How the Iowa caucuses work, part 3: Democratic caucus math

Continuing a six-part series. Part 1 covered basic elements of the caucus system, and part 2 explained why so many Iowans can’t or won’t attend their precinct caucus.

The Republican Party of Iowa will report how many GOP caucus-goers mark ballots for each presidential candidate on Monday night. But the Iowa Democratic Party will report the results only in terms of county delegates won and “state delegate equivalents.” This post is about caucus math and how “realignment” in Democratic precincts can affect how many county delegates go to each presidential candidate. In some cases, those delegate numbers may distort the preferences of voters at a precinct caucus.

The quest to be viable

As part 1 of this series discussed, most Democratic precincts will award four or more county delegates, which means the viability threshold will be set at 15 percent of caucus-goers.

On the first division into preference groups, Democrats go to the area of the room assigned to the presidential candidate of their choice. Precinct captains count supporters and report the totals to the precinct chair, who announces how many people each group needs to be viable and how many supporters are in each group.

The next phase of a Democratic caucus is a realignment period. Supporters of non-viable candidates either join the group of a viable candidate or try to persuade enough people from other camps to get them over the threshold. Many people settle on a second choice ahead of time; I’ve seen them walk to another part of the room with no persuading. As a precinct captain for John Edwards before the 2008 caucuses (I know, don’t get me started), I often spoke with Democrats in my neighborhood who had been identified as supporters of Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, or Chris Dodd, encouraging them to commit to backing Edwards as a second choice.

Iowa Democratic political operative Grant Woodard recently told Trip Gabriel of the New York Times, “My experience is that it is mostly a personal-relationship situation in that people will go to whichever corner they see the most faces they recognize.” Another veteran campaign organizer Derek Eadon agreed, “On caucus night, if you have a very welcoming corner and there are friendly, recognizable faces, it makes it easier to walk over to that corner.”

Sometimes, supporters of viable candidates may spend several minutes trying to persuade neighbors, talking about issues or electability factors. Matthew Palevsky shot this video at a 2008 Democratic caucus in Brody Middle School on the south side of Des Moines. I’ve embedded the video at the end of this post. Biden was on the very edge of viability, but one person left the room (or perhaps the group was miscounted), so Biden did not win a delegate. Edwards was ten people short of viability on the first division into preference groups, and you can watch his supporters try to win over caucus-goers during the realignment period.

Speaking to Steven Yaccino of Bloomberg News, Julie Stauch described other ways to attract people from non-viable camps:

“What is the ratio in the room? What is the tone in the room? This is a very human process,” says Julie Stauch, a spectacled home gardener featured briefly in Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement video, who has been hosting caucus training sessions at her home over the past six months. “You have to be informed. You have to understand who your candidate is, what they’re about, who your opponent is, and how to convince their supporters.” […]

When persuasion doesn’t work, more creative methods are called into play. Stauch gets almost giddy as she recalls elections when she forced bidding wars for her votes. A Wesley Clark supporter in 2004, she agreed to realign with John Kerry’s campaign if they helped elect two Clark supporters as delegates that night. Precinct captains for John Edwards and Howard Dean decided that price was too steep. More than a decade later, Stauch shakes her head remembering Dick Gephardt voters who walked out halfway through her local caucus that year. “They could have gotten something,” she says, still annoyed years later by the wasted opportunity. […]

Stauch relays past caucus stories each month during her living room training sessions, which about 70 people have attended this cycle. One week they played Jeopardy with facts from Clinton’s biography. Another week, the group rehearsed caucus night speeches. Last month, they played a card game she invented—caucus poker, Stauch calls it—to practice viability math and different negotiation scenarios.

Sometimes, when Clinton’s Iowa campaign is working late on data entry, organizers and volunteers will hold practice caucuses over what movie to watch or which restaurant they’d like to order dinner from. Other times, they rehearse caucus strategies, substituting gummy bears as stand-ins for Iowa voters.

