The Iowa Caucuses
By Stephen Tuttle | Jan. 25, 2020
On the evening of Monday, Feb. 3, after a full day's work and despite what might be horrible weather, Iowa Democrats will trudge to schoolhouses, fire stations, and other public buildings for their caucuses. It isn't a night for the timid.
They won't show their identification, or pick up a ballot, or retreat to a little booth to privately and secretly make their choice among the dozen Democratic candidates still in the race.
For the caucus-attending Democrat, the Iowa caucuses are a most public exercise in voting. The intrepid voters will show up at one of the 1,681 caucus sites and be shepherded into groups with other like-minded citizens. All the Bernie supporters over there, the Warren supporters in another corner, and the same with the Bidenites and all the rest.
There will be speeches and plenty of lobbying. Gentle and occasionally loud arm-twisting and other forms of persuasion are normal and acceptable; moving a voter or two from one camp to another can make a difference. Those supporting the strongest candidates will encourage those less fortunate to join their team in the name of unity.
Eventually, after hours of debate, posturing, and influencing, a final vote will be taken.
This year, with 12 candidates still in the race (another 13 have officially dropped out or suspended their campaigns) unity is likely to be in short supply. Even the most progressive wing of the party has recently split over comments Bernie Sanders might or might not have made regarding a woman's chances of being elected president. Sanders denies he ever said any such thing, but the already chilly relations between his supporters and those of Elizabeth Warren have dropped another few degrees.
It might portend a difficult primary season.
In 2016, with just two serious presidential candidates vying for the Democratic party’s nomination, more than 171,000 Iowa Democrats showed up to caucus. Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders by a fraction of a percentage point, starting a long and destructive two-person primary war.
This year, Democrats are split between the Sanders/Warren progressives and the rest, whom they dismissively refer to as “corporate Democrats,” including Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg. Someone from that quartet is likely to emerge as the Iowa victor. The foolish internecine squabbling at which Democrats excel won't help the winner.
Despite the quirky nature of Iowa's caucus system, no Democrat has ever finished lower than third and gone on to win the nomination. This year will be especially peculiar; with 12 candidates, it's likely the winner will have been opposed by more than 75 percent of caucus attendees.
Every candidate wants to improve healthcare, increase taxes on the rich, make college free (or at least more affordable), and move the country away from fossil fuels. So the policy fight is over the degree to which a candidate wants to accomplish those things, and how quickly.
The most progressive and strident caucus-goers will be supporters of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. They want Medicare-for-All, free tuition at community colleges and public universities, forgiveness of current tuition debt, universal day care and paid parental leave, an increase of the federal minimum wage to $15/hour, and an endorsement of the Green New Deal in its entirety.
The price tag for all of that is staggering: $34 trillion for the first decade of Medicare-for-All and hundreds of billions of dollars more for everything else. They would pay for it with a blizzard of new taxes on the rich, including a 70 percent marginal tax rate on top incomes and a wealth tax of 3 percent (Sanders' proposes an even more severe 4.6 percent) on individuals with a net worth of at least $50 million.
The rest of the field, particularly Biden and Buttigieg, espouse lesser versions of all of it since it's unlikely Congress would pass any of it. After all, much of Congress is a wholly owned subsidiary of big-money interests unlikely to be interested in tax increases for themselves.
But Iowa often turns out to be a contest of organizational strength rather than a battle of ideology or policy. Identifying supporters and making damned sure they get to the caucus site is more important than ideological purity. Advertising has been ubiquitous, but a solid ground game often trumps a massive media buy.
Pundits like to refer to the political dance ending in the caucuses as retail politics. Candidates have to be on the ground, face to face with voters in hundreds of coffee shops, diners, fairs, and whatever local festival happens to be going on in whatever little town is next on their itinerary.
They will have given roughly the same speech and answered the same questions hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times. The true believers will believe truly, and the undecideds won't decide.
The best speeches or ideas won't be enough. In the end, the candidate who identifies hardcore supporters, reinforces them, and makes sure they show up on a cold February night will win.