Prepare for crowds, changes and commitment: Caucus tips from John Deeth

Johnson County residents caucus in 2016. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

The Iowa caucuses are a fickle beast, especially in the state’s most populous communities. John Deeth, a caucus organizer for the Johnson County Democrats and political blogger, shared some advice for aspiring caucusers.

Be in it for the long haul

Caucus night is like game day. It’s exciting and we all want the Hawks to win. But you don’t expect to walk in, watch a game highlights clip and go home. You’re there for a long time, two or three hours for the caucuses. And not every play is an exciting thing like a long touchdown pass. Sometimes you’re stopped at the line of scrimmage, the ref throws a flag and you have to sit around and wait while the three refs talk among themselves and figure out the call and everyone else is confused. And you can’t expect to show up 15 minutes before kickoff and get a parking space across the street from Kinnick Stadium.

Prepare for crowds

The caucuses in Johnson County are going to be very, very crowded. It’s important to remember that everyone, including me, is a volunteer and is legitimately trying to do their best in a tough situation. The caucus process was never meant to be a mass participation event that was the equivalent of an election. It was meant to be the handful of core party activists in the precinct — 20 or 40 people who were familiar with the process and rules and were meeting at their friend’s house. In some parts of Iowa, it’s still like that: In 2016, the mean average attendance statewide was 102 people, and the median was just 65, so that kind of process still works in most of the state. But in Johnson County, the average was 342. We had seven of the 10 biggest precincts in the state and 19 of the top 40. Our biggest was 945 and we expect to top 1,000 some places this time. And a process that was designed for 20 to 40 people does not scale up well to a crowd of 1,000.

Find your caucus location: Registered Democrats / Registered Republicans

We’ve done better with rooms than we did in 2016 but there are some places where the biggest room in or near the precinct is not big enough to hold everyone we expect to attend — and there’s nothing that can be done about that. There is not going to be enough parking anywhere, so walk or carpool if you can.

Things may look different than past caucuses

There are a couple changes to the alignment process this year. The biggest is that the raw vote count at the end of the first alignment will be reported. In the past, the Democrats never reported vote counts at all, just delegate numbers. So a caucus-goer who is supporting a non-viable candidate on the first alignment will need to decide: do I realign now, or do I stay with my first choice candidate to get my vote counted, and then move at re-alignment time?

The other change is that, once you’re in a viable group, you can’t move. It used to be that campaigns would send people over to another group to make them viable and hurt a different candidate. Example: We had a place last time where Hillary was at two delegates, Bernie at one and O’Malley was just short of viable. Hillary’s crew sent some spare people over to O’Malley to make him viable so that Bernie would not get another delegate. You can’t do that anymore.

Do some research, and choose a strategy

It will help to have a realistic and honest assessment about your candidate’s chances. I’ve never been in a situation where my candidate was not viable in my precinct, but there have been years when I knew my candidate’s chances in the big picture were poor, and that’s emotionally hard.

A friend of mine who supported a candidate who has dropped out had this advice: “I used to have a candidate, now I have a choice.” You can move to a second choice, or you can move in a way that hurts the candidate you like the least. That’s a tiebreaker you can decide for yourself. Is it more important to me that my first choice be recorded for the history books, even though they’re doing poorly and may drop out later tonight? Or is the overall direction of the party and campaign more important?

Undecided? Get ready to commit.

One thing I worry about here: In the past, a lot of undecided people would just go to the Uncommitted group, and then make their decision at realignment time. This year, there’s a risk of getting stuck in an Uncommitted group that’s accidentally viable. So if you’re Uncommitted, you need to keep track of that, and you may need to move sooner than you want to.

Feel free to dress to impress

This isn’t an election, where campaigning in the polling place is illegal. This is a party meeting and you’re allowed to try to persuade people. Nothing is secret. (That’s actually one complaint about caucuses versus primaries — some people very strongly want to make their choice in secret. In other states, there were complaints in 2016 about bullying in caucus settings.) Shirts, stickers and buttons are OK. So are signs — though we are telling campaigns in Johnson County not to put signs on the walls. Candidate signs should be held. Our site hosts are concerned about messes and damage, and they’re being very gracious about letting us use their buildings (even though in some cases they’re required to by law, it’s still appreciated).

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 277.

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