballots in 2020. But under the current calendar, they're the third state in the nominating process, so they were not dealing with a New Hampshire Secretary of State looking for any excuse to move to an earlier date. Given our terminal fear of Losing First, Iowa needed another approach.

Iowa learned a few things about New Hampshire Secretary Of State For Life Bill Gardner in 2018 and 2019. The most relevant item here is that Gardner considers preparation of a ballot, printing of a ballot, and the process of qualifying for a ballot, to be key elements of an "election" as opposed to a caucus. 

(My personal theory about that is that New Hampshire has a ritual of candidates filing for the primary in person at Gardner's office, and Gardner loves the publicity and cameras and does not want to share that with Iowa. Rest assured, no one in Iowa is interested in that.)

That's why the paper documentation of Iowa caucus votes in 2020 did not included any pre-printed names, and why it was called a "preference card" and never, Never, NEVER a "ballot."

 
Nevada caucus ballot with printed names, Iowa "preference card" with no names

It's also assumed that Gardner considers holding a meeting to be a key component of a caucus, and that's why Iowa took the approach it took to the new, mandatory absentee process: a phone-in "Virtual Caucus." As designed, it was not a simple vote by phone process; it was more of a teleconference. 

Virtual Caucus had its flaws, the biggest of which was that votes would almost certainly have counted for less than votes cast in person at a traditional caucus. Because of that, the presidential campaigns were not buying in. But with multiple dates and times offered, it was a definite improvement over not being able to vote at all.

The Iowa Democratic Party invested many months into Virtual Caucus, and was reassured all along the way by both the DNC and New Hampshire that it was a creative and acceptable idea...

...until early in the fall of 2019. At a public meeting, with no advance heads up to the IDP, DNC technical staff declared that Virtual Caucus was an unacceptable security risk, and the plug was pulled immediately. (Ironically, when COVID hit immediately after the 2020 caucuses, the whole world immediately adapted to virtual meetings, and every level of Democratic convention from the county to the national was held virtually.)

Since it was very late in the process, IDP had to come up with a quick Plan B.

I first heard of the concept of satellite caucuses in late 2007 from the late Art Small, a giant of local Democratic politics. He had moved to Iowa City's big Oaknoll senior complex and was concerned that he and his neighbors were reluctant and/or unable to venture out at night and travel the few blocks to the local elementary school holding that precinct's caucuses. He asked if we could simply have a separate caucus at Oaknoll, and phone the attendance numbers over to the school.

The 2008 rules didn't allow for that. But Nevada had satellite caucuses in 2008 to address a different problem, casino staff working the evening shift. There were some problems in execution, but Iowa cribbed the idea for 2016.

The 2016 satellite caucuses were more of a pilot program than a real option. There were only four in the state, and the only one that drew significant attendance was at Oaknoll. The idea was abandoned for 2020... until Virtual Caucus was killed. At that point, satellite caucuses were the only thing IDP had on the shelf, so they were quickly dusted off.

Satellite caucuses were just a drop in the total attendance bucket, at 2.4% of the grand total attendance. They may have helped a few people, and they had some impact on the results as the Sanders campaign was more successful at organizing and leveraging a few sites. Some of the sites were absurd, the most ludicrous being held for three people at private home in the Republic of Georgia. At least they got voted, but it really begs the question of why not just send them absentee ballots. Oh, right, because New Hampshire says we can't.

But there were three big flaws with satellite caucuses. The first is, you still had to be one specific place at one specific time. There were a couple exceptions by a couple hours, but the satellite caucuses were all in-person events on Monday night.

The other two big flaws were both related to the need for more advance planning than many people can manage. Attendees at most sites had to pre-register two weeks out. It's human nature, which I've experienced a lot in elections, that people don't plan ahead. A lot of people don't get work schedules that far out.

The bigger issue was that the petitioning window for satellite caucuses was narrow and obscure, just a few weeks in October and November. If you weren't insider enough to know in that short time frame that you needed to ask for a satellite caucus, you didn't get one.

I found this out the hard way. I was especially proud of lining up, at some expense, the Englert Theatre to host the Iowa City 20 caucus. The Englert is one of the gems of downtown Iowa City and was big enough to host my estimated crowd of up to 700 (we got 617). In the past we had held that precinct's caucus at the Public Library, which had burst at the seams and melted down in 2016, or at the Iowa City Senior Center.

