The 2020 Iowa caucuses: A first-hand account

Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Presidential candidate Joe Biden pauses for a quick photo op with DePauw Professor Bruce Stinebrickner recently in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses.
Courtesy photo

DePauw University political science professor Bruce Stinebrickner spent five days in Iowa recently, observing the Iowa caucuses. What follows is Part I of a three-part series of Stinebrickner’s observations.

I teach and write about the American presidential selection process, so it should not be surprising that I am interested in the Iowa caucuses. Beginning in 2008 and in every presidential election year since, I have gone to Iowa to observe the last few days of campaigning before the caucuses and at least one caucus as well.

Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have begun the formal process of nominating presidential candidates.

In the five days leading up to the Feb. 3, 2020 caucuses, I observed campaign events of seven Democratic candidates and two Republican candidates, most of them multiple times: Democrats Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Andrew Yang, Tom Steyer, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and Republican long-shot challengers Joe Walsh and Bill Weld.

I also had brief exchanges on one or more occasions with all of these candidates except Sanders and Warren. Senators Sanders and Warren, whose Iowa campaign schedules had been compressed by the Senate impeachment trial, did not mingle with the crowd after their public appearances that I attended, presumably because they were trying to squeeze additional campaign stops into that frantic last weekend.

Warren publicly lamented that she would not be available for “selfies,” which she is said to enjoy, but offered her dog Bailey as a substitute selfie partner. I availed myself of this Bailey opportunity, and I have photos of me and Warren’s dog in my gallery of Iowa 2020 photos, along with shots of me and every candidate mentioned above except Sanders and Warren.

I did not attend President Trump’s 30 January rally in Des Moines. Accompanying the electronic ticket for admission that I received came the message that the ticket did not guarantee admission and that arriving hours before the scheduled 7 p.m. event would probably be necessary to gain entry. My efforts on the evening of the Trump rally to go and mingle with the ticketholders who did not gain admittance were thwarted by a number of road closings by police cars (presumably to enable the president to get to and from the rally safely and quickly) that finally led me to return to my motel after what had already been a long and tiring day. (Aside: During the 2016 campaign, I attended a Donald Trump rally in Indianapolis and a second one in Cincinnati.)

Part I below will report on the three 2020 caucuses that I observed. Part II will report my impressions, one-by-one, of the nine candidates that I saw. Part III will conclude the article by addressing a couple of changes in the Iowa caucus spectacle that seem to have occurred over the past four presidential election cycles.

Part I. Three 2020 Iowa Caucuses

The well-known phone app fiasco that bedeviled the reporting of 2020 Iowa caucus results leads me to begin this article by recounting what I saw at the three caucuses that I attended last week.

My first 2020 caucus

Before 2020, all caucuses throughout the state of Iowa began on the same day at 7 p.m. Thus, in each of my three previous quadrennial trips to Iowa, I observed the entirety of one caucus, and sometimes I was able to see the tail end of a nearby caucus after my first caucus was over. While the caucuses all began at the same time, they did not necessarily end simultaneously.

In 2020 the Iowa Democratic party introduced “satellite caucuses,” many of which were held around the world (e.g., Glasgow and Paris) and around the state at times other than the usual 7 p.m. starting time. But most of the in-state “satellite caucuses” were closed to the public because they were held at nursing homes, rehab centers and the like in an effort to enable people in those institutions to participate even if they could not go to the regular 7 p.m. caucus in their precinct. A few satellite caucuses, however, were open to the public to observe, and I was pleased to discover that an open satellite caucus was scheduled for 4:30 p.m., Feb. 3, 2020, at the Drake University Fieldhouse. I arrived around 4 p.m., prepared to observe my first caucus of the day.

I entered the Fieldhouse and went to a set of tables staffed by volunteers who quickly directed me away from the “Caucus Participants” table to the “Observer and Media” table. I wrote my name, address, etc., on a sign-in sheet and was given an “Observer and Media” sticker that I was told to display on my shirt. I was also told that I could wander around freely, an instruction that was later revised when, a few minutes before the caucus officially began at 4:30 p.m., “Observers and Media” people were asked to go to a balcony overlooking the floor of the indoor track-and-field facility.

