Iowa Democratic Party to consider caucus improvements, but not real change

In an e-mail newsletter to supporters on February 12, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Andy McGuire hailed the “awe-inspiring,” “historic,” and “extraordinary” happenings at nearly 1,700 precinct caucuses on February 1, adding,

For all the positives that came from caucus night, we are also aware of the concerns that came from some of our precincts. We are listening. We are always looking for ways to make the caucus process better and this year will be no different. That’s why we will be forming a committee to start the process of innovating and improving, while keeping in place what makes the caucus process so special.

As a Democrat with a longstanding interest in making the caucuses more inclusive and a better reflection of Iowa voters’ preferences, I immediately sought further details about the committee, in particular whether its members will consider major reforms such as absentee ballots, proxy voting, or a GOP-style straw poll caucus.

McGuire has not responded to my questions, but Iowa Democratic Party communications director Samuel Lau answered by e-mail, “This committee is still in the very beginning phases of planning, but it will be developed in partnership with our State Central Committee, our partners and our allies. The party has always made it a priority to listen to the concerns of Iowans in order to improve our caucus process, and no discussion topics will be ‘off the table.'”

Comments by various party insiders to the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble tell a different story. Party leaders are open to ideas for running the precinct caucuses more smoothly but not to broader changes in how the Iowa caucuses work.


Long waits to sign in and shortages of voter registration forms, followed by chaos in some over-crowded rooms, didn’t present the best image for the caucuses. Noble reported for the Register on February 13,

Party Executive Director Ben Foecke said nothing would be exempted from discussion by the committee, but he added that core aspects of the caucus process are unlikely to change.

One change Foecke could envision in four or eight years: online registration for new voters, which he said could speed the check-in process, which caused delays at many precincts this year.

Sounds promising, since caucus-goers waited to sign in for more than an hour in many locations, and in some cases for more than two hours. Who knows how many people went home before getting to the front of such long, slow-moving lines.

John Deeth, who organized this year’s Democratic caucuses for Johnson County, is skeptical about an easy fix, though.

An unspoken truth: The meltdown wasn’t anything new. It was just more visible because it was a tie. There were just as many problems in 2008. There were even MORE problems in my county in 2004, when turnout jumped from 5000 in 2000 to 11,000. The apocryphal story is that so many places ran out of so many forms in 2004 that people signed in on a pizza box. I never saw the box. But I did see paper towels. […]

Fixing It With Technology Is Harder Than It Sounds. Yes it would be nice to sign everyone in on laptops. But it’s hard to maintain the infrastucture of computers and data that we use to conduct elections, and that’s with tax dollars and permanent staffs.

According to Deeth,

The fundamental problem on caucus night was, and will continue to be, that enough rooms that are big enough simply do not exist. Even if the parties GET all the biggest rooms, it’s only enough to make bad situations slightly less bad. And we – by we I mean the Johnson County Democrats and Republicans working together as a team – we didn’t get all the biggest rooms.

Click through to read how difficult it was for Deeth to line up adequate sites. The same story played out in other large counties. School districts don’t always approve the use of buildings with conveniently-located gymnasiums and cafeterias. That’s why some Democrats on the Dallas County side of West Des Moines had to drive all the way to Van Meter to caucus.

Overcrowding forced caucus-goers in Brad Anderson’s Des Moines precinct into a parking lot on a cold night. Having worked on several statewide campaigns and run for Iowa secretary of state in 2014, Anderson called for major reforms shortly after this year’s caucuses. Over the weekend, I asked him what changes he considers the most crucial. He responded, “1) space, 2) modernizing check-in, 3) precinct chair process and training.”

