With Hours To Go, Success In Iowa Comes Down To Who Shows Up

Feb 1, 2016

With fewer than 12 hours to go until the Iowa caucuses, polls show an extremely tight Democratic race, with Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders by a few percentage points. But polls can’t precisely predict who will actually show up to caucus, or what their final decision will be after the persuasive discussions on the caucus floor.

The Sanders campaign is well aware that turnout is king. Volunteers have spent the weekend pounding the pavement to remind supporters to show up at their precinct for the two-hour process Monday night.

But many Iowans are weary of the nonstop campaigning and it is hard to tell from the ground if the vocal, social media savvy, young supporters will actually show up.

Eric Marsch has driven down from Milwaukee to get out the caucus vote for Bernie Sanders. The campaign has given him a list of addresses for supporters, and people leaning toward the Vermont senator. Marsch’s mission today is to remind and convince as many supporters as possible to get out and caucus for Sanders Monday evening.

So far it’s a slow start to the morning, and many people don’t answer their doors in this mostly white, suburban neighborhood in Des Moines.

Then at one modest white house a young woman opens the door in her pajamas:

“Oh hi! I’m with the Bernie Sanders campaign,” Marsch says to the woman standing the doorway. “Can we leave you with info to caucus?” She indicates that she does plan to caucus for Sanders.

A few doors down a voter who will only give his name as Joe answers the door. Marsch introduces himself and asks who Joe is planning on supporting at Monday’s caucus.

“Well I’m going to support Ted Cruz,” says Joe. “Though there’s lot I like about Bernie,”

Joe ticks through Sanders' positions he likes, including his stance on regulating big banks, and that Sanders says gun manufacturers should not be held liable for shootings. But Joe says he is concerned about what he calls the Vermonter’s “socialist ideas."

The Value Of "Effective Precinct Captains"

Trying to convince Iowans to change their vote isn’t just an intellectual exercise. The process in Iowa truly comes down to convincing individuals on caucus night about why one candidate would be best for the country.

Sometime that means bartering.

Rachel Paine Caufield is a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

“Let’s say [former Maryland Gov. Martin] O’Malley is two votes shy of being viable in a given precinct,” Paine Caufield explains. “If Bernie has an effective precinct captain, who makes persuasive argument, they could get all O’Malley supporters to move to Sanders. [The caucus] is interactive. It looks chaotic from the outside, but if you have people who understand the system, it makes a tremendous difference.”

Paine Caulfield says Hillary Clinton has a key advantage: an extremely organized statewide campaign that knows the quirks of the Iowa system. She says the Clinton team even has an app where organizers can communicate from all 1,600-plus precincts in real-time about where more support is needed.  

"It looks chaotic from the outside, but if you have people who understand the system it makes a tremendous difference." — Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines

"The general assessment is the Sanders campaign is less organized on that front," she says. The campaign could flood the caucus with a lot of supporters on Monday night, but if they don’t know how to work the system, that flood of supporters may not actually create a better outcome for the candidate.

In the Democratic caucus in Iowa it’s not about the popular vote, but instead about amassing the most delegates. To win, a candidate must do well across geographical precincts not just in major cities. 

Paine Caufied says a savvy precinct captain can make the difference.

Support From Unions

Unions have always been essential to Democrats in Iowa. In this caucus cycle, most major unions are backing Hillary Clinton.

But Sanders does have a vocal, committed labor base in Iowa.

Mark Rocha is with Local 7102 of the Communication Workers of America. He says that this year, instead of the handful of district captains deciding who the union would support, the CWA put it to a vote.

“This time we had an app on the phones, and on the website, that collected data for three months to vote for either Democratic or Republican candidates, all CWA nationwide," he says.

Rocha says the results “came back overwhelmingly [for] Bernie Sanders.”

This past weekend the CWA loaned their offices out to the Sanders campaign and volunteers are flowing in and out, picking up neighborhood assignments.

One couple moved to Iowa a month ago to campaign for Sanders. Clad in bike helmets, Wendy Ring and Michael Shapiro have spent the past few weeks phoning and biking door to door for Sanders. She says in the past few days, she’s found more people who are undecided.

“Instead of just standing on doorsteps, people are inviting us in, and we’re having substantive conversations with all kinds of people,” says Ring. “We’ve talked with some relatively conservative Republicans who’ve decided to go with Bernie.”

"Get out and caucus. Don't let other people make choices for you." — Dan Garza, member of the United Auto Workers for 42 years

In 2008, 57 percent of Barrack Obama’s support came from first-time caucus goers. Sanders' campaign is hoping to replicate that, but polls suggest he won’t hit the same level. In Iowa, some Democratic organizers are hoping a part of that push can be to bring first-time Latino voters out to caucus. 

Dan Garza has been with the United Auto Workers for 42 years, and has been employed by John Deere for just as long. Today, he’s driving around his neighborhood to try to encourage people to come out and vote.   

Garza recalls low turnout in previous elections. “This whole south side area,” Garza explains. “We left about 5,000 votes for Democratic party. People didn’t go out that midterm election and that hurt us badly.”

Garza says he is leaning toward caucusing for Bernie Sanders but he says his goal now when he talks with his neighbors isn’t to persuade them to a particular candidate, but to engage more Latinos in politics in Iowa. Garza assures those who don’t speak much English that he will be their precinct caption, and he can help translate concepts into Spanish if they need.

“My whole message would be to get out and caucus,” Garza says. “Don’t let other people make choices for you.”

And the winning choice on Monday will be the result of just how many supporters the candidates can get to turn out. 

VPR ’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign is made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.