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What people may be misunderstanding about second choice at the Iowa caucuses

3 min read

Years ago I worked as an organizer in Iowa. I went to college there but it was a bubble and did not understand the state. I worked inside the caucus room twice and was a miserable failure both times. Some things to remember and why second choice polling is not that meaningful (and why the only poll you should give any consideration is the Seltzer poll).

The only thing that matters in the next day’s headline. This was beaten into our heads as organizers. The only thing that matters to the candidates are the numbers right after the final caucus counts. The numbers are not the final numbers of the election. The people with the best numbers are not always the people who eventually win. Organizers are told to sell everything to get the numbers of that night.

There is a big difference between who caucus goes support and who they will come out for. I learned this the hard way. You can sit in a person’s living room every day for a month and get them to promise up and down they will be at the caucus. If the weather is bad or other things come up they still may not show up (think giving a children’s party). Many show up because they are committed to a candidate. A good number show up because they promised a neighbor and they will have to see that neighbor the next day. I think on this Biden is polling better than he will show up on caucus night, unless there are things I have not heard about his local ground game.

The time between the first and second alignment is total chaos. I am sure that people have the idea when the first candidate doesn’t make it they automatically go to their second choice like a game of musical chairs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The local organizers for each candidate work very hard to keep their contingents together. They have no leverage if their contingents break apart to different candidates. The organizers are well schooled on this and should be well prepared (I was not either time). After the first alignment one of the organizers goes out to strike the best deal while another stays behind to keep everybody together, especially after the disappointment (there are usually two local organizers in the strongest group). This is where it is critical to have local people as your organizers. The people with the greatest advantage in this situation are those that know each other.

The numbers can be based on a devil’s bargain and you better have people’s trust. Here is an important point in the realignment. When your candidate does not make the initial cut you still have a chance to get something positive. If you have a decent size contingent you can ask to trade that night’s votes for for representation at the state convention. If you accept this deal your candidate has a better chance for good next day headlines but a worse chance of actually winning the Iowa delegates. It is incredibly cynical but something you need to do to promote your candidate. The trouble is the people in the second contingent, the one that does not have to realign, are often not happy about this. I made this deal for Alan Cranston in 1984 and one of the caucus goers punched me in the nose. This may hurt Bernie whose caucus goes I believe may be more idealistic and strident. It is hard to know.

There are many other issues. An A+ rating means nothing in Iowa, I am sorry. The only people who can have a good sense are those who have been in a caucus room. I also disagree that Iowa should not be first. It is an excellent test of organizing and political abilities and being able to find good people.

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