Pros and cons of Iowa Democratic Party's new "virtual caucus"

The Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee approved a new rules package for the 2020 caucuses and convention process by a unanimous vote on April 6. Committee members did not amend any aspect of the proposal, which the party unveiled in February. I’ve enclosed the whole document near the end of this post.

The most significant innovation will be allowing voters to register a preference in the presidential contest without being physically present at a precinct caucus on February 3, 2020. Iowa Democratic insiders have long resisted that kind of change and probably would not have developed this plan if not for pressure from the Democratic National Committee.

This “virtual caucus” will significantly reduce barriers to participation that have kept thousands of politically-engaged Iowans from having their voices heard in past cycles. However, the rules won’t give equal weight to those who are unable to attend in person or prefer to call in. That will create a new set of challenges and perhaps some unintended consequences.


Iowans who caucus by phone or some other mobile device will be able to rank up to five contenders, so their preference can be allocated to a candidate with more support if their first choice doesn’t have at least 15 percent among virtual caucus-goers in their Congressional district. Real-time closed captioning, language translation and ASL interpretation will be available on request, making the process more accessible for people with disabilities.

However, caucusing virtually will require quite a bit of advance planning.

  • Virtual caucus-goers must be registered Democrats in Iowa by December 31, 2019. Same-day registration or party-switching will remain an option for the in-person caucuses, but as of January 1, 2020, anyone who’s unregistered or has a different party affiliation will not be able to sign up for the virtual caucus.
  • Voters wanting to caucus by phone must inform the Iowa Democratic Party of their intention between January 6, 2020 at 9:00 am and January 17, 2020 at 5:00 pm. Anyone who misses that registration window won’t be able to sign up later. I anticipate quite a few people will decide late that they’d rather not caucus in person, due to illness, work obligations, or bad weather on February 3. They will be upset to learn they can’t phone in their presidential preference.
  • In order to prevent double-voting, Iowans who have registered for the virtual caucus will not be able to change their minds and show up at their precinct location on February 3. If they attempt to do so, they will not be allowed to sign in. Rather, they will be informed of the option to call in to the final virtual caucus, which will run at the same time as the in-person caucus.
  • Virtual caucus-goers must call during one of six approved windows. If they are unavailable at all of those times, or forget to call in at one of the scheduled opportunities, they could lose their chance to participate. Here is the timetable:
  • Wednesday, January 29, 7:00 pm
    Thursday, January 30, 12:00 pm
    Friday, January 31, 7:30 am
    Saturday, February 1, 10:00 am
    Sunday, February 2, 2:00 pm
    Monday, February 3, 7:00 pm


    The virtual caucus should appeal not only to Democrats who cannot be present on February 3, but also to many voters who prefer to avoid spending hours at a sometimes chaotic precinct caucus. About 240,000 Iowans attended the 2008 Democratic caucuses, and nearly 180,000 did so in 2016. But early voting has become standard operating procedure for many Democrats. About half the Democrats who participated in Iowa’s 2018 general election cast their ballot before election day.

    I expect tens of thousands of Iowans to caucus by phone. They could easily make up 20 percent or more of the total caucus-goers. The latest Iowa poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom indicated that a “remote caucus option could expand participation by nearly a third.”

    However, the new rules guarantee that virtual caucus-goers will determine about 9 percent of state delegates–no more, no less.

    In each Congressional district, in-person caucus-goers will determine a set total of delegates, with “an additional allocation” of 10 percent for the virtual caucus. All told, 2,107 of next year’s 2,317 state convention delegates will be elected from Iowa county conventions, and 210 delegates will be allocated from the virtual caucus.

    John Deeth and I both tried repeatedly to make the case for giving virtual caucus-goers a share of delegates proportional to their numbers.

    During the April 6 central committee meeting, the state party’s Stonewall Caucus vice chair Nick Kruse moved to change the percentage of delegates allocated to virtual caucus-goers. But his motion “didn’t even get a second,” he told Bleeding Heartland.

    Party leaders want to preserve an incentive to caucus in person so that presidential campaigns won’t drive large numbers of supporters to bank most of their votes in advance. They are also wary of changes that would make the caucuses too much like a primary election, setting off New Hampshire’s cranky Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Iowa Democratic state chair Troy Price said in an April 6 news release, “The innovative solutions we’ve proposed maintain the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses and community engagement while expanding grassroots organizing opportunities for all Iowa Democrats.”

    A number of activists in small-population counties have conveyed to me that they worry the virtual caucus will make in-person gatherings nearly disappear. Howard County Democratic chair Laura Hubka put it this way:

    Although I understand what you’re saying it’s a difficult choice for me. I live in a very rural area and it takes a lot of time and effort to set up caucus sites and get people to be Precinct leaders. Some of our caucuses only have five people show up. I could see no one showing up. And sometimes getting people to show up is the only way I’ve been able to get a few people to start showing up to Central committee meetings. It’s the only way I’ve been able to identify certain people that weren’t sure how things worked. My fear is that people calling in will be the only venue the people in rural areas use and the membership of my Central Committee, which is very tiny now, will dwindle to nothing.