When I was initially re-directed from the “Caucus Participants” table, I asked for a blank ballot that caucus participants were being given to record their first preference among the candidates and to submit later in the caucus procedure. I was told that only caucus participants could be given a ballot.

The caucus began when a young man (probably in his 30s) standing behind a podium on the Fieldhouse floor announced that as “temporary caucus chairperson” he was calling the caucus to order. He called for nominations for the position of caucus chairperson from the 71 caucus-goers who were standing around the Fieldhouse floor, and, hearing none, declared that therefore he would assume that role.

He read a greeting from the Iowa State Democratic party organization emphasizing the importance of what caucus-goers were about to do and then summarized the procedures that would be followed. Next he asked caucus-goers to go to one of the spots on the Fieldhouse floor designated as the gathering spots for supporters of the various candidates, saying that caucus participants would have five minutes for this so-called “first alignment.” There were track-and-field hurdles (a nice touch in an indoor track and field facility, I thought) clearly labeled with various candidates’ names — “Bernie Sanders,” “Joe Biden,” “Elizabeth Warren,” “Tulsi Gabbard,” etc. One hurdle was marked “Other.” Attached to the caucus chairperson’s podium for all to see was a poster saying that “Viability=11.”

After participants had sorted themselves out and were gathered at the various candidates’ sites, they were asked to organize themselves in rows of 10 if there were more than 10 individuals at their site. Volunteer staffers counted the people at the various candidate sites and reported their counts to the chairperson, who then announced that Sanders and Warren were the only candidates who had reached “viability.”

By caucus rules, caucus-goers who had cast their lot for Sanders or Warren were not allowed to change candidates, but all other caucus-goers were invited to “re-align” with another candidate or stick to their original choice by simply staying where they were. Caucus-goers were allowed to wander about freely during the re-alignment period of 15 minutes, and Sanders and Warren supporters approached supporters of other candidates and encouraged them to join their group. Any candidate site reaching the viability number of 11 caucus-goers after the realignment was entitled to at least one of the seven delegate-equivalents that this satellite caucus was empowered to designate. Any candidate site that had 10 or fewer caucus-goers after the realignment period ended would become irrelevant as far as delegate-equivalents were concerned.

At the end of the initial five-minute alignment period Sanders had 43 supporters and Warren had 15. After the 15-minute realignment period, Sanders had 46 and Warren had 22. Three caucus-goers (out of the total of 71) chose not to re-align themselves with either of the two viable candidates. The chair declared that Sanders had earned five delegate-equivalents and Warren two from the satellite caucus.

The chair then announced that the candidate selection part of the caucus had been completed and that caucus-goers were free to leave if they wished. The caucus would move next, he said, to the “platform resolutions” part of the caucus. Almost every caucus-goer (mostly Drake University staff and students, I gathered) left quickly, and no “platform resolutions” were proposed. The Drake University Fieldhouse satellite caucus was officially over.

From my perch in the balcony with other “observers and media” folks, I had during the initial five-minute “alignment” period seen a number of media folks (typically with big cameras of one sort or another) on the Fieldhouse floor. I quickly joined them, assuming (correctly, I think) that the banishing, so to speak, of “observers and media” to the balcony had been rescinded. I wandered around the floor talking with various caucus-goers and watched Sanders and Warren supporters give cheers and exhortations of one sort or another to try to entice other caucus-goers to realign with them. I noticed that caucus-goers continued to hold onto their caucus cards and I continued to keep my eyes open for a blank one that I could take home as a souvenir.

The first caucus that I attended was officially over at 5:16 p.m. (46 minutes after it began), and I had some time to kill before leaving for the 7 p.m. caucus at a mosque in Granger, Iowa (about 20 miles from the Drake Fieldhouse) that was going to be my second 2020 caucus. So I hung around the Fieldhouse, chatting with a few volunteers, and asking a question or two of the seemingly highly capable chairperson (a local lawyer and Democrat activist, I was told). Sartorially speaking, I might add, he was a man after my own heart, dressed very casually in a T-shirt and blue jeans.

