2016 Sioux County Democratic caucus

Voters gather to participate in the 2016 Democratic caucus in Sioux County, Iowa. Journal file photo by Tim Hynds

DES MOINES --- A new, online option for Iowa Democrats who want to help pick the next president presents some new opportunities — and challenges — for the presidential campaigns coming here to compete in the first-in-the-nation caucuses.

The Iowa Democratic Party, at the behest of the national party, recently unveiled its plan to boost participation in the caucuses.

The plan includes an option for Iowa Democrats to participate in the caucuses online, which has never previously been available.

That gives the presidential campaigns an option to expand the field of supporters, but also presents some strategy options that previous Iowa caucus campaigns have not had to consider.

“It’s an interesting nut to crack for campaigns, to figure out how to take advantage of it or even whether to take advantage of it,” said Greta Carnes, who built Hillary Clinton’s digital organizing program in Iowa for the 2016 caucuses.

Carnes is now senior organizing director at ACRONYM, a political nonprofit that serves Democratic clients.

Unlike primary elections, caucuses require participants to be present at a specific time. The Iowa caucuses typically are held on a Tuesday night in late January or early February in Iowa schools, churches and other public facilities.

In the Democratic caucuses, participants support a candidate by physically huddling with fellow supporters of the same candidate. Candidates that do not achieve a prescribed level of support are eliminated, creating a process that often requires several rounds of reshuffling.

The process requires participants to devote significant and specific time, and be willing to declare their support for a candidate in front of their neighbors and peers.

Such a process makes it difficult for some to participate, and turns off others.

National Democrats instructed states with caucuses — like Iowa — to develop ways to make the events more participant-friendly. Iowa Democrats were faced with the challenge of developing a caucus system that makes it easier for people to participate but does not too closely resemble a normal primary election. Such a move would have rankled New Hampshire Democrats, who go No. 2 in the presidential selection process but have the nation’s first primary.

Iowa Democrats’ plan, unveiled on Feb. 12, just less than a year out from the 2020 caucuses, included several tweaks, but none bigger than the addition of online caucuses.

Assuming national Democrats approve the plan, Iowans will have the option of logging on to an online program during one of six times scheduled over six days. The details are still being finalized, but state party leaders said online participants will enter a numbered list of their preferred candidates, and a virtual caucus will play out similarly to how a classic, physical caucus would.

The end goal for campaigns in caucuses is not votes, but delegate equivalents, which are determined by displays of support and some caucus mathematics. The state party has determined the new virtual caucus, regardless of how many people participate, will account for no more than 10 percent of the delegate equivalents awarded in each of Iowa’s four Congressional Districts.

It’s new territory for the presidential campaigns competing in Iowa, with many decisions to be made. But they all boil down to one basic question: How big a role should the new virtual caucuses play in a campaign’s overall caucus strategy?

It’s a question that 13 campaigns and counting likely are already considering.

“It leaves this big question of how the campaigns are going to reach these folks who haven’t been involved (in past caucuses),” said Shola Farber, another Clinton 2016 campaign veteran.

Farber has since started her own political technology company, Tuesday Company, which in 2018 partnered with the Democrats’ national Congressional campaign committee.

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“When you think about organizing, a good team is really thinking about meeting people where they are,” Farber said. “And one of the most exciting advantages of this new caucus structure is bringing that dynamic, the participation process online to continue to meeting people where they are.”

Organizing is the one term experts kept coming back to. The Iowa caucuses have always been about organization — developing a campaign team that can reach the most supporters, keep them engaged for months and then ensure they come out on caucus night.

“It’s all about organizing,” said Scott Brennan, a former state party leader. “If you put a lot of effort into the virtual caucus it’s still going to be about organizing, because you still have to get people to participate at a defined point in time. Granted, they’ll have multiple options. But that’s different than filling in a ballot whenever you get around to it. That’s a challenge for the campaigns.”

Carnes said it could be that candidates who are doing well in the polls and feel like they have momentum going into the caucuses may not feel pressed to sell the online caucuses to potential supporters, especially with the 10 percent threshold on delegate equivalents. Conversely, candidates struggling to break through may find the virtual caucuses to be a valuable venue where they can load up support and secure a few delegate equivalents.

Brennan said he expects campaigns will identify past caucus participants and encourage them to continue to attend their physical caucus, but that the virtual caucus could help campaigns snare new supporters who have not caucused in the past.

“I think the folks who typically caucus, you’re still going to try to drive them to the caucus. That’s the way it’s worked,” Brennan said. “The people who are not typical caucus participants or haven’t been habitual ones, those are the ones you might look at. It’s just a question of resources. It adds a layer of complexity.”

Marianne Williamson, an author whose name recognition is not as well-known as some of the other Democratic candidates for president, has taken an aggressive early strategy to the virtual caucuses. She recently announced her plan to secure 99 virtual precinct captains, one for each county. Those captains will work to secure Williamson supporters for both the virtual and standard caucuses.

With the virtual caucus now a part of the program, unique organizational planning will be required to win this year’s Iowa caucuses, Carnes said.

“We know that right now the candidate who runs the strongest organizing campaign will win,” Carnes said. “I think ultimately there is a huge opportunity in Iowa the next year to run a different kind of organizing campaign than ever before ... Every campaign is going to have to run a more modern organizing program and different organizing program than they’ve ever run.”

Farber agreed, saying, “The campaign with the best organizing program, that relies on trust relationships is the campaign that’s going to have a leg up in Iowa, full stop.”

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