Caucus Games: How Last-Minute Maneuvers Could Tilt Iowa Outcome

(Bloomberg) -- After months of campaigning, the outcome of the Iowa caucuses could come down to spur-of-the-moment decisions by thousands of voters.

It’s that dynamic that makes Iowa hard to predict. Polls show Bernie Sanders is the first choice of an increasing number of Democrats going into Monday night’s meetings.

But the result in Iowa, unlike states with primary elections, often turns on voters’ second choice, a quirk that could boost Joe Biden when supporters of other, low-performing moderate candidates seek a safe harbor from Sanders’ progressivism.

Caucus Games: How Last-Minute Maneuvers Could Tilt Iowa Outcome

Also, Iowans are also notoriously late deciders.

That’s why organization and training can make a difference. In some precincts, the outcome of the delegate selection comes down to an impassioned appeal, the smell of baked goods — or even a coin flip.

Last minute alliances are key. If supporters of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar can’t get critical mass in key precincts, they can shift their support to Biden, Elizabeth Warren or anyone - with unpredictable effects on who ultimately prevails.

Unlike a secret ballot, caucus participants meet at a specific time and place to publicly declare their support for a candidate. In Iowa, candidates must have the support of at least 15% people in a precinct to become viable and earn delegates. If not, their supporters are free to join another campaign.

One way for campaigns to use caucus strategy to their advantage is through so-called “alliances.” Two campaigns might agree to informal delegate-swapping agreements — especially with an ideologically similar rival — to help each other win precincts and remain viable.

Caucus Games: How Last-Minute Maneuvers Could Tilt Iowa Outcome

There have been several reports of such alliances in 2020, all denied by the campaigns.

But the biggest weapon in any campaign’s arsenal is still the art of persuasion. Campaigns have been known to entice supporters with freshly baked cookies, carefully crafted talking points and old fashioned peer pressure.

After all the organizing, maneuvering and motivating, some precincts still come down to a tie. Ties could happen more often this year because voters can only switch candidates one time at a caucus site. In those cases, Iowa Democratic Party rules call for delegates to be decided by a coin toss.

Iowa Satellites

This year’s caucuses will start earlier than ever and 6,000 miles away.

For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will allow Democrats who can’t attend a caucus to meet at satellite locations inside and outside the state.

The first will begin in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, at 12 noon Iowa time. Others will be held in Paris and in Glasgow, Scotland.

Those results won’t be officially reported until the end of the night. But caucuses are open events and the campaigns may report favorable numbers from these outposts.

Caucus Games: How Last-Minute Maneuvers Could Tilt Iowa Outcome

Also new this year: The Iowa Democratic Party will report three sets of numbers for each candidate, giving a more complete picture of how support shifted between the first and second round of caucusing.

The first number will reflect each candidate’s support on the first alignment, before the 15% threshold is applied. After a 15-minute realignment period — sometimes referred to as the “apple cart turnover” — the groups will be counted again for a second alignment. The party will then convert those numbers to state delegate equivalents based on the size of each precinct.

Those three sets of numbers could allow candidates — especially lower-polling ones — to claim grassroots support even if it doesn’t translate to delegates.

“Campaigns are going to spin as campaigns spin,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said. “The fact of the matter is, this is a race for delegates.”

This year’s rule changes have eliminated one trick Hillary Clinton’s team used in 2016 to deprive Bernie Sanders of precinct delegates.

In precincts where Clinton had a large majority, her camp would send just enough of its supporters to caucus with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to allow him to reach the 15% viability threshold. That would ensure that O’Malley would get a delegate at the expense of Sanders.

That move is no longer possible — at least not the way Clinton supporters did it. After the hotly contested and briefly disputed Democratic caucus in 2016, the Democratic National Committee forced rule changes to lock in support for viable campaigns on the first round.

“It just cuts down on that gamesmanship that campaigns used to be able to do,” Price said.

(DISCLAIMER: Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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