I approached the chairperson to congratulate him on doing a good job in running the caucus and asked him to explain why the satellite caucus that had just concluded had not chosen seven specific caucus-goers (plus alternates) to go onto the next level (the county level) of Iowa’s multi-stage caucus/convention delegation selection process. He replied that he did not have time to give me the long and complicated explanation of that matter at the moment.

I noticed that he seemed preoccupied with his cell phone, a phenomenon that seems to me ubiquitous among the younger generations these days, and I thought little of it at the time. I would like to be able to report that I sensed at the time that something was wrong with the app with which the chairperson was trying to report the caucus results, but, if I did, I would be telling a bold-faced lie.

In retrospect, it seems likely to me that the chairperson’s cell-phone “fiddling” and his not answering my procedural question resulted from the app problems that would soon became headline news around the world.

One last thing: As I hung around after the caucus chatting occasionally with the remaining 15 to 20 people on the Fieldhouse floor and thinking that perhaps the chairperson would soon become available to answer my questions, I spied a pile of caucus ballots sitting on the Fieldhouse floor perhaps 15 feet from the chairperson’s podium, near which the chairperson was still fiddling with his phone.

At first I thought that they were extra blank ballots that I had been coveting and I bent over to take a few. On closer inspection, I discovered that that pile of ballots was indeed the pile of actual caucus ballots that had been collected from all caucus-goers as the caucus proceeded. Just as I touched the top ballot (when it was still not clear to me that these were not blank ballot forms), the chairperson interrupted his cell-phone endeavors and yelled to me to leave my hands off the pile.

I decided that it was probably time for me to leave the Fieldhouse and I did so after one more unsuccessful look around to try to find one or more blank caucus ballots to take with me.

My second 2020 caucus

I made the half-hour drive to my second caucus site in Granger, took off my shoes and entered the mosque. Inside were about 100 people, including two of my “political tourist” acquaintances who had also attended the Drake University Fieldhouse caucus.

Soon after I arrived and shortly before 7 p.m., a young man, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, approached us three “Observers,” noticed that we were all still wearing our “Observer and Media” stickers, and asked what the stickers meant. I briefly explained, and he nodded politely, saying that he hadn’t realized that non-caucus participants could attend caucuses. The caucus began at 7 p.m. with the young man who had approached us announcing that he was the “temporary chairperson.”

I soon learned that this caucus was, like my first caucus of the day, also a “satellite caucus” and that it was being held at the mosque to encourage those who attended the mosque to participate. The event was conducted mostly in Bosnian, with only occasional brief English translations or summaries. It is probable that we three “Observers” were the only individuals there who did not speak Bosnian. There did not appear to be any media people there, as I recall.

Passionate speeches in support of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden were delivered in Bosnian. Speeches in support of candidates by a supporter (or sometimes two) have been a regular part of Iowa caucuses since I started attending them in 2008. (At the earlier Drake University Fieldhouse satellite caucus, however, the chairperson had said that they were going to dispense with such speeches in the interests of time. No one protested.)

The first alignment at my second 2020 caucus was completed under the chairperson’s guidance. (Once again, no one was nominated from the floor to be caucus chairperson, so the temporary chairperson had assumed that role.) He ascertained that all but one caucus-goer intended to caucus for Biden or Sanders, and the one outlier quickly said that she would join the Biden group. The chairperson directed Biden and Sanders supporters to go to opposite sides of the room.

The viability number was announced (I think it was 18). Since no one other than Sanders and Biden got support from any caucus-goers, no realignment period was needed. Sanders and Biden were both viable and all caucus-goers had supported one or the other. The caucus officially ended about 7:45 p.m. with the announcement that Sanders had 33 supporters and Biden 58, and that Biden would get 5 delegate-equivalents while Sanders got 3. There was no call for platform resolutions.

I hung around briefly afterwards. The chairperson came over to me and asked me, “How did I do?” I replied, “Very well.” He said that he had received training from Democratic party organization people, that the caucus procedures had seemed complicated, and that he had done his best. I think that he had indeed done a good job, including the addition of some translation into English now and then for the benefit of the unexpected three Observers who did not speak Bosnian.

I also spoke with the impressive young woman who had given what seemed like a forceful speech for Bernie Sanders. (The succeeding speech that a young man delivered in favor of Biden was even more forceful; indeed, it seemed absolutely passionate — emotional, emphatic and extremely forceful, as best I could tell as a non-Bosnian speaker.)