At around the 8-minute mark of Palevsky’s video, you can watch the Obama precinct captain promise a Biden supporter a delegate slot if she comes over to the Obama group.

At my precinct’s 2004 caucus, Howard Dean was one or two people short of the 15 percent threshold at the first count, but his supporters managed to get a delegate for him in the end.

After the realignment period, the precinct chair calls for a second division into preference groups. The final number of supporters in the various viable groups will determine how many county delegates from that precinct go to each candidate.

In many precincts where Martin O’Malley has less than 15 percent support, caucus-goers in his corner will be able to determine whether Clinton or Sanders emerges with more delegates.

In other precincts, either Clinton or Sanders may donate some supporters to the O’Malley corner to make him viable, because Iowa Democratic caucus math is a zero-sum game.

“That’s the way it works here in Iowa”

Precincts have a set number of county delegates to assign. That number doesn’t change, no matter how many or few voters come to the caucus, and no matter how many candidates are viable. In my own precinct, which allocates six Polk County delegates, candidates needed 27 supporters to be viable in 2004. The mass turnout in 2008 increased the viability threshold for my precinct to 44 people. In 2012, when few Democrats bothered to caucus because President Obama was unchallenged, I was able to get an “uncommitted” delegate with just five like-minded neighbors.

Using the mathematical formula the Iowa Democratic Party has provided to precinct chairs, Bleeding Heartland founder Drew Miller created an online caucus calculator. You enter the number of delegates awarded by a hypothetical precinct, the total number of caucus-goers, and the number of people standing for Clinton, O’Malley, Sanders, or “uncommitted.”

Warning: playing out scenarios on this calculator can be addictive.

Here’s one example of how gamesmanship can change the delegate count in a way that makes the outcome less representative of the caucus-goers’ preferences. I am drawing on my first Iowa caucus in 1988. Paul Simon had the largest number of supporters after the first division into preference groups, Michael Dukakis was second, Bruce Babbitt was third, and other candidates including Jesse Jackson and Dick Gephardt were not viable. Before realignment, it appeared that our precinct would elect three delegates for Simon, two for Dukakis, and one for Babbitt.

People in the other viable groups figured out that they could alter the outcome by sending some Dukakis supporters to Babbitt. (Babbitt was not a threat to finish ahead of Dukakis in Iowa, but Simon was.) After realignment, Babbitt had enough supporters to get a second delegate from my precinct, and even though no one had deserted the Simon group, the extra delegate came from us. Simon still had a plurality of caucus-goers, but the reported results made it appear that our precinct was evenly split: all three viable candidates received two delegates each.

I don’t remember the exact numbers from my caucus in 1988, but I created a similar scenario on Drew’s calculator by putting in 100 caucus-goers for a precinct that assigns six county delegates. Start with 42 people for Clinton, 35 for Sanders, and 23 for O’Malley. The delegates go three for Clinton, two for Sanders, one for O’Malley. Now shift five people from Sanders to O’Malley, and voila! Every candidate gets two delegates.

Most Iowa Democrats will not need to express a second choice on Monday, because their first choice (Clinton or Sanders) will be viable in their precinct. However, available polling indicates that O’Malley will struggle to be viable in most precincts. If his group is way below 15 percent of the caucus-goers, the calculator shows that there’s usually no way for a different candidate’s supporters to make O’Malley viable without giving up a delegate themselves. On the other hand, if O’Malley is close to viability after the first division into preference groups, a precinct captain for Sanders or Clinton may be able to subtract a delegate from the main rival by sending a few supporters over to the O’Malley corner during realignment.

Using Drew’s calculator, I created a precinct that allocates ten county delegates and has 350 caucus attendees. After the first division into preference groups, Clinton’s at 172, Sanders is at 150, and O’Malley is at 28. Five delegates each would go to the two viable candidates. Clinton supporters can’t send enough people over to O’Malley to make him viable without losing a delegate. But if O’Malley starts out closer to the viability threshold (53 supporters in this case) and there is more daylight between Clinton and Sanders before realignment, making O’Malley viable may be more successful than trying to bring his supporters over to the Clinton corner.

