Eighteen days from now, Democrats in the state of Iowa will finally have their first word on who they want to have as their nominee to challenge President Donald Trump.
A projected 2,000 party enthusiasts in Bremer County will gather at 11 locations across the county, including an unprecedented four in Waverly, to make their preferences known among the dozen active candidates on Feb. 3. Historically, the Iowa Caucuses have either supercharged candidacies toward the nomination or proved the lesser viabilities of others.
But following the chaos of the razor-thin results from 2016, when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were in a virtual dead heat, the Iowa Democratic Party has adjusted some of its guidelines for caucus night — how attendees group together, how preferences are recorded and how the results are reported at the end of the night.
Bremer County Democratic Party Chairman Al Charlson said the hope is that the process will be quicker and go more smoothly.
He explained that when the attendees gather into their initial preference groups, once that candidate achieves a 15% support level, those supporters must stay in that group for the rest of the night and cannot move to another candidate.
“When we have our second alignment, only those people who are in preference groups that are not viable can, and frankly at that point need to move, either to a group that is already viable, or I suppose a couple of them could gather and get themselves up over the 15% level,” Charlson continued. “We anticipate that the alignment process will go more smoothly, will not last as long, and it should speed up the process.”
He added that attendees need to be careful to be sure they are in a group for a candidate they want to support as their first choice. They can’t jockey around.
To help with the record-keeping, Democrats are using presidential preference cards. When participants enter the caucus location, they are given their card, which they must sign, and then they would put down their first choice.
“If they do have to realign, (they have to) flip the card over and write down the name of their second choice,” Charlson said. “The purpose of that is if we were in a very close situation… if there are any questions raised about counts within precincts, there is an audit trail.
“The Iowa Democratic Party is taking responsibility for this. Those cards will be returned to the Iowa Democratic Party after the caucus, and if a question came up, there was a challenge to the count that was reported, they would have an audit trail.”
The Democrats are also changing the way they report the results. In the past, the party announced the standings based on state delegate equivalents. This time, Charlson said the party will also report an actual headcount of participants in each preference group.
“We’re going to report both the initial and the final alignment counts,” he said. “That’s going to mean a very different set of data is going to become available for analysis after the caucus.”
Charlson added that there may be a candidate that probably wouldn’t get to the 15% threshold but unexpectedly might, statewide, get to the 10-12% range.
“That is going to be considered important news by people who are looking at the caucus results,” he said. “That in of itself isn’t going to affect what we do on caucus night.”
Previously, there was more opportunity to go between preference groups, Charlson said, before everything was set for delegate allocation.
“We haven’t done this yet,” Charlson said. “We’ll see how it goes Feb. 3.”
However, in seeing the rules on paper, he said the process should be simplified with less moving around the caucus rooms. But, the hazard would be for those who enter the night uncommitted as a strategy to figure out whose group to join later.
“If there were 15% of the people there who are uncommitted, all of a sudden, they’re a viable group,” Charlson said. “You wouldn’t have the opportunity to move.
“People need to go there knowing who their first choice is, who they’ll initially align for, and they need to know their second choice and where they’re going to go if their group is not viable.”
Those who live within the Waverly city limits or are in eastern Washington Township will be in one of three locations in town. Wards 1 and 2 and parts of eastern Washington Township will meet in Waverly-Shell Rock Middle School, with Ward 1 in the cafeteria and Ward 2 in the auditorium.
Meanwhile, Ward 3 will meet in the St. Elizabeth Room on the second floor of the Saemann Student Center on the Wartburg College campus, and Wards 4 and 5 will be at W-SR High School, with Ward 4 in the cafeteria and Ward 5 in Rada Auditorium.
The other location within Waverly will be for Lafayette and Warren townships. They will meet at the West Cedar Elementary cafeteria.
The remainder of Bremer County will gather as follows:
City of Denver and Jefferson Township at Denver High School; City of Frederika and Frederika and Leroy Townships at the Frederika Community Room; City of Janesville north of the county line and Jackson Township at the Janesville Consolidated School cafeteria; City of Plainfield and Douglas and Polk townships at the Ol’ 707 Building in Plainfield; City of Readlyn and Franklin and Maxfield townships at Readlyn Elementary; City of Sumner within Bremer County and Dayton and Sumner townships at Sumner-Fredericksburg High School; and City of Tripoli and Freemont Township at the Tripoli Community Center.
Meanwhile, those who live in the Black Hawk County portion of Janesville will go to the Cedar Falls Eagle’s Club. Also, those who live in Sumner on the Fayette County side will meet with the Banks-Freemont precinct at West Central High School in Maynard. In Butler County, the Shell Rock precinct will go to Shell Rock Elementary School, the Clarksville precinct will be at Clarksville Community School, the Allison precinct will be at the Allison Public Library, and the Greene precinct will be at the Greene Community Center.
Charlson said there were two factors in establishing the Bremer County locations, which he credited Gary Duneman for organizing. First, the county party wanted to get the locations as close to voters as possible.
“In prior years, we’ve brought Plainfield down here to Waverly,” Charlson said. “This year, there is a caucus site in Plainfield. We’ve got caucus sites in every community.”
He added that when the party held its county convention at the new W-SR Middle School auditorium, they were impressed with the facility.
“We said, why don’t we try to spread everything out a little bit, in terms of parking, crowd sizes, and all this sort of thing,” Charlson recalled. “Let’s try to find a wider range of facilities. We’ve got Ward 3, where Wartburg is located, on the Wartburg campus. It was an opportunity to get people as close as possible.
“If anything, we’re experimenting a little bit, trying to spread these things out a little bit. It’ll just be better than just trying to crowd everybody into the high school.”
Still, thinking back to 2016, when the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t declare a winner until the next day, Charlson said another close result is possible statewide. The race is especially tight among the top four candidates of Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, now-former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“The Iowa Democratic Party recognized that they needed to do things better this time,” Charlson said. “There were some places where there were some issues. They weren’t in Bremer County.
“They have done, really, in my mind, a good job of preparation, training, trying to simplify the process and get the people — the volunteers who are conducting the caucuses as well trained as possible and well-equipped to handle them as smoothly as possible.”
He added Duneman has done a good job of lining up the volunteers to run the 13 precincts across Bremer County.
But there will still be some things outside of party officials’ control.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed and we’ll be watching the long-range weather forecast,” Charlson said. “You don’t want a blizzard that night. Once we get past those (variables), I think we’re in pretty good shape to handle the mechanics of the process.”