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Iowa Democrats brace for caucus turnout surge
DES MOINES, Iowa - Democrats in Iowa are preparing for what's likely to be the most widely attended caucuses in state history next February, and they're hoping to avoid the acrimony that followed the closely fought contest in 2016.
State and county party organizations are signing contracts with nearly 2,000 venues that will host caucuses across the state, training caucus chairs and multiple backups, and encouraging sensitivity and accessibility training to ensure voters with disabilities and those who bring children can participate.
The early plans come after Iowa voters turned out in near-record numbers in the 2018 midterms, and amid a presidential primary season in which even little-known presidential candidates are attracting hundreds of Iowans to their events. All signs, state party officials and Democratic campaigns say, point to record-breaking turnout.
"It's going to be nuts," said Sean Bagniewski, chairman of the Polk County Democratic Party.
A massive white board in the Polk County party's office lists the status of locations for each of the 178 precincts in and around Des Moines. Party officials plan to roll out a final list of caucus locations in June, months before earlier caucus sites were finalized.
The state party has nailed down about half of its total caucus locations, chairman Troy Price said. Regional organizers have been working since March to lock in their event spaces across Iowa's more than 1,600 precincts.
The party is training activists who will run caucuses in all of those precincts - and backups, and backups for the backups. They will also launch an education campaign aimed at first-time caucusgoers who might not know what to expect when they arrive.
Polk County Democrats are anticipating a 50 percent increase in turnout next year over the record set in 2008, when 240,000 Democrats participated. In the 2016 caucuses, 171,000 Democrats across the state chose between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).
"I fully expect that we will probably exceed our high-water mark, which was 2008," Price said in an interview. "We are very focused on making sure our caucuses go off without a hitch."
The strain the caucuses are likely to place on the state party will be most evident in areas like West Des Moines, where post-recession growth has been so explosive that, almost a decade after the previous redistricting process, some precincts are massively overpopulated.
In some areas, the party anticipates as many as a thousand people could show up at a single event, all of whom need to be checked in, some of whom need to fill out registration forms, and all of whom need to be counted, probably in two rounds of voting.
"Caucuses weren't built to bear the weight that's been put on them in presidential years," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University who co-authored a book on the history of the caucuses. "The caucuses weren't meant as an election. They were the business meeting of a particular organization that happened to be political."
The state Democratic Party is preparing turnout estimates for counties that need to make early plans. Party officials are in regular touch with each presidential campaign over turnout projections, and they plan to ask for advance warning in precincts or counties where those campaigns expect particularly robust turnout.
The size of the Democratic field is also likely to drive turnout. Campaigns need to hit a 15 percent viability threshold in any given precinct to qualify for delegate shares, giving candidates an incentive to hunt for and mobilize supporters who would not otherwise participate.
"You've got to call everybody. It's not only smart, but it's necessary," said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist who is not aligned with a campaign this year. "There are some independents who cannot stand [President] Trump who are going to want to pick a candidate. If you are only talking to Democrats, you're not talking to all the possible caucusgoers."
To alleviate some of the pressure, Iowa Democrats in February created six so-called virtual caucuses. Those caucuses, which voters can dial into on their phones, will accommodate people who cannot physically be present at their local precincts at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3.
A survey conducted by Iowa polling expert Ann Selzer earlier this year found that a virtual caucus could expand the electorate by as much as a third.
But no matter how many voters participate in the virtual caucuses, their influence will be capped. Their share of the vote will be used to allocate just 10 percent of the delegates, according to party rules. That makes the virtual caucuses the choice of last resort for campaigns eager to get their supporters to the polls.
"If I'm a campaign, I'm going to push people to go to the real caucuses, not the virtual caucuses," Link said. "Because in the virtual caucus, you're going to be diluted."
The virtual caucuses add another element of danger for the state party, which plans to release the vote count for the first time, along with the delegate shares each candidate has won. Because the in-person tally and the virtual caucus results will have different weights, it is possible that the candidate who wins the highest share of delegates will not be the same as the candidate who wins the greatest number of votes.
"That could be a problem, but we had to set a number for virtual caucus attendance. We wanted a number that was significant enough that it could not be ignored," Price said. "We just don't know what to expect. This is the first time we're doing it. There are a lot of hypotheticals that could happen."
Democrats are eager to avoid a repeat of the 2016 caucuses, when huge crowds contributed to chaos across the state. Sanders's campaign complained about a handful of irregularities that some believed contributed to Clinton winning the state by the slimmest margin in caucus history.
"After what happened in 2016 and the challenges we had in 2016, a lot of that happened because of the close result, and that close result really shined a lot of light on the shortcomings of our system," Price said.
This time, some party organizations have begun plans to avoid such controversy. Schools and community centers will open at 5 p.m. in Polk County, two hours before the caucuses begin, to ensure that everyone can get inside. Some caucus leaders will get media training, to avoid even the slightest appearance of favoring one candidate over another.
"Little things, when you add in cellphones, can look like a conspiracy," Bagniewski said.
Political observers like to say there are three tickets out of Iowa, which go to those who win, finish well or beat expectations. But with so many candidates, and separate sets of results, many campaigns will have the chance to make the case that they earned a ticket to New Hampshire's subsequent primary.
"Everybody's going to have a narrative they can pull" from caucus night, said one Democratic operative running a major presidential campaign, who asked for anonymity to discuss his concerns.
Democratic enthusiasm, which fueled midterm election wins in Iowa and across the country, remains high this year. Bagniewski said he expects 5,000 to 6,000 people to attend the annual Steak Fry fundraiser in September, an event that will draw most if not all the major contenders.
They are working with the grocery chain Hy-Vee to purchase steak in bulk - and they have added a vegan option for the first time, to accommodate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).