Nuts & Bolts: From caucus to delegate, please explain Iowa

It’s another Saturday, so for those who tune in, welcome to a diary discussing the Nuts & Bolts of a Democratic campaign. If you’ve missed out, you can catch up anytime: Just visit our group or follow Nuts & Bolts Guide. Every week I tackle issues I’ve been asked about and, with the help of a lot of great minds, we put together a series aimed at helping small campaigns.

This year we are going behind the scenes of the selection process for delegates to the national convention. With the Iowa caucus fast approaching, now is a good time to look over a delegate selection plan (DSP). These are the documents state parties submit to the Democratic National Committee rules body for adoption, and spell out how the process will be run and delegates selected. While a DSP can seem like really in-the-weeds information, if you are in Iowa and thinking about going to the national convention as a delegate, or if you are outside of Iowa and interested in how the process will run, a DSP represents the guiding document for the beginning of the selection process.

Iowa’s DSP

The Iowa Democratic Party makes its delegate selection plan available here. Some of the rules around a caucus setup are very specific to the nature in which a caucus must be run:

At 7:00 p.m., the precinct caucus will be called to order by the temporary chair.The temporary chair may be one of the precinct committee members or an eligible designee of the county chair. In a case where a county chair fails to name a designee, the State Chair may designate the temporary chair.Not withstanding rule A.2.b. in this section, in a case where the temporary chair or temporary secretary has been designated by the county chair or State Chair to lead a precinct other than the precinct in which they are a resident, that chair or secretary may participate fully in the precinct in which they have been assigned.

These details help make sure that participants in the process who want to caucus in Iowa know the basic requirements.

What is viability?

Every day you will see new polling from Iowa. That polling data isn’t always the best way to tell what will happen in a caucus, though. This is due to the way a caucus site will utilize “viability.”

For precinct caucuses, preference groups shall be required to have a minimum number of members within their group in order to be considered viable for the purposes of electing delegates to the county convention. The minimum number of members, or viability threshold, a group must have will be determined by the following factors: the total number of eligible caucus attendees at the particular caucus and the total number of delegates the particular caucus is to elect.

In a district that will elect more than one delegate, there is a viability threshold. Candidates who fall below this will be eliminated, and the district will re-sort. Four years ago, I published an updated version of my Caucus Strategy Guide, which I’ve kept and modified since 2005. Not much has changed since then, though this year involves virtual caucusing and remote voting. 

In a race with only two main candidates, viability isn’t a real issue. In a race with numerous candidates, viability can be a significant factor, as candidates eliminated within the first round for falling below the viability line will have their voters move to their second-choice selection. This re-sort can have a major impact on the outcome, but it is also a telling sign of which campaign has better organized to make sure they are considered by a wide array of voters.

So how does this play out?

(2) In caucuses that elect two (2) delegates, a group must have at least 25%of the eligible caucus attendees in order to be considered viable.

(3) In caucuses that elect three (3) delegates, a group must have at least16.66 repeating percent of the eligible caucus attendees in order to be considered viable. (NOTE: Because of the repeating fraction in this case, the correct method to determine viability should be to divide the total attendees by six.)(4) In caucuses that elect four

(4) or more delegates, a group must have at least 15% of the eligible caucus attendees in order to be considered viable.

(5) In no case may a viability threshold of less than 15% be used. In determining the viability threshold for a particular caucus, fractions must always be rounded up.

(6) Only members of groups that are declared not viable shall be given sufficient time, but no less than 15 minutes, to realign with a viable preference group or to realign with other nonviable group members to form a viable preference group. Only one (1) round of realignment is allowed. Fig. 1, on the next page, shows sample calculations to determine the viability threshold for a caucus.

a) Members of groups that are declared viable may not realign.

b) Once a group has been declared viable, that group’s relative strength cannot decrease, regardless of the number of members who remain present throughout the rest of the caucus business.

So, if any candidate falls below 15% anywhere, they are eliminated, and their supporters will be allowed to re-sort to other candidates. This means that a lot may depend on where voters who supported lesser first-round candidates will go in the second and deciding round. Because of some changes this year, it may influence more caucus goers to change their association early if they realize their candidate has no shot at a 15% level of support. This makes polling what actually happens in Iowa far more difficult, because it is not always the first pick that matters. Instead, the candidate who effectively combines the first and second pick in a wide open race may be the most successful.

Next week: Complexities of Caucus 

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