    Large numbers of rural Democrats may prefer the virtual option regardless, especially since a snowstorm prevented many people in remote areas from attending their precinct caucus in February 2018.


    Limiting the virtual caucus to 9 percent of state delegates will leave one big issue unresolved and could create new problems.

    Many rooms will still be overcrowded.

    Deeth has been hammering this point home for years, and overcrowding isn’t only a problem in Johnson County. Many precinct locations in other large counties turned into fire hazards on caucus night.

    The 2020 caucuses could be even more chaotic, because of the large field. In 2016, only Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were viable in most precincts, making it relatively simple for their supporters to gather on opposite sides of the room. Next year, with more candidates than there are corners in any room, it may be challenging to separate and accurately count the preference groups in larger precincts.

    Deeth wrote in February,

    The caucuses as they existed in 2016 were NOT a “neighborhood meeting” for “organizing the party.” They were a frustrating endurance exercise of being crammed into a too-small room, and trying to understand confusing and arcane rules. 430 people attended my caucus, but only 30 stayed once alignment was final, and only 15 stayed for the platform and party business once the delegates were chosen.

    And this is most people’s only interaction with the local party structure. How many times have you heard a variation of this: “The caucus was so disorganized, the Democrats don’t have their act together, I’m never going to any of their things again.” […]

    There simply are not enough rooms in enough neighborhoods that are big enough to hold the number of people who want to attend. There are not enough parking spaces to hold all the cars when you require all the “voters” to be at the “polls” at the same time rather than letting them come and go all day. More and more venues are saying no, legally or not, because they don’t want the crowds in their facilities.

    The Virtual Caucus needs to be the centerpiece of addressing the overcrowding problem. We need 50 to 80% of people voting early, to get physical attendance back down to the 2000 and 2004 levels, or else we won’t be able to fit into the space available.

    Yet how can I in good faith encourage 50 to 80% of my county’s caucus goers to sign up for the Virtual Caucus, when their votes will only count for 10% of the delegate allocation?

    I also feel that I can’t recommend that Democrats caucus virtually, knowing their preferences would likely carry more weight at a precinct caucus.

    Shortchanging virtual caucus-goers will diminish the influence of some groups.

    Being able to call in is better than being left out entirely. But capping the virtual delegates will dilute the voices of some groups that are already under-represented. Those include shift workers who can’t get that Monday night off, people with disabilities that preclude leaving home, caregivers with family obligations in the evening, and seniors who do not drive at night.

    The Selzer poll found that people younger than 35, those with a household income of less than $50,000, those without a college degree, and no-party voters were more interested in a remote option for caucusing. If the survey turns out to be accurate, such voting blocs will be adversely affected by the Democratic rules.

    Capping the virtual caucus could leave some voters feeling cheated.

    One of the best parts of the 2020 plan calls for disclosing how many caucus-goers selected each presidential candidate as their first choice, as well as how many people stood for each candidate after realigning. That’s a big step toward transparency. But it also means that if a massive number of people participate in the virtual caucus, and their preferences are noticeably different from those of in-person caucus-goers, we will know about it.

    How will it look if two candidates get roughly the same number of raw “votes,” but one ends up with far more state delegates, thanks to support from the disproportionately older, wealthier group who caucus in person? How will those who backed the other candidate feel, knowing that their favorite ended up with fewer delegates than someone in better standing with the “establishment”?


    As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, several other aspects of the new caucus-to-convention rules should improve the process:

  • Releasing the head count. Many Democrats have left their precinct caucuses frustrated that the delegate totals (which in the past have been the only results reported) didn’t accurately reflect the preferences of people in the room. Next February, we will find out how many Iowans attempted to caucus for each candidate. Note: the Iowa Democratic Party is sticking with the 15 percent viability threshold for most precincts and at the Congressional district level for the virtual caucus, and will not use the raw votes to assign national delegates.
  • Fewer games at the in-person caucuses. Only people in non-viable groups will be able to switch to another candidate. I explained here why that’s a good thing.
  • Recounts will be possible in the event of a close result. From the news release enclosed in full below: “Presidential campaigns will be able to ask for a recount of the caucus results either by congressional district or statewide if they can show that the result could affect the allocation of delegates to the national convention. To aid in this effort, presidential preference cards will be used to record what happens in each precinct caucus, while virtual caucus preferences will be recorded electronically and preserved.”
  • No bruising battles later in the primary season. Iowa’s national convention delegates will be assigned based on the February 3, 2020 results. Opposing camps won’t be pitted against each other at county conventions, which was the case in 2016.
  • Any comments related to the 2020 caucuses are welcome in this thread.