Lining up volunteers to run caucuses in nearly 1,700 precincts is a logistical nightmare. One of my friends signed up at the last minute and received almost no training. Her experience was not unique. Even for a veteran of many caucuses, like the superstar who chairs my precinct, it can be challenging to get accurate counts of large groups in a cramped room. Ditto for figuring out which candidate should get that last delegate in certain scenarios. Such problems are magnified when the person in charge doesn’t know what s/he is doing. Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, former state party chair Scott Brennan, and current vice chair Omar Padilla said the review of caucus procedures

should focus on improving training for party volunteers and ensuring that everyone involved has a better grasp of the complicated process.

“Better explanation of the math of caucus night, better training of the volunteers that run these caucuses” may be necessary, Gronstal said, “but really, we did a pretty remarkable job in 1,700 locations with literally a handful of disputes out there that were all appropriately reviewed and reported.” […]

Gronstal’s view that the caucuses actually unfolded smoothly with just a few high-profile exceptions appears to be widespread among party leaders. Party vice chairman and state labor leader Danny Homan said reports of chaotic caucus sites were “blown out of proportion.”

“We had a whole bunch of Democrats and people who had never registered before who came out to participate in a caucus,” Homan said. “That’s a good thing. We ought to be applauding that instead of trying to find fault in it.”

Former State Senator Jack Hatch echoed Homan’s sentiments in a commentary last week for the Iowa Daily Democrat. “Democrats need to simmer down,” Hatch wrote, because the caucuses were a “resounding success” despite some “inconvenience” caused by “a few of the minor administrative issues that need attention.”

The happy talk from Iowa Democratic leaders reminds me of the classic Chico Marx line: who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?


Minor tabulation or data entry errors are bound to happen when volunteers report results from more than a thousand precincts in just a few hours. The Iowa Democratic Party soon corrected those mistakes, and I do not believe they affected the outcome.

Assuming the party found spacious, convenient locations in every neighborhood, modernized the sign-in process, trained every volunteer perfectly, and had a foolproof system for transmitting results from every precinct, serious problems with the Iowa caucuses would remain.

The glaring shortcoming, apparent to millions of Americans, is that the reported results do not tell us how many Iowa Democrats backed each presidential candidate. Yes, “everyone knew the rules going in.” Unlike Iowa Republicans, Democrats report only county delegate totals and “state delegate equivalents” for each candidate. But no, Scott Brennan, the “essential nature” of the Iowa caucus is not “a conversation.”

News organizations would not send hundreds of reporters to Iowa to cover a bunch of conversations–or as precinct chair John McCormally put it, “party building events rife with idiosyncrasies” that “don’t always lend themselves to clear results […].” People want to know which candidate had the most support on caucus night.

In her February 12 newsletter to Iowa Democrats (enclosed at the end of this post), party chair McGuire acknowledged that the caucuses “began the process of selecting our next Democratic presidential nominee.” That’s why candidates who are playing to win visit the state dozens of times.

When scores or hundreds of caucus-goers are converted into a handful of county delegates, some distortions of popular sentiment are inevitable. This post gave several examples of Democratic caucus math obscuring the preferences of voters in the room. Here are a few anecdotes from this year’s caucuses.

In Ankeny 12, Polk County delegates split four for Hillary Clinton and four for Bernie Sanders, even though the Sanders group had twenty more supporters. After realignment in Ankeny 4, the Polk County delegates split four for each candidate, even though the Clinton group had eighteen more supporters.

A friend who caucused in West Des Moines 321 estimates that approximately 110 caucus-goers split 60 percent for Clinton and 40 percent for Sanders. Because her precinct allocated only two Dallas County delegates, each candidate received one. At West Des Moines 226, also in Dallas County, 120 caucus-goers split 66 for Sanders and 54 for Clinton after realignment. Because that precinct allocated three county delegates, caucus math awarded two to Sanders and one to Clinton. In other words, twelve extra bodies in the room gave Sanders twice as many delegates from one Dallas County precinct, while a larger advantage for Clinton in a nearby precinct was declared a tie.

