Five red flags about the Iowa Democratic Party's Caucus Review Committee

The Iowa Democratic Party’s Caucus Review Committee will hold its first meeting “for purposes of organization” on Saturday, May 7. Members of the public may attend the event, which begins at 10 am at the Airport Holiday Inn (Iowa Conference Rooms B & C) at 6111 Fleur Drive in Des Moines. The meeting will likely run well into the afternoon as the 26 committee members hear from speakers including Republican Party of Iowa officials, who will share what they learned from their review of the 2012 caucuses.

Whether Iowa will ever be able to hold meaningful caucuses again is an open question. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has allies in national circles who share her belief that the party should require “simpler” and “more democratic” primaries for the purposes of presidential selection. If forced to abandon caucuses, Iowa would probably be relegated to the end of the nominating process in June, unless our state’s leaders manage to lobby for an earlier primary date.

Assuming the caucuses continue as an important event in presidential campaigns, the Iowa Democratic Party should address some of the current system’s major shortcomings. Based on what I’ve heard (and not heard) from various Caucus Review Committee members, the exercise seems destined to produce minor improvements in how the caucuses are managed, as opposed to big changes to address the caucuses’ disenfranchising and unrepresentative features.

Iowa Democratic Party leaders appear to have concluded in advance that the caucuses do not need an overhaul.

In an April 1 press release (enclosed below), Caucus Review Committee Chair Dave Nagle stated, “From the beginning, the party and I have wanted this review process to be as open as possible, without limits on the suggestions or insights we receive from our county chairs, volunteers, caucus-goers and other Iowa Democrats. That’s why in the upcoming months, the committee and I look forward to holding public meetings and soliciting the recommendations and concerns of Iowans all across the state. Iowans take their responsibility as First in the Nation very seriously, and working together, I know we can ensure the Iowa caucuses remain a special representation of democracy that all Iowans can be proud of.”

In conversations with me, various committee members likewise said they would be open to any suggestions for improving the caucuses.

Yet a letter sent to thousands of Iowa Democratic Party supporters shortly after the caucuses depicted this year’s event as a resounding success and called for “preserving the uniqueness” of the “quirky” system that “serves [the] nation well.” In that three-page letter (enclosed in full at the end of this post), state party chair Dr. Andy McGuire appeared to rule out the straw poll approach long used at Iowa GOP precinct caucuses.

    Preserving the uniqueness of the Caucus.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s Precinct Caucuses are not contests of popular votes, they are contests for delegates basedon the strength of the campaign’s organization in a single precinct. This is a fact that often gets lost: the Iowa Caucuses are not a state-wide contest. They are 1,681 individual precinct meetings happening simultaneously across Iowa. They are the first step in a representative delegate selection process-a process that has been unchanged for decades.

Indeed, one of the harshest lines of criticism after the 2016 caucuses ended was that the Iowa Democratic Party is obligated to release a “raw vote”. The lowa Caucuses aren’t a primary election. And we don’t think they should be. If we switched to a primary, presidential candidates would spend all of their time in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and Waterloo where they could make a bigger bang for their buck. They would not spend their time in small towns like Manchester and Carroll, where Sen. Sanders and Secretary Clinton traveled, respectively, in the final days before our caucus to confront the diverse concerns of rural lowa.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald said it best in an editorial: “Iowa’s quirky caucus serves nation well”. We couldn’t agree more. Because of the way our representative delegate selection process works, candidates for national office must travel to both large and small towns–because our delegates aren’t allowed to the precincts with the most voters, they are allotted to the precincts where the most active groups of Democratic voters live. These precincts aren’t just in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, or Waterloo. These precincts are spread all over lowa, in towns that the national media has never heard of. Presidential candidates must have true statewide organizations, and they must travel to towns like Le Mars and Maquoketa and engage with everyday people on the everyday challenges that Americans are facing. To change the Iowa Caucuses into a primary contest for raw votes would fundamentally change the nomination process. We believe this process, which requires national candidates to appear at diners, elementary school gyms, main street offices, and cornfields, and have conversations with regular people about their everyday concerns not only makes these Caucuses special, they provide a platform for the discussion of real issues in an unfiltered way that is critical to the national debate.

