Why There Could Be Three Winners of the Iowa Caucuses

Why you should care

Because we are getting a new window into the all-important caucuses this year.

There’s an old saw that there are “three tickets” out of Iowa, the first contest of the presidential nominating season. While caucus winners do not always become the nominee — for every Barack Obama there’s a Mike Huckabee — the contests do winnow the number of contestants, often to three contenders who show the most strength.

But this year, with a swollen Democratic field and projected record-smashing caucus turnout, there’s a potential twist: three outright winners. That’s because …

The Iowa Democratic Party will report three different tallies for this year’s caucuses.

To boost transparency, the party will share the caucusgoers’ initial candidate preference and their preference after the initial winnowing of candidates who are not viable in each precinct, in addition to the usual state delegate equivalents. For a contest that is much more about news media-driven perception than the actual accumulation of Democratic National Convention delegates, the caucus night result could well be a muddle — tripling the permutations of campaign spin. “It just gives you more opportunities to say ‘We beat expectations’ or ‘We did something that nobody expected that we could, and this is why people should still keep us on their top-three list going forward,’” says Sam Roecker, who ran John Hickenlooper’s presidential operation in Iowa until the former Colorado governor dropped out in August.

Let’s step back for a minute and talk about how this thing works. Iowa, due to tradition, has been at the front of the line since 1972, always protected by Democratic National Committee leaders when other states try to jump ahead of it and New Hampshire on the calendar. Iowa does not conduct presidential primary elections; instead, its partisans go to meetings called caucuses to declare their preference. Since President Donald Trump is facing only token Republican opposition, all the attention this year is on the Democrats — dozens of whom have been crisscrossing Iowa for a year or more.

On Feb. 3, Iowa’s Democratic voters will turn up at 7 pm Central time at 1,681 precincts across the state. Republicans and Independents are welcome as long as they switch their allegiance to the Democrats that night. Caucusgoers then assemble into groups for the candidate they support — this corner for former Vice President Joe Biden, this corner for Sen. Bernie Sanders, this corner for Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and so on — and precinct leaders take a count, which will then be distributed to the world.

Next comes the winnowing: In order to be considered “viable,” a candidate typically must lure at least 15 percent of caucus attendees in a given precinct. If, say, there aren’t enough Gabbard supporters, they can join another group, whose leaders will be actively courting them. Then a second count is taken, which will then be made public. At the end, precinct leaders determine how many delegates to the state convention each candidate gets, based on the proportion of supporters in the room and the total delegates for each precinct. These “state delegate equivalents” are what the media has traditionally used to gauge the winner.

“Media” is the key word here. How they — we! — interpret the results is far more important than how Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee are apportioned. (For context, that’s about one-tenth of what California will send.) These first tangible results of the nominating season will shape perceptions around candidates — which can lead to favorable media coverage, and more donations and votes from the next states on the calendar.

The latest Iowa polls show Sanders, Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all bunched together at the top. The new caucus reporting figures will give us a better window into the fortunes of the next tier of candidates, who might not be “viable” in many precincts — take Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s traveled to all of the state’s 99 counties and could rack up rural delegates, but might not do as well in the raw vote around Des Moines.

Regardless of how the numbers are reported, vast campaign organizations are critical to success in Iowa. “This is different than a primary,” says Penny Rosfjord, an Iowa Democratic Party central committee member from Sioux City. “It’s about relationship-building.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon in the Mississippi River city of Dubuque, Travis Brock, the national caucus director for the Buttigieg campaign, led a training for about 60 precinct leaders. He guided them through all the formulas to determine delegates — “Math is easy” was his refrain — and how to woo supporters away from nonviable candidates. These volunteers will be shaping the results on the fly, helping determine the numbers that pop up on America’s TV screens.

Brock says the new reporting rules are a victory for transparency but won’t change anything about his strategy, which is to get as many people standing in the Buttigieg corner as possible. “No matter what sort of caucus game we are playing, to win the Iowa caucuses is to be viable in the first alignment with the most people right out of the gate,” he says. “And that’s how we win.”

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