The leader of the Sanders supporters was still carrying a couple of Sanders signs with her, and I asked why there was so much support for Joe Biden at this caucus. She replied that in the 1990s then-Senator Biden had, on the Senate floor, supported U.S. intervention during the genocide occurring in Bosnia, and that older Bosnians never forgot that Biden had done that in their time of need. She said that in her opinion it was time to move on with a candidate like Bernie Sanders. (I did not ask her what she thought of Elizabeth Warren, but I note that every single expression of support for a candidate at this particular satellite caucus was for a man — Biden, Sanders and Buttigieg.)

Before leaving the mosque, I went over the table where caucus-goers had signed in and obtained their caucus ballot forms and politely asked if I could have some of the blank ballots sitting on the table. Of course, I was told, and I happily took five of them and was on my way.

My third 2020 caucus

Driving back to Des Moines, I heard on the car radio that some caucuses were still going on in other parts of the state. It occurred to me that it might be worth my while to return to the Drake Fieldhouse, where a regular precinct caucus had been scheduled for 7 p.m. Just maybe I could catch the tail end of it since I knew where to park and was familiar with the venue.

I also knew that the temporary chairperson who had opened the afternoon “satellite caucus” that I had attended earlier was going to open the 7 p.m. caucus and was therefore was likely to preside over it.

This turned out to be a good decision on my part, although there was an initial hiccough that I had to overcome. I quickly parked my car, walked to the Fieldhouse, peered into a window and saw dozens of caucus-goers milling around the Fieldhouse floor and then remembered that late entry into caucuses was not allowed and that doors were typically secured at the caucus’s official starting time.

I tried a half-dozen or so Fieldhouse doors and they were all locked. I tried an entrance on the side of the building that I had seen Drake track athletes use in my earlier visit to the Fieldhouse that day, but there was a uniformed police officer standing inside that glass door and he did not permit me to enter.

It was a cold, dark, wet night, but I decided to walk around the entire Fieldhouse in the hope that I could find one viable entrance. I soon came to an entrance slightly ajar because a cable from a parked satellite communications truck cable was running through it into the Fieldhouse. I opened the door, confirmed that my “Observer and Media” sticker was still in place on my shirt, and made my way onto the Fieldhouse floor. The 15-minute realignment period was in progress.

I wandered around, talked to various caucus-goers, and tried to piece together what was going on. I also tried not to get too close to the chairperson’s podium, on the off chance he might be ill-disposed to me for my messing with the pile of ballots earlier in the day and even ask me “How did you get in? I didn’t see you at the start of this caucus.” And, of course, my name did not appear on the official sign-in sheet for “Observers and Media” for this evening caucus.

The dynamics of the realignment in my third caucus were interesting. In summary, candidates Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg were the only three viable candidates after the initial alignment. But Klobuchar and Yang had each gained considerable support, and there were a few supporters for other candidates as well.

Klobuchar supporters tried to entice others to join them and make the Klobuchar numbers viable, but there was resistance. Then Klobuchar supporters, I was told, persuaded supporters of other non-viable candidates to gather at the “Other” site and declare their support for Cory Booker, who had ended his candidacy in mid-January. Klobuchar supporters’ rationale was presumably to prevent any increase in Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg support during the realignment, since all three of those candidates are Klobuchar rivals.

In contrast, a delegate-equivalent or two for non-candidate Booker would hurt Klobuchar less, if at all. The Klobuchar supporter who suggested to me that he had been the leader in engineering this tactical move was understandably pleased with the outcome. The final delegate-equivalent numbers: Warren 2, Sanders 1, Buttigieg 2 and Booker (!!!) 2.

See Friday’s Banner Graphic for Stinebrickner’s impressions of the individual candidates he saw in Iowa.

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  • *

    Great explanation of how a caucus works for those who didn't know.

    -- Posted by dreadpirateroberts on Wed, Feb 12, 2020, at 8:38 AM
  • *

    Thank you... Sir...

    -- Posted by ridgerunner54 on Wed, Feb 12, 2020, at 2:38 PM
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