Meanwhile, Democrats in counties with higher turnout influence the statewide results less than their counterparts in counties where fewer people participate. As was true in 2004 and 2008, politically active communities like college towns are most disadvantaged by the current system. Johnson County contains the Iowa City area and University of Iowa campus. Deeth noted last week that “of the 171,000 Democrats who attended statewide, 19,513 were in Johnson County. […] That’s 11.4% of the statewide turnout for only 6.5% of the state delegates.”

Within a given county, Democrats in high-turnout precincts often have less influence over delegate totals than caucus-goers in precincts where fewer people show up. Des Moines precinct 43 awarded nine Polk County delegates and had more than 450 caucus-goers. Ankeny 12 awarded eight Polk County delegates and had 276 caucus-goers after realignment. So it took far more people in Des Moines 43 to deliver a delegate for Clinton or Sanders than it did in Ankeny 12.

Alternatively, caucus-goers in two precincts with the same turnout may carry very different weight because of how county delegate totals are fixed in advance. This year, 194 Democrats caucused in Windsor Heights 1, according to a friend who was Clinton’s precinct captain there. Ankeny 4 also had 194 caucus-goers. But since that precinct produced more votes for top Democratic candidates in the last two general elections, Ankeny 4 was assigned eight Polk County delegates. Windsor Heights 1 allocated only five county delegates.

To put it another way, each caucus-goer in Windsor Heights 1 theoretically had only five-eighths as much impact on the statewide outcome as a caucus-goer in Ankeny 4 did.

In practice, things turned out differently because of caucus math. Democrats in Windsor Heights 1 split 108 for Clinton and 84 for Sanders; two Martin O’Malley supporters didn’t realign, nor would it have mattered if they had. The formula gave three county delegates to Clinton and two to Sanders. In Ankeny 4, preferences were remarkably similar: after realignment, Clinton had 106 supporters and Sanders 88. Since that precinct had eight county delegates to divvy up, Clinton and Sanders each received four.

So, the same number of Democrats caucused in Windsor Heights 1 and Ankeny 4. The proportion of Clinton supporters was nearly identical in both precincts. But my neighbors to the east in Windsor Heights were able to register a slight advantage for Clinton. As far as the Iowa Democratic Party is concerned, Clinton and Sanders tied in Ankeny 4.

No rational person would design a system this way.

In no other context would Democrats defend giving one person’s voice more weight because of where she lives or how people in her neighborhood voted two elections ago.

Democratic leaders talk about how “special” the caucuses are, but no one justifies the convoluted system for allocating delegates on its merits. The only case for the status quo is keeping Iowa first in line. Padilla told the Register’s Noble,

“Yeah, the caucus system is a little quirky and complicated, but if we changed it, we would in many ways give up the uniqueness that brings so much attention to the state of Iowa.” […]

Ensuring that the Iowa caucuses pass muster with DNC rules and remain distinct from New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary are the biggest concerns.

“We have to make sure that whatever we do comports with our delegate rules,” Brennan said. […]

Iowa Senate Majority Leader and DNC member Michael Gronstal was even blunter. Abandoning delegate equivalents in favor of a simple straw poll would turn the caucuses into a primary, upsetting a long-standing arrangement with New Hampshire and nullifying Iowa’s special place in the nominating process.

“The day we move to a system where it is, in essence, a primary is the day this will be taken care of on the June primary ballot,” Gronstal said. “The day we do that is the day presidential candidates quit bothering with Iowa.”

I am tired of hearing why we can’t change for the better from people like Brennan and Gronstal, who could be working with the Democratic National Committee and New Hampshire officials to find an acceptable compromise.

The unprecedented narrow margin between the top two Democratic candidates this year prompted Anderson to say the Iowa Democratic Party should consider something like a straw poll. I’ve been advocating that reform for years and can’t recall anyone with such a high profile in Iowa politics taking up the call. This weekend, Anderson told me that when the committee considers improvements to the caucuses, “I think everything should be on the table, including a system that details a count during the first alignment in the case of a close race.”

On Friday, Deeth argued that approach is a non-starter:

The problem with the body count, which no one in a position to truly know will say on the record but which everybody understands implicitly, is that the New Hampshire Secretary of State believes body count plus committed delegates is a PRIMARY not a caucus, and he WILL have the first primary.

And don’t compare the Dems to the Republicans. the Republicans fudged it. They have uncommitted delegates. Their votes will get automatically cast on the first ballot in proportion to the caucuses… but on a second ballot which after the splintered result of New Hampshire seems plausible, all bets are off. We could still be hiding a stealth Rand Paul delegation. But not likely. For one thing, you can only get away with stealth once, and for another thing the results.

If Democrats try that trick we’re asking the DNC for TWO exceptions: the early date AND an exemption to the delegate selection rules.

OK, So we know it’s tough, but why not ask anyway? Counter question: why burn our energy and use our very limited supply of chips (since Tom Harkin’s retirement Iowa Democrats are in the weakest position nationally that we’ve been in decades) fighting a battle we can’t win?

Refusing to acknowledge real issues relating to unequal representation doesn’t look like a strong position for Iowa to me. We might be losing our place in the calendar anyway. Plenty of Democrats object to starting in two overwhelmingly white states. If an unelectable candidate wins the Democratic nomination as a result of his early strength among white liberals, we will probably never get to go first again. Why not do the honorable thing and try to address real problems with the caucus system, instead of throwing up our hands and saying, “New Hampshire’s secretary of state won’t let us have nice things”?

I know, a caucus is not an election. But the Iowa caucuses are an important part of the presidential nominating process. It’s not too much to ask for results that show clearly which candidate turned out more Iowans on the big night.

If state party leaders aren’t open to considering real change, the least they could do is address the factors that keep thousands of politically engaged people from participating. There’s no point congratulating ourselves over holding the first-ever satellite caucuses. Fewer than 200 people signed up for them, and fewer than 120 ended up participating–less than one-tenth of 1 percent of more than 171,000 caucus-goers. However, this year’s token gesture has the potential to enfranchise many people if the party is committed to building on the success of the satellite caucus at Iowa City’s largest retirement community.

Please share your own ideas for improving the caucuses or anecdotes from your own precinct in this thread.

UPDATE: Heard another excellent example of how caucus math can distort voter preferences. West Des Moines 318 is a heavily Republican area on the western edge of Polk County. Because a relatively low percentage of its residents voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and gubernatorial nominee Jack Hatch in 2014, the precinct allocates only two Polk County delegates. After realignment, 52 people were for Clinton and 27 for Sanders. But since the Sanders group was viable, both Clinton and Sanders got a delegate. That’s right: nearly twice as many voters who showed up were for Clinton, but all we can see on the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus results site is that Clinton and Sanders tied in West Des Moines 318.

SECOND UPDATE: More circling the wagons, this time by Iowa Democratic county leaders who spoke to Erin Murphy.

“I think it’s much ado about nothing,” Pat Sass, chairwoman of the Black Hawk County Democrats, said of the criticism.

Sass said she sees no need to change the Democratic caucus process. Nor does Penny Rosfjord, chairwoman of the Woodbury County Democrats. Rosfjord said the party will examine ways to improve the caucuses, as it does every four years. But she does not think dramatic changes are necessary. […]

Thom Hart, chairman of the Scott County Democrats, cautioned against making sweeping changes based on one year’s caucuses.

“I think they need to be careful making changes in reaction to anything,” Hart said. “I think the system worked well here (in Scott County) and generally works well across the state.”

I would like to hear from Scott County readers about supporter numbers and delegate allocations in their precinct caucuses. Probably it wouldn’t be hard to find distortion effects and imbalances in representation similar to those mentioned above for some Polk and Dallas County precincts.

To his credit, Kurt Meyer, who chairs a committee representing Democrats in three northern Iowa counties, was open to larger changes, telling Murphy,

“A massive overhaul probably isn’t the remedy. … But if (the caucuses) leaves people disenfranchised or frustrated or less likely to participate in this wonderful every-four-year process we have, then we are doing something wrong, and you have to be at least open (to changes).” […]

“At this point, it’s fair to say I don’t know, and I would be loathe to jump to the conclusion that tweaks are sufficient or a massive overhaul is required. I simply don’t know. We haven’t done the post-mortem. […]

“But I also think if you’re going to base your future improvements on facts rather than vague impressions or defensive reactions, you have to be open to the fact that we may need something a little more significant than just rearranging the deck chairs.”

Yesterday a reader suggested to me that Meyer (a candidate to lead the Iowa Democratic Party early last year) would have handled the controversy surrounding this year’s caucuses better than McGuire has. Based the comments I’ve seen so far, I agree.

First section of Iowa Democratic Party’s e-mail newsletter from February 12:

Note from the Chair


Last Monday, after many months of campaign events and stump speeches, Iowa Democrats came together and began the process of selecting our next Democratic presidential nominee.

At nearly 1,700 precinct locations across the state, Iowa Democrats gathered with their friends and neighbors to talk about the future of our country and caucus for their preferred presidential candidate.

What we witnessed at many caucus locations was awe-inspiring: first time caucus-goers excited to cast their presidential preference; Iowans making impassioned cases for their preferred candidate; volunteers stepping up to run their precinct caucus with the help of new technology; and successful efforts to make the caucuses more inclusive and accessible.

That’s what the Iowa caucuses are all about, and what makes the caucuses so special.

In the end, the results on caucus night were historic, in more ways than one.

I’m proud to say that we had the second highest Democratic turnout in the history of the Iowa Democratic caucuses. More than 171,000 Iowans attended a precinct caucus — a strong reflection of how enthusiastic Iowans are for our Democratic presidential candidates and the Democratic message of inclusion, equality and opportunity.

This is truly extraordinary.

Not only was the Democratic turnout historic, but the result was historically close. The fact that we have outstanding candidates who inspired Iowans and launched robust campaigns across our state means great things for our party and Democrats up and down the ballot in November. We will work tirelessly every day to build on the progress from caucus night and harness the energy for Democratic candidates and policies across the state.

For all the positives that came from caucus night, we are also aware of the concerns that came from some of our precincts. We are listening. We are always looking for ways to make the caucus process better and this year will be no different. That’s why we will be forming a committee to start the process of innovating and improving, while keeping in place what makes the caucus process so special.

I am so grateful to every Democrat who participated in a caucus, and all the volunteers who went above and beyond. It is your spirit and commitment that makes the Iowa Democratic Party strong.



About the Author(s)


  • Get more people registered in advance

    And make sure they know what their precinct is and where it is meeting. Part of the delay at my precinct was getting people registered who were not on the role of registered Democrats. There were also people who were at the wrong caucus location. Volunteers and workers for the candidates’ campaigns should be helping with this as they do phone calling and door knocking. Getting more Democrats registered will help us in the fall with GOTV.

  • My precinct had 18 delegates, but only 163 participants.

    In Council Bluffs 10a, we had 105 Hillary supporters and 53 Bernie supporters. After realignment of 5 O’Malley supporters, our final numbers were 108 for Hillary and 55 for Bernie. Twelve of our delegates went to Hillary, and six went to Bernie. In comparison to the precincts discussed in this article, our level of participation seems very low for the number of delegates awarded for our precinct.
    I think the Democratic caucus process is extremely outdated, especially if our goal is to engage more eligible voters. Absentee ballots would be a huge step in the right direction! And doing away with “caucus math” could not possibly be a bad thing!

    • the counties do things so differently

      Some counties have precincts that allocate many more delegates than any Polk County precinct does. But we’re the highest-population county, so I think they want to keep the size of the county convention under control.

      You can’t really compare your precinct’s 18 county delegates to my precinct’s six county delegates and say your caucus-goers have more influence. You would have to compare it to some other Pottawattamie County precinct.

  • County Chair sets delegate totals

    The IDP doesn’t determine the amount of delegates each county will get. The County Chair is tasked with determining that number, without hard/fast rules. I was told that it should be in line with voter turnout in the last election (which was a low turnout year). We were also told to expect turnout to resemble ’08. It was also stated that whatever we set it at, we would have to have 40% of delegates show up at the County Convention (for a quorum). In ’08 my county had 200 delegates. This year, I felt comfortable with setting it at 100- hoping that 40 will follow through and come to convention. IDP did assist in dividing up the total number of delegates for each precinct, which was helpful. I did have time to review them, and had time to request changes if I wasn’t satisfied, I assume. When it comes down to it- someone has to decide how many people are active in politics and care enough to caucus for every single precinct in the state- which should be left up to the locals. I guess the IDP could set the same number of delegates for every precinct, I just don’t see that as fair, either. If we could see total of registrants checked-in at 7:00 across all of our county precincts, we could do a last minute reapportionment of delegates so that the larger the attendance, the more delegates they are awarded. Adding more things would easily overwhelm all of the volunteer chairs. I definitely support electronic registration. The app worked well, let’s evolve it to do registration too. I don’t mind the caucus “math” and the equations. They seem fair. In a lot of precincts, 15% has to support the candidate to get a delegate- unfortunately 29% will not get you another one- no matter how unfair it seems. 30% would. I do wish it would happen on a Saturday, and that more sites will register for the tele -caucus.

    • the IDP allocates state delegates to the counties

      but within each county, Democratic leaders can determine how many county convention delegates to assign.

      I just don’t like the caucus math. Too many distortions.

  • Not Enough Precincts

    Iowa’s shrinking number of precincts, made possible by generous absentee voting laws, is working against the caucus process.

    We have now a hundred fewer precincts than we had a decade ago. This could cause problems on election day—long lines in urban areas; long drives in rural areas. People now vote by mail, thus solving the problems.

    The system for solving November’s problems is colliding with the caucus rule of turning out in person for a precinct meeting at 7 pm. Like two tectonic plates drifting ever so slowly, their friction causes occasional earthquakes.

  • a bigger room please

    I attended a caucus in the very same building in 2016 that I first broke my caucus cherry in, in 1976. In 1976 there were about 25, 30 people in attendance. In 2016, there were 662 people crammed into a teeny elementary school gym. We had to walk out and single-file back in just to be counted. If the caucus had been held a few days (hours?) later, we’d have been freezing off our arses, and I for one would have just walked back home. So, yeah, the caucuses need some work.

    PS: Our precinct chair said it was his fourth (?) time chairing, yet he didn’t think to have on hand a megaphone, or one of this little hand-held counter thingys, which right now there are 893 listings for, starting at a buck and change –

  • Delegate Math Is Everywhere

    We won’t get rid of delegate math by going to a primary. As the following post makes clear, it obtains in primary states on the same basis as in Iowa.

    The delegates are still chosen by Congressional districts. A big turnout in a college town for Sanders will show he clearly turned out more supporters but it will not help him more in Oklahoma’s primary than it did in Iowa’s caucus. The news media will focus on Oklahoma’s raw vote numbers but they will be misleading their readers about who has “won” what.

    A candidate who gets 51% of the vote in district with three delegates to apportion will get two of them, same as in an Iowa precinct

    The delegate apportionment practice weakens regional candidates who may flash in the pan in February but will not have statewide appeal in November when those less passionate citizens (and those night shift workers) turn out to vote in the main event..

    • but at least we would know

      who had the most supporters. Technically, delegates from the states determine the presidential nominees, but in practice candidates get momentum from winning primaries or caucuses.

      You’d be surprised how many passionate citizens are excluded from the caucus process.

  • Horrible night

    I was chair for 221..Space was limited… to many precincts in one site… If we want to keep the “first in the nation” status, real changes will definitely need to happen….