Now let’s assume 400 Democrats caucus in a precinct assigning eight county delegates. After the first division into preference groups, 190 people are with Clinton, 160 with Sanders and 50 with O’Malley. The delegates would split four each to Clinton and Sanders. But if ten Clinton supporters realign with O’Malley, the former Maryland governor’s now viable and gets a delegate, with three going to Sanders and the remaining four to Clinton.

Such tricks won’t affect the delegate counts in every precinct or even in most precincts. Moreover, those who try them had better know what they are doing. In 2007, Bleeding Heartland user corncam related a cautionary tale: “At my 2004 caucus, the Kerry people shifted some votes to Edwards, thinking that it would cost Dean a delegate, but they miscounted, and the new Edwards delegate came from Kerry, not Dean.”

Nevertheless, I expect O’Malley to become viable in quite a few places after the realignment period. Will O’Malley, the candidate’s son, told Iowa Starting Line’s Pat Rynard on Friday, “There’s a lot of people coming out of the woodwork, and I think we’re going to really surprise people in some key precincts. We have our caucus math ready to go, and I think February 1st is going to be a really good night.”

Every Democratic campaign will have trained its volunteers on how to use caucus math. Many precinct captains will have cards showing how many individual supporters they need to get one, two, three, or more delegates from their precinct, depending on how many people attend and how many delegates are up for grabs. The Clinton campaign has created an app to help its volunteers figure out when it’s advantageous to make O’Malley viable.

Officially, the Sanders campaign denies training its volunteers to play games with delegates, Ben Smith, Ruby Cramer, and Evan McMorris-Santoro reported for Buzzfeed:

A senior Sanders caucus strategist, who also spoke on background, allowed that caucus rules allow for these kind of math games, but said the Sanders campaign has no similar plan. They have trained their volunteers to play it straight, the strategist said — try to get as many people to the caucus site as possible, and then try to recruit caucus goers from among the candidates not deemed to be viable. […]

“It’s sad and telling that their campaign doesn’t think they can win without these kinds of tactics,” said Rania Batrice, Sanders’s Iowa spokesperson. “At the end of the day though, we believe in the caucus process and know it’s in the very capable hands of Iowans.”

However, I find it hard to believe Sanders precinct captains won’t use the same tactics, especially if O’Malley’s supporters hold firm and resist realigning to a viable group.

The Clinton and Sanders campaigns are in the same position the Clinton and Obama campaigns were eight years ago. They are more worried about beating each other than about a delegate going to a candidate far behind.

Sanders state director Robert Becker had no problem encouraging staff and volunteers to exploit the Iowa caucus system in 2008, when he was Bill Richardson’s state director here. Stephen Cassidy, who came to Iowa as a Richardson volunteer shortly before the 2008 caucuses, shot this video of Becker’s pep talk for staff and volunteers the morning of caucus day.

I’ve enclosed the video below for those who want to watch. My transcript of relevant portions:

Becker: Here’s the state of play in Iowa. […] Here’s where we are, we’re sitting in the four-hole right now. Alright? Clinton’s in trouble. She’s gotta win this thing. If she wins it, she’s the nominee, so there’s a lot of “get her” out there from the other camps. [John] Edwards’ political life is on the line, and I can tell you, if I were in the Clinton or Obama camps, I’d be wanting to get him out of the picture too. Because if there’s any questions about her electability or him as an African-American, let’s get the white guy out. That’s just the way it is. […]

So we hold all the cards tonight. And this conversation’s going on all across Iowa. We hold all the cards. […]

Now, if the wheeling and dealing and the stopping of everybody else gets us into the three-hole, then God bless us. Cause that’s what went down four years ago. Going into caucus night, Kerry and Edwards were in the three-four slots and everybody at the top screwed each other and they came out one-two. Does it make sense? No. Is it fair? No. Is it undemocratic? Absolutely. But that’s the way it works here in Iowa. […]