    Appendix 1: Iowa Delegate Selection Plan approved by the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee on April 6

    Appendix 2: Iowa Democratic Party’s 2020 district and state convention delegate allocations, listed by Congressional district and by county

    Appendix 3: Iowa Democratic Party news release, April 6

    State Central Committee Approves Iowa Democratic Party 2020 Delegate Selection Plan

    DES MOINES – Today, the State Central Committee approved the Iowa Democratic Party’s 2020 Iowa Delegate Selection Plan, which includes the biggest changes to the Iowa Caucus system since it was created in 1972. Iowans will now have the opportunity to participate in one of six virtual caucus sessions — giving more Iowa Democrats the opportunity to engage than ever before. The innovative changes will also streamline the realignment and recount procedures to increase transparency and make it easier for Iowans to participate in the presidential nominating process.

    The plan was approved unanimously, and puts the party one step closer to making the Iowa Caucuses more open, fair, and accessible. As part of the effort to increase transparency and participation, IDP leaders have worked closely with the Democratic National Committee, the State Central Committee, and activists to make sweeping changes to the caucus process. The plan now goes to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee for final approval.

    “The Democratic Party has always been about welcoming new people into our political discourse, and these changes will do just that,” said IDP Chairman Troy Price. “The innovative solutions we’ve proposed maintain the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses and community engagement while expanding grassroots organizing opportunities for all Iowa Democrats. These changes will catapult the process into the 21st century and not only ensure the 2020 caucuses are a success, but the Iowa Caucuses will continue to be a beacon of the presidential nominating process for many years to come.”

    The 2020 Iowa Delegate Selection Plan lays out several historic changes to Iowa’s caucus process, including:

  • Virtual Caucusing: Over the course of six days, registered Democrats who have signed up with the Iowa Democratic Party will be able to participate in one of six virtual caucus sessions. Virtual caucus-goers will be able to rank up to five choices for president. The results will be aggregated by congressional district, which will be given an additional allocation of 10% to virtual caucus results.
  • Streamlined Realignment: Under the IDP proposal, only members of non-viable groups will be allowed to realign in their precinct caucuses. For viable preference groups, their first alignment numbers will be locked and can only increase if members of non-viable groups choose to join.
  • Recount/Recanvass: Presidential campaigns will be able to ask for a recount of the caucus results either by congressional district or statewide if they can show that the result could affect the allocation of delegates to the national convention. To aid in this effort, presidential preference cards will be used to record what happens in each precinct caucus, while virtual caucus preferences will be recorded electronically and preserved.
  • Caucus Night Results are Locked: The allocation of national delegates will now be determined by the results on caucus night, not as a result of the convention process.
  • More Information Released: The IDP plans to release the raw totals from the first alignment, final alignment and the state delegate equivalents earned by each presidential preference group. State delegate equivalents will be used to determine the allocation of national delegates.

    Additionally, the SCC set the size of the state convention at 2,317. This includes 2,107 delegates elected from the county conventions and 210 from the virtual caucus. For a full break down of convention delegates, click here.

    The Delegate Selection Plans covers the rules governing the Caucuses; the IDP will continue to release information about implementing additional improvements in the coming months. Read the full Delegate Selection plan here.

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    • Meh

      I’m the kind of voter who would crawl on hands and knees over broken glass to make sure my general-election voting gets done in time to be counted, most especially in 2020. But unless I end up with very strong feelings about the Democratic candidates by the end of 2019, I may just skip the caucuses next year. The choice is to either endure the chaos and standing-room-only seating shortage like I’ve done before, only my back is getting worse, or vote by phone knowing my vote won’t count for much. Primaries have never looked better.

    • Me, too

      I’m with PrairieFan. Haven’t missed a caucus for many cycles, even off years. But will probably b doing virtual caucus this year, even tho my vote will be seriously diluted.

    • Does delegate count matter?

      National press has always wanted the raw vote count. Now that they finally have it, I expect everyone outside Iowa to ignore our complex State Delegate Equivalent numbers.

      I wish the percentage for virtual was better, but the importance of Iowa is not our relatively small national delegate count. It’s the opportunity to see everyone, and it’s the news bounce of the results. If that’s all you care about, you’ll be just as well off phoning it in.

      I may well do virtual caucus myself. In 2016 I lived in a student precinct with no experienced chairs, and I needed to run a caucus. In 2017 I moved into a precinct with several experienced activists. I didn’t chair my 2018 caucus, instead I was the Phone A Friend for other precincts to call with issues. If I vote virtual I can do that again in 2020.

      That’s an under-discussed advantage to virtual: if you have a precinct with no one willing or able to chair, you can now send in an experienced activist from a precinct with a surplus. They just have to vote early. We do that in electionbs all the time.)

    • Chris Laursen

      If you’re interested in breaking down the new rule changes to understand them better then join our discussion group here:

      Please watch the video pinned to the top of the discussion group first.