I asked McGuire how she would reconcile that passage with the reality that GOP candidates for president travel all over this state, to small towns as well as large ones, even though the Republican Party has been doing straw poll caucuses for decades. The last three Republican Iowa caucus winners completed 99-county tours and campaigned extensively in small towns. Many other GOP candidates also visited a wide range of Iowa communities during this past cycle. The Iowa Democratic Party chair declined to answer on the record.

From where I’m sitting, state party leaders seized on an illogical argument to discredit the simplest way to make caucuses more representative of voters’ preferences. Nagle, McGuire, and others have repeatedly assured me the Caucus Review Committee will welcome and consider all public input before making any decisions. But if they’ve already concluded the system serves the nation well and any release of a raw vote would turn the caucuses into a primary, Democrats who favor a straw poll approach or major changes to the sometimes strange caucus math are unlikely to find a sympathetic hearing.

Several committee members are already on record dismissing broad concerns about the caucus system.

Most of the 26 committee members did not volunteer for the job. Rather, people from the Iowa Democratic Party invited them to participate because they fit different niches (county chairs, precinct chairs, precinct captains, supporter of someone other than Hillary Clinton, and so on). Several of the invited members had already commented publicly that the Iowa caucuses basically work well and need only minor tinkering.

Asked about shift workers not being able to participate in the caucuses when he was state party chair before the 2008 caucuses, Scott Brennan told a New York Times reporter, “there’s always the next cycle.”

Linn County Democratic Party Chair Bret Nilles told Lee newspapers reporter Erin Murphy shortly after this year’s caucuses that the only serious issue was overcrowding in some locations.

“I think what we need with the caucuses is maybe a little bit more, better planning in terms of the facilities and how do we accommodate a caucus of 350 to 400 people as we experienced here in Cedar Rapids at some locations,” Nilles said. “It’s a matter of, those places where we had good accommodations, everything went fine. (The issues occurred at) those locations where we had tight quarters, where people weren’t trained well enough to handle crowds of that size in space that wasn’t available.”

Similarly, Woodbury County Democratic Chair Penny Rosfjord indicated to Murphy that she didn’t see any big problems this year:

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.

“Going forward, I think we will definitely be looking at ways to improve the process, but I am not a person that really wants to throw the baby out with the bath water,” Rosfjord said. “Definitely some improvements need to be made, and we’ll go from there.”

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, an ex officio member of the Caucus Review Committee, was quoted in the same article suggesting that any change to the caucus process would not be approved by New Hampshire or the Democratic National Committee, meaning Iowa would be stuck with a June primary “and never have a presidential candidate visit our state.” (It drives me crazy that influential Democrats aren’t willing to negotiate with the DNC and New Hampshire’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner, even though he didn’t rule out a straw poll approach in an interview with the Des Moines Register shortly after this year’s caucuses.)

Another committee member is John McCormally, who asserted in a guest post for Iowa Starting Line that many critics don’t understand our wonderful system.

Caucuses are not primaries—they are party building events rife with idiosyncrasies. If you’ve never participated, they seem weird. They don’t always lend themselves to clear results, and this one in particular doesn’t fit into our cultural obsession with picking a clear winner and loser. Caucuses are nuanced, and nuance doesn’t translate to 10 second soundbites and 140 character tweets.

The reality is that Democrats had two very strong candidates who head out of Iowa with virtually equal support. That’s not something to be investigated, its something to be celebrated.

The Iowa Caucuses are special—but they were never built for the horse race journalism that pervades today’s media. At the end of the day, the caucus is for assigning delegates and building a party.

I’ve attended precinct caucuses in five presidential election years and reject the premise that my points about the barriers to participation and sometimes skewed delegate counts are based on misunderstandings or an inability to appreciate nuance. There is no virtue in not being able to determine which candidate turned out more supporters when the race is unusually close. We’re talking about the first step toward choosing a presidential nominee.

Bleeding Heartland has responded to the “party building” defense of the caucus system before. I suspect this aspect of the caucuses has become more myth than reality. Many rank-and-file Democrats come away from the big night discouraged by the chaos they witnessed or feeling they’ve wasted their time, because the delegate allocation from their precinct did not reflect the balance of support among people in the room.

As Pat Rynard observed in February,

consider looking through the caucus night experience of a Bernie Sanders supporter. Many of them came out for Sanders because they were sick of the party’s “establishment,” which they view as ineffective on progressive priorities in recent years. Many were first-time voters. And what did they find when they got to many of their precinct locations? Chaos, locations that were too small, extremely long lines, late start times, poorly trained volunteers, an insufficient amount of voter registration forms. These were things that actually happened, and what served to many frustrated with the party as their introduction to it.