This is a very simple drill tonight. For our interests, Bill Richardson’s, our people should not help Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. Cause you know what, if they come out one or two, it’s, you know, Hillary’s done [it]. She’s the nominee. […] If we come out in the top four and go into New Hampshire, where all of a sudden it’s a, it’s a different election where people can actually come vote during the day, and independents can play, that’s where Bill Richardson goes. That’s where we do well. […]

Our people shouldn’t be helping Hillary or Edwards. It’s in our interest not to do this. By the same token, we don’t give up an inch tonight. We hold all the cards. If we’re viable, if people come to us, our people need to stick together and say no, we’ve got our delegate, we’ve got our two delegates […]. But at the same token, if we need a couple bodies, we hold all the cards. Because the three ahead of us don’t want each other getting a delegate. They’ll throw to us. If Obama’s got extra people and there’s a delegate up for grabs, they’ll come and say, “Gee, let’s help Richardson, he’s in fourth, keep that thing away from Hillary. If she wins Iowa, she’s the nominee.”

This is just bare-knuckles politics. So if we’re in a situation on the flip side, where we hold all the cards, we’ve got some extra bodies, if Obama’s over there needing one, hey, throw it to him. Keep it away from Hillary. I know she and Bill [Richardson] are friends, but geez, Bill did not go to all 99 counties of Iowa to let her walk away with the nomination. […]

So if there’s a delegate up for grabs and we’ve got extras, go get it. Help Obama get it. Hell, give it to Dodd. Anything but giving it to Hillary or Edwards. We’ve got to get those two out of our way. […]

We hold all the cards. Those ahead of us don’t want each other to get it. […] So when you’re talking to our people, we stick together. We are the deal-makers tonight. We are the king-makers. And you know what? It’s gonna benefit us. And that’s how it’s done in Iowa. That’s why, from day one, every single one of our organizers and our volunteers [asked voters], if they weren’t for us, who’s your second choice? Because on caucus night, it’s all about second choices. So go out there, keep our people together, and make sure everybody knows we hold the cards tonight.

Side notes: Kerry and Edwards were surging in the polls during the last few weeks, so contrary to how Becker describes the situation, they were no longer in third and fourth place by the time caucuses convened in 2004. Also, despite the Richardson campaign’s instructions to volunteers, the behavior of Richardson supporters at the 2008 caucuses varied widely from precinct to precinct. I heard stories about non-viable Richardson groups going en masse to Obama, but in my precinct and many others, the Richardson supporters dispersed according to their own preferences, many coming to the Edwards group and some going to Clinton.

Becker was correct that in many precincts, supporters of one of the top three candidates helped make Richardson (less often, Biden) viable to keep a delegate away from a major rival. It wasn’t enough to propel Richardson to a close fourth-place finish, though. He ended up with about 2 percent of the state delegate equivalents.

Please share your own stories of Iowa caucus gamesmanship or any other relevant comments in this thread.

POST-CAUCUS UPDATE: Here’s a scenario I forgot to mention. In a Newton precinct, Clinton and Sanders tied with 34 supporters each. The precinct had an odd number of delegates, so party rules called for flipping a coin. Clinton’s side won, so she got the extra delegate.

At least three other precincts around the state had one delegate awarded by a coin flip.

FEBRUARY 2 UPDATE: Here is the Iowa Democratic Party’s one-page explanation for how county delegates are awarded.

Iowa Democratic caucus math photo IDP-Caucus-Math-One-Pager_zpsm5ctsfiq.jpg

Video shot by Stephen Cassidy on the morning of January 3, 2008: Robert Becker’s pep talk to volunteers and staffers for Bill Richardson’s campaign in Iowa.

Video shot by Matthew Palevsky at the Des Moines Precinct 67 caucus on the evening of January 3, 2008:

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