The Senior Center is the regular polling place for the precinct, and is located very close to two large, lower income senior housing centers. The rest of the precinct is mostly students.

A couple weeks before the 2020 caucuses, I started getting unhappy calls from residents of the senior complexes, most of whom were Biden supporters, who very much did not want to go to the Englert. They could not walk there, and parking was non-existent. They wanted to caucus at the place they usually voted, the Senior Center. 

The biggest room at the Senior Center has a capacity of a couple hundred, so it wasn't big enough to hold the crowd we expected for the whole precinct. But the Senior Center would have been a nice spot for a satellite caucus - had anyone asked. 

The point is, no one knew to ask. The more connected and higher income seniors at Oaknoll knew how and when to ask for a satellite caucus, and they had a very nice one with 190 people in attendance. The guy in the Republic of Georgia was insider enough to know to ask, and his vote was counted. The Florida and Arizona snowbirds who could afford a winter residence knew to ask. 

But the working class seniors at Ecumenical Towers did not know to ask until it was too late.

I blame myself in part for that - granted, I was very busy juggling the big picture of 57 regular precinct caucus sites, and IDP was managing the satellites - but I should have thought of it and had someone reach out and I didn't. I won't forget again. And when people called, I explained the crowd capacity issues, but no one went away happy and I suspect that a lot of those folks just didn't attend.

It's those crowd capacity issues, which I'll detail in the next installment, that are the biggest and hardest to solve problem with the caucuses.

Monday, July 12, 2021

Fixing The Caucuses, Part 1: "The Caucuses" vs. "First"

Time to get the beret out of mothballs, dust off the old blog, and settle in for some longer discussion.

As those of you who follow me on my main medium, Twitter, know, I've spent much of the year and a half since the Democratic caucus results collapsed arguing for an end to the caucuses. This week, I got some numbers and in subsequent posts I'll quantify my main objections.

But before I get into that, I'm going to explain what I mean by "the caucuses." I often make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge, and assuming too much background knowledge is one of the problems the caucuses have.

When people who defend the caucuses talk about benefits like "a candidate with little money and name ID can break out of the pack and win" or "anyone can just walk up to the candidate and ask a question," or "it's a big boost to our tourism economy" or "it keeps national attention on Iowa's issues," they are not talking about the same thing I am talking about when I say "end the caucuses."

They are talking about First. First In The Nation, to be exact.

Through a historic accident that centers around obscure rules about numbers of days between conventions, and the limitations of 1970's printing and copying technology, Iowa found itself hosting its caucuses before the New Hampshire primary, which had long been considered the beginning of the presidential nomination contest. Jimmy Carter noticed this and rode a breakout second place finish - behind "Uncommitted"! - to the nomination and the White House. 

After that, what had long been a small and obscure set of living room meetings of a dozen people a precinct became a major national news story and a must-stop event for candidates, who spend more time in Iowa the year before the nomination contest than any other state (with one exception).

For Iowans, and this will be important in later posts, it grew. The caucuses are still a small and obscure set of living room meetings of a dozen people a precinct who pass platform resolutions and elect each other to committees in governor years, though the ADA has moved us out of living rooms and into public buildings. 

But once the media and the candidates showed up, the caucuses grew into a mass participation event that's become the functional equivalent of a primary - which it was never meant or designed to be - while keeping almost exactly the same rules that were designed for a living room.

When I talk about "The Caucuses" I am not talking about First: The Year Before. I am talking about Caucuses: Caucus Night Itself. I am talking about the process that requires people to attend a party meeting to express their presidential choice, instead of simply voting in an election.

New Hampshire gets many of these same advantages of attention from having the first primary, usually eight days after Iowa. Since the 1980s this has been an unofficial alliance, less friendly in recent years, in a tacit agreement that lets both states claim "First." And even as nearly every other state that had caucuses has abandoned them for a primary, Iowa has stuck with them.

A lot of defenders of Caucuses: The Institution argue that First: The Year and Caucuses: The Night are the same thing: "If we got rid of The Caucuses and had a primary, we would lose First." That argument is based on New Hampshire's pit-bull insistence on staying First as they see it, and on their objections to anything resembling an election-like process occurring before their state.

Why can't Iowans get absentee ballots for the caucuses? Why were we prohibited from releasing our raw vote totals from the caucuses until 2020 when the DNC made it mandatory? Because the New Hampshire Secretary of State said so, that's why. And Iowa's party leaders, of both parties, live in fear of upsetting the New Hampshire Secretary of State, lest he wish us into the cornfield.

