When we arrived at Perkins Elementary School at 6:35PM, we quickly realized it would be an exciting caucus night. The registration line stretched far outside the gym where the vote was set to occur, stretching down the hall, out the school’s main doors, and down the sidewalk.
The gym was clearly too small to comfortably fit all the caucus-goers. The registration desks stood under one of the basketball hoops, while tables filled with Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley paraphernalia were positioned along the sidelines. Eager campaign staffers distributed stickers and signs. The median age of the group hovered somewhere around 50, with a sizable elderly population.
The Precinct Chair (the individual in charge of counting the votes and submitting the results) became visibly distressed as the gym swelled with voters, unsure how to handle the shortsighted venue choice. With about half the voters signed in and standing wherever there was open space, he made a bold announcement he knew would be met with groans and frustration: all voters already signed-in were to go to the parking lot as registration continued inside. It was 34 degrees, and many voters had brought their young children with them. The caucus was set to start at 7:00PM but all knew the process wouldn’t be getting underway until much later.
While registration continued inside, campaign staffers struggled to keep supporters enthused about caucusing. If they left, their votes wouldn’t be counted. A Clinton campaign staffer said she was particularly concerned about early departures since the older members of the Clinton crowd would be less willing to stand around in the cold than Sanders’ younger group. Some elderly voters were sent back inside to sit down.
The Clinton and Sanders supporters had grouped together at opposite ends of the parking lot. Clinton staffers led cheers of “we believe that we will win” and “madam president,” while the Sanders supporters chanted “feel the Bern.” O’Malley’s meager group stood mostly in silence.
At about 7:45PM, with registration concluding inside, we received another announcement from the Precinct Chair: we were moving back into the gym to conduct the voter-count.
It would probably be helpful at this point to give some background on how Democratic caucuses work, as they are a far cry from the standard secret ballot that most primary voters are used to. All voters arrive by 7:00PM at their assigned precinct (there are 1,681 precincts in Iowa), which is usually a school, church, or some other community meeting place. The total number of people caucusing is then counted, and each campaign can have one person give a speech in support of their candidate.
The caucus-goers then divide up by candidate and the totals for each group are tallied. A candidate must have support from at least 15% of the total number of voters in order to be considered “viable” (in smaller precincts, the percentage can be higher). If they don’t hit this threshold, then the candidate’s supporters can either regroup with a viable candidate or go home without voting for anyone. Once there are only viable candidates left, a final count is taken and delegates are granted proportionally to that candidate’s share of the vote.
What is meant by “delegates” is also complicated. The precincts directly elect county delegates, who go to county conventions (there are 99 counties in Iowa, and thus 99 county conventions). The delegates to the county conventions then elect state and district delegates, who finally select the delegates to the Democratic National Convention. The over ten thousand county delegates ultimately translate to just 44 delegates to the National Convention, or about 1% of the national total.
Back to Monday night. The total number of caucus-goers was counted as everyone reentered the gym from the parking lot. It was packed wall-to-wall, and reporters were asked to stand in an alcove by the doorway to allow room for all the voters. The Precinct Chair joked that he hadn’t chosen the venue, and “If you want to kill somebody, don’t kill me.” To cheers, he announced that they had shattered previous turnout records for the precinct with 659 total voters.
The group, already tired from the delays, nearly unanimously voted to skip the candidate speeches and go straight to a vote count. Clinton supporters stood on one side of the gym, Sanders supporters assembled at the other, and O’Malley voters hovered in a small corner. The crowd grumbled when the Precinct Chair announced that votes would be counted by once again having them exit to the parking lot, this time organized by candidate. First Sanders, then O’Malley, and finally Clinton. The votes were tallied as each person crossed through the doorway in the back of the gym. It was a bit disconcerting how easy it would have been for someone to double-back into the gym through another door and vote twice.
The count was 342 for Sanders, 38 for O’Malley, and 279 for Clinton. As expected, the O’Malley supporters had to regroup, and this proved to be the most entertaining part of the night. Although Sanders had a clear majority, regrouping was still important because the precinct’s 14 county delegates were awarded proportionally. If Sanders got 12 more votes, he would get eight delegates to Clinton’s six – any fewer and they would split the delegates evenly. (If you’re really interested in the delegate math, you can read about it here. On Monday night, these figures were tabulated with an iPhone calculator and some back-of-the-envelope math).
For the ensuing half-hour, Clinton and Sanders supporters worked to convince the O’Malley voters to come to their side. There was impassioned yelling, feverish arguing between the Clinton and Sanders teams, and impromptu speeches about the candidates’ positions on various issues. At one point, a Clinton campaign staffer addressed O’Malley’s supporters and explained that, as a gay man, he knew Clinton would fight the hardest for LGBTQ equality. He was soon interrupted by a Sanders supporter who said he was also gay, and asserted that Sanders had supported same-sex marriage long before Clinton did. Amid all the commotion a Sanders voter added, “Hillary Clinton likes Nickelback.” To top things off, we received the news that O’Malley was suspending his presidential bid just before his supporters regrouped.
Ultimately, 26 O’Malley supporters went to Sanders and 12 went to Clinton, making the final delegate count eight to six. The caucus finally ended at a bit past 9:00PM – everyone there, especially the embattled Precinct Chair, was exhausted. The caucus process may be antiquated, frustrating, and overly complicated, but one thing was clear by the end of the night: it’s one of the greatest spectacles in American politics.