Rynard also has noted that the lack of bound delegates from Democratic caucuses pits supporters of rival candidates against each other at county and district conventions weeks and months later. Acrimonious scenes like what occurred at this year’s Polk County convention work against the long-term goal of getting more people involved in the party. One longtime Democratic activist at the county level commented earlier this year, “It has been my experience that caucuses do not build up local parties. The professional politicians move on, but the locals carry grudges for a long time.”

The committee excluded some knowledgeable people who have stated inconvenient truths about the caucuses.

John Deeth has published thousands of words about how the Iowa caucuses work at his website, Iowa’s longest-running Democratic blog. He also organized this year’s caucuses in Johnson County, where turnout exceeded 2008 levels. Deeth and I aren’t on the same page when it comes to reforming the caucuses; he has no problem with the 15 percent viability threshold and little interest in a “body count.” But he has identified some key problems and offered detailed commentary on ways to improve the system.

Deeth volunteered to serve on the Caucus Review Committee, and there’s no doubt he could have brought a lot to the table. For reasons neither McGuire, Nagle, nor anyone else from the Iowa Democratic Party has been willing to explain on the record, he was not invited. Perhaps party leaders were nervous about allowing a blogger to participate. Tomorrow’s meeting is open to the public, as some events around the state will be later in the year, but presumably the committee members will deliberate in private before making recommendations. Or was it because Deeth doesn’t romanticize the caucuses?

First is clearly the ONLY remaining justification for our system, which as early as 2004 had outgrown its Town Meeting roots. […]

If we lose First, just have a freakin’ primary. The historic town meeting is over, a victim of its own success and excess, so the ONLY rationale for our system is First. […]

There were only four satellite caucuses in the whole state. Mere tokenism to show the nation that we were being “more inclusive,” that was completely lost in the dead heat coin flip news cycle.

Three of those caucuses were duds – a grand total of ten people showed up.

Was it because he wrote about the Iowa Democratic Party’s planning missteps, such as massively underestimating the need for new voter registration forms?

I have NO idea what guidance other counties got [on likely turnout]. I got none. I DO know that when I opened the packets ahead of time I found one pad of 25 voter reg forms in the Iowa City precinct 3 packet. You may have seen them live on MSNBC caucus night. That’s a dorm precinct and that one pad was used up by the first 25 people in line. I added another 300 forms. We still ran out because we got 499 people.

I don’t want to throw the IDP staff under the bus. They worked hard, were responsive, and did their best. The failure was strategic. They did what they were hired for – but they were not the people for the job that was needed.

What the IDP needed was a field marshal, a caucus czar: a top tier person with both election administration AND political experience. They needed Mike Mauro – and he should be at the top of the list to head the inevitable Blue Ribbon Panel. Or someone a lot like Mike Mauro, a former big county auditor or an election administrator who did some time in the political trenches in a past life.

Whatever the reason, I’m not encouraged that the Iowa Democratic Party chose not to include Deeth. His expertise as a county elections official and caucus organizer would have been valuable as the committee considers different ways forward. For instance, one popular idea is to create an online registration process for caucus-goers to sign in ahead of time. It’s a great concept, but Deeth explained here why a technological fix might not be as easy as it sounds. Everyone agrees that the party needs to reserve larger rooms to prevent overcrowding, but Deeth (who has spent many hours working on that very issue) has pointed out, “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.”

Another glaring absence on the list of Caucus Review Committee members was Brad Anderson, who managed Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in Iowa and ran for secretary of state in 2014. Appearing on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program a few days after this year’s caucuses, he spoke frankly about the problems and possible solutions.

Anderson: […] But what I do think needs to be addressed are some of these logistical challenges because I think certainly some of these precincts just have gotten too big.

Borg: But you can’t — I heard of caucuses in parking lots.

Anderson: I caucused in a parking lot. I think we need to address that.

Anderson: That needs to be addressed. I think voter registration forms, running out of voter registration forms needs to be addressed. But if you look at it as a whole, you look at the what happened on caucus night and the way it was viewed, at the end of the day if you address all of these concerns the results are not going to change. And so I think it is fair to say, okay, some of these things need to change moving forward. I think the Democratic Party honestly should consider, at least consider a straw poll format like the republicans do because the one thing —

Henderson: What about the precinct chair situation? There were people who were leading the caucuses on the democratic side who had no training.

Obradovich: I was going to ask you about that.

Anderson: Well, the one thing that is troubling is in a close race there should be some kind of recount procedure. And right now, because of the way it is done on the democratic side, it’s just not possible. We don’t have ballots. And so for that first alignment when you get in there, there is no official count. So I think we need to form a commission that takes a look at it, the same way the republicans did in 2012. I think they are very fair questions. But I think at the end of the day this process is one that makes Iowa the center of attention and we have always handled the spotlight fairly well. […]

Borg: Brad, before we go to Kay, and I’m going to ask her about Iowa performing its role, something that you have addressed already, Craig. Are you predicting that the Democratic Party is going to take what happened caucus night and that a commission may be established?

Anderson: Yeah. I’ve talked to Chairman McGuire and I think she’s looking at it. And from what I can tell, the people I’ve talked to, there are already talks in what that commission is going to look like and there are already very specific things that we need to address. I think, as I mentioned, just the logistics of things, just space allocation and the way precincts are formed and this is a volunteer-run election essentially. And so the nightmare scenario of course is you’ve got a close night run by 1,681 volunteers. That ended up happening. And so it is never going to be perfect but I think there are some serious things we need to look at.

McGuire, Nagle, and Iowa Democratic Party communications staff declined to explain on the record why Anderson was not invited to serve on the committee, despite his immense knowledge base and passion for improving the system.

Also worth noting: Tri-County Democrats chair Kurt Meyer isn’t on the committee. In Erin Murphy’s feature about county leaders’ views on reforming the caucuses, Meyer was the only voice acknowledging that the system might need more than “tweaks”:

“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).” […]

“I believe that any party, out of necessity, evolves and changes and morphs and is reborn and is transformed many times over. You look back on things that happened one or two or three cycles ago, and you say, ‘I can’t believe that is how we did things back then.’ Because there’s constant change,” Meyer said. “Maybe it’s tweaks, maybe the changes are more significant than that. 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.”

Most members declined to respond to specific questions about problematic aspects of the caucus system.

Instead of writing this post immediately after the Iowa Democratic Party announced the Caucus Review Committee members, I reached out to most of the participants, hoping to get a sense of how broadly they viewed the job at hand. Were they concerned primarily about fixing execution problems, such as long lines to sign in, not enough registration forms, crowded rooms, and poorly-trained precinct chairs? Or might they consider larger issues, such as the thousands of politically engaged Democrats who cannot attend their precinct caucuses, or reported results that sometimes distort the preferences of people in the room? Here are a few of my questions:

3.Would you be willing to elaborate on some issues you think are most important for the caucus review committee to consider? […]

5. I am among those who feel the current caucus system excludes too many politically active Democrats who would like to participate but are unable to be at a certain location at a certain time (e.g. shift workers, people who are housebound or don’t drive at night, people with caregiver responsibilities). The Iowa Democratic Party introduced satellite caucuses this cycle, but only about 120 voters across the state used them. Do you think satellite caucuses are sufficient to address the barriers to participation, or are you open to considering options such as absentee ballots or proxy voting?

6. I am among those who feel the Iowa Democratic Party should consider a straw poll for the presidential preference portion of the caucus, the way the Republican Party of Iowa does. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner “didn’t shut the door on the idea” when speaking to Jennifer Jacobs in February:

Would you be open to considering a straw poll option for reforming the Democratic caucuses?

7. I am among those who feel the Iowa Democratic caucus system too often produces results that don’t represent the preferences of caucus-goers well. A few examples from this year’s caucuses:

West Des Moines 226 (Dallas County) reported result: Sanders 67%, Clinton 33% (three-delegate precinct). Actual numbers after realignment: 66 for Sanders, 54 for Clinton.

West Des Moines 318 (Polk County) reported result: Sanders 50%, Clinton 50% (two-delegate precinct). Actual numbers after realignment: 27 for Sanders, 52 for Clinton.

The raw number of supporters for Clinton and Sanders after realignment in Windsor Heights 1 and Ankeny 4 (both in Polk County) were remarkably similar: 108 for Clinton and 84 for Sanders in WH1, 106 for Clinton and 88 for Sanders in Ankeny 4. But because those precincts were assigned different numbers of delegates, the Iowa Democratic Party reported Ankeny 4 to be a tie between Clinton and Sanders, while WH1 was reported as Clinton 60%, Sanders 40%.

Do those examples suggest to you any problem that the caucus review committee should address? Or do you feel this is just one of those quirky things about the caucuses we should embrace, and it’s not important for the reported delegate totals from each precinct to bear a closer resemblance to the proportion of caucus-goers in each candidate’s corner?

Many committee members did not respond to my questions at all, despite having provided their e-mail address when I requested it. Several others responded only in vague terms. The reply from committee chair Nagle was typical:

Thank you for your e-mail survey. I think it might be little pre-mature to start stating positions before the committee even meets. Some, of course, feel that they know all about the process already and they might be able to answer your questions without the information the committee hopes to gather. I need to leave the process open, hear from everyone, gather information from across the state, etc. before reaching conclusions.

Premature judgment to my mind is like polling a jury before they hear the evidence and I want to give all viewpoints the chance to be heard.

Keep in mind, this isn’t so much about what the pres. candidates want, it is about what is good for the process, not only in Iowa, but the nation as well where small early states have the chances to lessen big money and pacs.

It is not too early to ask whether committee members view certain aspects of the caucus system as genuine problems. When the Iowa Democratic Party chair has sent thousands of people a strong defense of the status quo, it’s fair to wonder whether a committee hand-picked by party leaders will consider more than token improvements, after making a show of accepting public input. I wasn’t asking anyone to promise to pursue any particular reform. I wanted to know how the committee might approach rules on participation and delegate allocation, which have not been changed or seriously examined for more than four decades.

Some committee members did answer candidly, so thanks to Evan Burger, Sue Dvorsky, Jamie Fitzgerald, Norm Sterzenbach, and Christian Ucles.

People who caucused for Hillary Clinton dominate the committee.

I include this red flag mainly because a number of Iowans who caucused for Bernie Sanders have raised it in conversations with me.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s April 1 press release noted that the Caucus Review Committee members “include supporters of Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders.” Party sources did not answer when I asked them to identify which members backed Sanders or O’Malley in the caucuses. I have been able to confirm only one Sanders supporter: Evan Burger, who did advance work for the Vermont senator’s campaign. Of the two rumored O’Malley supporters, one did not respond to my inquiry and the other declined to comment on which candidate she caucused for on February 1. Quite a few committee members publicly supported Clinton or volunteered for her campaign, which isn’t surprising, since most of the Iowa Democratic Party establishment was behind the front-runner.

I am less worried about this problem than about the others discussed here, because several Clinton supporters were among the committee members who responded substantively to my questions. Outside the committee, outspoken advocates for reform (Anderson, Deeth, Rynard) also backed Clinton this year. Anderson was an involved volunteer, Deeth joined the Clinton group at his precinct after realignment, and Rynard endorsed Clinton on his blog.

In addition, plenty of Iowans for Hillary were among the frustrated and disappointed Democratic caucus-goers I quoted in previous posts about this year’s caucuses. So I don’t think stacking the committee with Clinton supporters is equivalent to fixing the outcome against reform.

That said, as a group, Sanders supporters are probably more critical of the Iowa caucus system than Clinton supporters are. The eventual recommendations for reforming the caucuses would have more credibility if they came out of a more balanced committee.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread. I hope that my concerns prove misplaced and that the Caucus Review Committee pays more than lip service to the need for big changes.

UPDATE: Marcia Fulton posted this comment on Facebook on May 7:

I am on the Caucus Review Panel and today was our first meeting in Des Moines. There are 28 voting members and 5 ex-official members. There are representative members who supported all three of the campaigns and the discussion was varied and lively on anodotial caucus feedback. We are in the beginning stages of a multi-month review. Chairman (former Congressman) Nagle told the members to extend an invitation to any interested person to attend any of our meetings and provide your input for us or write up your thoughts and send them to the IDP or a committee member. Our next meeting is scheduled for June 25th ( site to be determined). Please give the panel a chance to work before you condemn it. Marcia

I am seeking comment from the Iowa Democratic Party on whether more people have joined the committee since the party released the original list of 26 members, five of whom are non-voting (“ex officio”). UPDATE: Only one person was added to the Caucus Review Committee, bringing the number of members to 27. Reyma McCoy McDeid will represent “the voice of the disabled community regarding ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] access issues for precinct caucuses,” according to party communications director Monica Biddix.

Show me where I have “condemned” the committee. I laid out what I see as red flags and explained why. One of the red flags was not being able to get straight answers from most of the insiders. I sent detailed questions to almost everyone on the committee within 48 hours of the Iowa Democratic Party making the names public. That message included my phone number, in case people preferred to respond that way. Not having an e-mail address for Marcia Fulton, I contacted her through Facebook, which tells me my message was seen on April 3. I never heard back from her, not even a vague “my mind is open” reply.

I have already provided input for committee members, in the form of questions identifying what I see as serious flaws in the Iowa caucus system. I have also repeatedly tried to communicate with other Iowa Democratic Party leaders about the disenfranchising and unrepresentative aspects of the caucuses.

I sincerely hope that Fulton and others will prove me wrong and recommend reforms that go beyond fixing execution problems, such as better volunteer training, online registration in advance, larger rooms, and printing enough voter registration forms.

SECOND UPDATE: O.Kay Henderson posted lengthy audio clips from the meeting at Radio Iowa. Surprise, surprise: “key figures” were “skeptical” about adopting a straw poll.

Richard Bender devised the system Iowa Democrats use for their caucuses. There is no straw poll to determine the winner, like there is when Iowa Republicans Caucus. Instead, Democrats in each precinct use a mathematical formula to calculate “delegate equivalents” for each presidential candidate who clears a 15 percent threshold of support in a precinct.

“I don’t think we want to change the fabric of what caucuses are,” Bender said. “We really don’t want what’s known as ‘firehouse caucuses’ where people just go and cast a vote and leave.”

Naturally, the person who developed the delegate math doesn’t see the need for any changes. I wouldn’t expect Richard Bender to care that his formula sometimes leads to unrepresentative outcomes at the precinct level. But does he not realize how many Democrats leave their precinct caucuses immediately after the presidential selection process is done? The vast majority do not stick around for platform discussions or other party business. The difference is that Democrats spend more time trying to count large groups in over-crowded rooms, then doing it again after realignment, before they go home.

Henderson’s report for Radio Iowa makes clear that as usual, party leaders would rather throw up their hands and say New Hampshire won’t let us have nice things than try to work toward building a better system.

According to Nagle, New Hampshire officials would consider the Iowa Caucuses too much like New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary if Democrats were to hold a straw poll Caucus night.

“The Caucuses are also supposed to be a party-building exercise, not a drop-and-go,” Nagle said. “We’re going to look at it. It’s not off the table, but it’s got some obstacles to overcome before we’d actually move in that direction.”

Is Nagle saying the Iowa GOP caucuses have never been a party-building exercise? If so, on what basis does he make that claim?

Iowa Democratic leaders appear to be in deep denial about how many ordinary people come away from their precinct caucuses disappointed or angry, rather than excited and energized to stay involved with the party. Normal people don’t enjoy taking hours out of their busy lives to stand in a crowded, stuffy room, only to find that the delegate count from their precinct doesn’t reflect how many people were in their candidate’s corner.

April 1 Iowa Democratic Party press release (the organizational meeting was later postponed from April 23 to May 7):

IDP Announces Caucus Review Committee Members

DES MOINES—Iowa Democratic Party Caucus Review Committee Chair Dave Nagle today announced the members of the review committee who will work together to conduct a full review of the caucus process and submit recommendations on how the party can improve the Iowa Caucuses.

The committee members represent a diverse cross-section of Iowa Democrats of varying age and experience who are leaders in their communities and active in Democratic politics. The members live all across Iowa and include supporters of Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders.

“I am thrilled to announce the outstanding group of Democrats who will serve on the caucus review committee,’ said Dave Nagle. “While each of the members brings a unique set of experiences and perspectives to the table, they are all unified by their commitment to preserve, improve and protect our First in the Nation Iowa caucuses.”

“From the beginning, the party and I have wanted this review process to be as open as possible, without limits on the suggestions or insights we receive from our county chairs, volunteers, caucus-goers and other Iowa Democrats. That’s why in the upcoming months, the committee and I look forward to holding public meetings and soliciting the recommendations and concerns of Iowans all across the state. Iowans take their responsibility as First in the Nation very seriously, and working together, I know we can ensure the Iowa caucuses remain a special representation of democracy that all Iowans can be proud of.”

The review committee will hold an organizational meeting April 23 in Des Moines. The review committee will hold additional, public-input meetings throughout the state to provide Iowans with the opportunity to share their suggestions and ideas for improving the caucuses. Details on these public input meetings will be made available in the upcoming weeks.

In February, IDP Chair Andy McGuire announced that, in line with the party’s long tradition of working to improve the caucus process, she would convene a committee to conduct a full evaluation of the caucuses and to listen to the suggestions of Iowans all across the state. It is through a similar process that the party launched its first ever Tele-Caucus and satellite caucuses this year.

A full list of the review committee members is below:

Chair Dave Nagle, Black Hawk County
Evan Burger, Story County
Scott Brennan, Polk County (Ex officio)
Melanie Cloud Gross, Johnson County
Sandy Dockendorff, Des Moines County
Sue Dvorsky, Johnson County (Ex officio)
Abby Finkenauer, Dubuque County
Jamie Fitzgerald, Polk County
Marcia Fulton, Union County
Elesha Gayman, Scott County
Dick Goodson, Polk County
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, Pottawattamie County (Ex officio)
Chris Hall, Woodbury County
Congressman Dave Loebsack, Johnson County (Ex officio)
John McCormally, Polk County
Marcia Nichols, Polk County
Bret Nilles, Linn County
Jean Pardee, Clinton County
Penny Rosfjord, Woodbury County
Ken Sagar, Polk County
Don Smith, Poweshiek County
House Democratic Leader Mark Smith, Marshall County (Ex officio)
Norm Sterzenbach, Polk County
Marcia Thompson, Story County
Miriam Tyson, Black Hawk County
Christian Ucles, Polk County

Letter from Dr. Andy McGuire, sent to many Iowa Democrats a few weeks after the 2016 Iowa caucuses.

Andy McGuire letter 1 photo McGuireletter1_zpsi4g8vdjc.jpg

Andy McGuire letter 2 photo McGuireletter2_zpsmlkvnhmj.jpg

Andy McGuire letter 3 photo McGuireletter3_zpswpl3ochf.jpg

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  • Party building

    My observation over 25 years is that, even when they are relatively successful as a presidential preference process, the caucuses have become increasingly irrelevant if not failures as “party-building” affairs. For example, state and local candidates — for the most part — have to build and maintain their own organizations and GOTV operations. There are fewer and fewer loyal party “foot soldiers” willing to invest shoe leather or suffer cauliflower ear to turn out voters as technology, social media and candidates for national office become the focus of the efforts.

    • I suspect you are right

      I believe the caucuses played some party-building role in the 1970s and 1980s (supposedly the campaigns before the 1984 caucuses helped Tom Harkin’s first U.S. Senate bid later that year). I don’t see that happening lately.

  • The whole caucus-to-convention system needs overhauled.

    My question is why does the caucus-to-convention primary season in Iowa have to be a test of endurance at all levels? Caucuses are generally three to four hours; county conventions are five or more hours; and the 2nd District convention started at 8 a.m. and adjourned at 2 a.m. the next day, a whopping 18 hours. The process isn’t over yet. There is the state convention in June. If Iowa caucuses resulted in record voter turnout, it might be worth this incredible investment of people’s time. Unfortunately, voter turnout in caucus states is significantly lower than in primary states. According to Jeff Stein at Vox, voter turnout in primary states can be as high as 52.4% in NH, 49.0% in WI, and down the line to Iowa, a caucus state, where voter turnout is only 15.7%. (Link: “The real obstacle to voter turnout in Democratic primaries: caucuses.”)

    We hear so much about voter suppression around the country, but do we ever take a look at it in Iowa where only 15% of voters turn out for the delegate assignment process? Many states are working to make voting easier. Primary voting in Iowa is hard, especially for older people, the handicapped, the hearing impaired, and young families. Local merchants in my small town are reluctant to attend caucuses because they don’t want their presidential preferences made public. Standing up for your candidate until the final delegate assignment is made means committing to lengthy, and often, confusing conventions as well.

    If we want more people to participate in our voting process, something has to change. The system has to become more efficient and inclusive. We hear that caucuses are good for party building, but at what level does that occur? My experience has been that while politicians are quick to move on, local parties are slow to heal after dragging out the emotional process for almost five months from Iowa’s first caucus to the final convention.