I think we're already IN the cornfield.

The silliest argument of all for the caucuses is New Hampshire's state law requiring their primary to occur before "any similar contest," and Iowa's corresponding law regarding caucuses. What is stopping 48 other states from passing the exact same law? One already did - Nevada, which has been third the last few cycles but earlier this year switched from a caucus to a primary and announced plans to go before both New Hampshire and Iowa.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire have bigger threats to First than each other. The other 48 states, especially on the Democratic side, are not happy that two demographically unrepresentative states have monopolized First. Iowa faces additional hostility to caucuses as a process, for all the reasons I've been saying and will flesh out in subsequent posts.

Scheduling the nominating calendar is the prerogative of the party national committees, although election scheduling is also a matter of state law and the parties have weak and ineffective enforcement tools. In the past, parties have been unwilling to use the most effective tool, the nuclear option of refusing to seat a state's delegation if they have their nominating contest on a too-soon date. The threat is even emptier after 2008, when both Florida and Michigan cut in line and - because they were big swing states - walked away with no meaningful penalties.

New Hampshire and Nevada, about as purple a pair of states as still exists and with two Democratic Senators - might get away with rule breaking too, if the DNC decides to start elsewhere. (It should be noted that the other early state in recent cycles is South Carolina - home of new DNC chair Jamie Harrison.) But it would be very easy to make an example of Iowa. We're now safely red and we have no one in a really powerful position to fight for First the way Tom Harkin used to. And unlike Barack Obama, with his breakthrough at the 2008 caucuses and two Iowa general election wins, Joe Biden did very poorly in Iowa both in the caucuses and last November - so he owes us nothing.

Iowa Democrats are in a jam because, if the DNC decides, as I expect, to ban caucuses and only allow primaries, that decision is not binding on a Republican-led legislature and a Republican governor. And Iowa Republicans are clearly committed both to First and to a caucus process (which is much simpler on their side). The long bipartisan tradition of caucus cooperation, which has been good to me locally, may end this cycle.

I'm not here to argue about First. I like some things about First, although some of them are overrated. I like the idea of starting in small states, especially coming off a cycle that had billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer as candidates.

But in a nationalized, online political climate, little-know Pete Buttigeig and Andrew Yang were able to break out of a very large pack long before we actually went to our caucus sites. 

The much ballyhooed in person events "where anyone can ask a question" are full of a lot of repeat customers, gadflies, and, my pet peeve, selfie collectors. 

Guilty. (Though I did in fact caucus for her.)


A lot of people who brag up the in person campaign events are the inner and second circle of party activists, and "anyone can ask a question" really means "I can get four senators and two ex-governors as guests at my small county fundraiser, and maybe the New York Times will interview me.*" It's that class of activists, and the local journalists playing out their network anchor fantasies*, that First is really, really good for.

(* Disclaimer: I interviewed many candidates when I was a professional journalist, and I've been interviewed by many national media outlets including, yes, the New York Times. And yes, I admit, that stuff's fun. But I'm privileged enough to be in the inner circle, or at least my friends are in the inner circle and I'm in the next layer out.)

I'm certainly not going to argue against Iowa being first. Someone has to, may as well be us. But what I am arguing against is the idea that First and The Caucuses are the same thing, because they're not. My idea scenario would be Iowa keeping First as a primary, though that's not going to happen for all the reasons I list above.

I'm also - because someone always brings this up - I'm not going to argue against caucuses for things like committee seats and the platform. Personally. I'd do away with the platform entirely. Because it's it's not binding on Democratic elected officials, it's an empty gesture. The real platform is winning a majority and whatever you can pass as the best legislation. I'll also note that some states elect their party committee members in a primary, which some states do and which is more small d democratic than leaving the job to the handful of people who stay at the caucus to the bitter end.  

But I'm not gonna die on that hill. If we want to have a caucus for the Party Business, sure, the 12 activists who show up in the governor years can get together in the coffee shops or classrooms that replaced the living rooms.

What I am really, really arguing against is Caucuses: The Night as an experience for rank and file Iowans who are only interested in voting for president - which is roughly 90% of attendees -  and who have to fight massive crowds and work through a process that was never meant to be this big. 

I've come to the reluctant conclusion that the benefits of First: The Year are outweighed by the pain of Caucuses: The Night. In the next installments, we'll see that the caucus as it exists: