One of the very first thing people new to presidential politics learn is that the Iowa caucuses (and caucuses in other states as well) are different than primaries. For starters, it’s an actual meeting, where partisans who live in a particular precinct come, sit down, discuss and debate issues, vote on who will be the precinct chair and who will represent the precinct at the county convention, and handle other party business. Caucuses can last for an hour or two, making them far different from a primary where someone can simply walk into a polling station, cast a ballot, and walk out.
The caucuses also hold presidential preference votes, which are why people pay attention to them. They don’t directly elect the delegates who will vote at their party’s national convention for a presidential nominee, but they start the process.
Adding to the complexity, at least on the Democratic side, is what is called the “viability” threshold. And here, as an informative article in The New York Times explains, is where things could get interesting in a week and a half for supporters of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley:
Martin O’Malley has rarely broken above 5 percent in Iowa polls, but on caucus night he could be the most popular person in the room — or, rather, his supporters will be, as activists for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders desperately try to scoop them up.
The arcane rules of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses mean that most O’Malley supporters will be ruled “nonviable” if he does not get 15 percent support at a caucus; his supporters will then be up for grabs by another candidate. With polls showing the race between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders narrowing to a near tie, O’Malley supporters, along with attendees who enter their neighborhood caucuses undecided, could swing the results….
Both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, which have spoken to nearly every potential caucusgoer in the state by now, know who is supporting Mr. O’Malley and, more important, who their second choice is. After an initial count at each of the 1,681 caucus sites, supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders will get a chance, in an often emotional and chaotic scene, to woo O’Malley supporters if they make up less than 15 percent of the people in the room….
Unlike the Republican caucuses, where all votes are counted equally, the Democrats’ Iowa caucuses are more complex. Caucusgoers gather in groups for each candidate during a 30-minute alignment period. If a group does not reach the 15 percent threshold, its members must realign with a different candidate or sit out the final head count.
The ability to woo O’Malley voters could make the difference in what is now a tight race between Clinton and Sanders. The Times article offers a couple of examples on how Sanders supporters might try to bring them over to their side:
The Sanders campaign plans to brief its precinct leaders on ways to appeal to an O’Malley supporter, said Pete D’Alessandro, the Iowa campaign coordinator. For example, if an O’Malley supporter is wearing a pro-environment button, a Sanders supporter would describe the Vermont senator’s opposition to a proposed oil pipeline across Iowa, which Mrs. Clinton has not taken a stand on.
That said, the O’Malley campaign doesn’t seem to be resigned to its fate, and continues to try to build support for its candidate:
The O’Malley campaign, with fewer resources than its rivals, is seeking to maximize turnout in certain precincts to reach viability in as many places as possible. On caucus night, the results reported are not individual votes but a percentage of delegates for each candidate who will go to the state nominating convention.
Because the Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t release raw vote totals, the caucus results will reflect the percentage of delegates each candidate is estimated to have won across the state (click here for details on how this works). This puts a premium on winning individual caucus sites (there are more than 1,600) instead of simply amassing the largest number of votes, which will indeed make O’Malley supporters the most popular people in the room if it’s a close contest between Clinton and Sanders on caucus night.