How the Iowa caucuses work, part 2: Barriers to participation

Continuing a six-part series. Click here for part 1, explaining the basics of the caucus system.

I love attending my precinct caucus. The first year I was old enough to vote, I came home from college out of state to stand in Paul Simon’s corner. Having managed with a baby in a sling at the 2004 caucus, I brought a toddler and preschooler to the same room (now ridiculously overcrowded) four years later. I showed up for the off-year caucus of 2010, when only the most hard-core party activists turned out to meet prospective candidates, elect county convention delegates, and consider platform resolutions. I caucused in 2012, hoping to win an “uncommitted” delegate from my precinct.

Hundreds of thousands of Iowans who are highly engaged in politics will find some way to get to their precinct caucuses on February 1, no matter how cold it is, how busy they are, or how inconvenient the location may be.

But for one reason or another, many thousands of Iowans who are closely following this year’s presidential race will not gather with their neighbors this Monday at 7 pm. This post examines what will keep them away.

Although Iowa Republicans and Democrats caucus differently and report the results differently, going to either party’s caucus requires a much bigger time commitment than voting in a primary. You can’t cast an absentee ballot. You can’t pop into the polling place when it fits your schedule on election day. You must be at a specific location at 7 pm on a weekday evening. At the very least, a precinct caucus will take an hour of your time. Two hours is more realistic, since you need to arrive early to find parking (in short supply at many locations), walk a few blocks if necessary, and sign in by the time the chair calls the caucus to order.

If you’ve ever worked on or volunteered for a presidential campaign in Iowa, you’ve encountered many people who have strong feelings about the race and would probably vote in a primary, but are unable or unwilling to attend the precinct caucus. Some common reasons include:

Work obligations. Many people work evening shifts in factories, retail outlets, health care, or public safety occupations. I’ve also known Democrats who missed the caucuses because a required business trip came up on short notice. For the first time this year, the Iowa Democratic Party organized a few satellite caucus locations, in part to accommodate people who have to work the night of February 1. But only about 200 people signed up to participate, a tiny fraction of Iowans kept from caucusing for that reason.

In addition, since the party required people to register for the satellite caucuses weeks in advance, Democrats whose schedules change frequently with little warning will be out of luck–an issue for many, especially in retail jobs. During a hospital stay not long after the 2008 caucuses, I spoke with several nurses and support staff who had been disappointed to miss the caucus excitement because they had to work. One nurse, a heavily engaged volunteer for Barack Obama, proudly told me he had asked for January 3 off way ahead of time. A less plugged in voter wouldn’t think to do that.

Family obligations. Over the years, dozens of Democratic women I have personally encouraged to come to the caucuses have told me they needed to take care of someone at home–most often young children, sometimes an elderly relative. Lots of Iowans don’t know they can bring kids to the caucus, or they don’t want to disrupt bedtime routines, or they can’t afford a babysitter. One of my friends, a reliable primary and general election voter, had her third child not long before the 2004 caucuses and wasn’t about to haul the whole family out of the house for more than an hour on a cold night. A different friend recently told me she had missed the 2004 caucuses because of her baby’s birth a few days earlier. She could hardly be more engaged in politics, having run for office twice and served on her county’s Democratic central committee.

Disability. Most caucuses are held at facilities that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even so, many people cannot leave home for an hour or two in the evening. The Iowa Democratic Party’s new rules to accommodate people with disabilities are a nice gesture. But when you see how few people will participate in the satellite caucuses, the innovation looks more like an attempt to be seen addressing a problem, as opposed to a solution.

Temporary illness or impairment. Anyone notice the Iowa caucuses always happen during cold and flu season? Every cycle with a competitive presidential race on the Democratic side, I’ve been worried a virus will strike my family at the worst possible time. One year, a neighbor I consider a political junkie missed our precinct caucus because she had recently had foot surgery.

Reluctance to go out at night. Ask anyone who’s worked on a presidential campaign before the Iowa caucuses. Some voters, particularly older ones, refuse to go out at night, even if offered a ride to the precinct location. While that phenomenon frustrates those hustling to get supporters to the caucus, you can hardly blame people for not wanting to risk a bad fall because they don’t see well in the dark, especially in snowy or icy conditions.

Fear of taking a public political stand. Republicans have some measure of secrecy at their caucuses, though others nearby may see how you filled out your ballot. On the Democratic side, caucus-goers must stand up to be counted for their candidate of choice. I’ve heard stories about small business owners who don’t want to lose customers. Local government officials elected in non-partisan races may see little upside and a lot of downside to associating with a candidate.

Aversion to crowds. Politics attracts a lot of extroverts, but here’s a hot news tip: many introverts are also interested in current affairs. They may have strong opinions about the presidential race but dread the thought of spending an evening crammed in a room with hundreds of neighbors. Some people mistakenly believe they could be put on the spot and asked to give a speech at the caucus (that’s an option for supporters but never required).

Inertia. Every field organizer or precinct captain can tell you stories about voters who committed to support your candidate but did not turn up on caucus night. Perhaps some of those people promised to be there only as an “Iowa nice” way of dealing with a phone banker or canvasser. But in many cases, people commit to caucus with the best of intentions. Then they get home after a long day, exhausted. By the time they’ve grabbed dinner and taken some time to unwind, they can’t face going out again in the cold and dark. A caucus is too big a hassle for many people who would vote in a primary, which can be done in a few minutes on the way to or from work.

Fear of pressure at the caucus. The precinct caucuses I’ve attended have always been fun and welcoming. Occasionally I’ll hear stories about bad experiences, though. I will never forget talking to a woman in 2003 who had sworn off the caucuses after some Dick Gephardt supporters got a little too assertive in her precinct in 1988. I tried to reassure her that bad interactions are rare, but her mind was made up–which killed me, because she really liked my candidate.

One of the saddest Iowa caucus stories I’ve ever heard was told by a field organizer for Obama at a house party I attended in May 2007. Calling through her list of Democrats in the Des Moines suburbs, she connected with an African-American Vietnam veteran who wanted to learn more about Obama. They had a good conversation. At the end, she asked him if the campaign could count on his support. He told her he’d vote for Obama in the general election, but he didn’t want to show up as a black man in his West Des Moines precinct and stand in the Obama corner, scaring all the white voters away.

I am certain that what this man worried about would not happen at an Iowa caucus, and I like to believe that as the 2008 caucuses drew closer and Obama gained momentum, neighborhood volunteers reached out to him and changed his mind. But it’s quite possible he was yet another informed voter who for one reason or another didn’t make it to the caucus.

Please share your own stories about Iowans who won’t have a voice in choosing a presidential nominee. Check back soon for part 3 of this series, which will focus on Democratic caucus math.

  • Great summary

    I fall into several of these categories. There have only been 3 presidential caucuses since I moved to Iowa in 2002. I went and caucused in 2004 and found it overwhelming, confusing, and exhilirating. In 2008 I was in the hospital being treated for cancer. In 2012 Obama was running for re-election so I didn’t feel the need to go. This year, I really want to attend but there may be bad weather and as a mobility-challenged person I may not be able to if there’s snow or ice, or there isn’t an available handicapped parking space at my caucus site.

    I have voted in every election for more than 35 years, even school board and city elections, thanks to absenteee ballots. I hate the idea of missing such an important presidential election event.

    • can someone give you a ride

      to your caucus? That way even if the handicapped parking places are taken, you could be dropped off near the door while your friend finds a parking spot.

      • Yes, I hope so

        I do know someone who caucuses at the same location is pretty politically active, and I’m sure she will be happy to give me a ride if she’s attending. I need to ask her soon!

        Also, I’m mortified by my typos — ‘exhilarating’ and ‘absentee’ are the two that jumped out at me when I came back to read your comment. Sheesh. I can’t even blame autocorrect on a phone this time.

  • one of the voters

    who got Ted Cruz’s “voter shaming” direct mail piece was very upset, Ryan Lizza reported.

    “I’m crippled, so I can’t go to the caucus,” [Donna] Holstein said. She was not happy about being shamed in front of her neighbors. “That’s what you call a bully,” she said about Cruz’s tactics. “I wish he would quit.”

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