Why Organization is Key in Iowa

Posted: September 11, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

by Donna R. Hoffman
Head and Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Northern Iowa

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post recently stated that it might be time for Hillary Clinton to panic. What prompted this suggestion on the part of Cillizza? A new Quinnipiac Poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus goers showed Clinton in a statistical dead heat with Bernie Sanders.

Panicking is not a political virtue in Iowa (nor, I would suggest, is a tendency to panic a trait one is looking for in a president). When it comes to the caucuses, what is an Iowa virtue is organization.

Why is organization key? First, one must state the obvious: caucuses are not primaries. In effect, what this means is that if one is going to get supporters to go to a precinct caucus in the midst of an Iowa winter, supporters have to be activated. It’s not enough to support a candidate. One has to be sufficiently moved to actually attend a partisan precinct caucus that will last for a few hours and where one’s support for a candidate is not necessarily secret (this varies by party).

The voter activation that is necessary in a caucus state is difficult if a candidate chooses to use a top-down approach to campaigning. (One might compare the 2008 results from caucus states on the Democratic side of the equation versus the primary states; Obama, with superior organization, did better in caucus states than Clinton). In a caucus state, it takes a decentralized effort because precincts are the smallest level of political organization in the state and there will be 1,682 of them in place for the 2016 caucuses.
For any candidate, laying and maintaining sufficient groundwork now in the form of field offices and efforts to cultivate key supporters can be very helpful in moving people from being simply supporters to becoming actual caucus attendees. A decentralized network of supporters can be employed to use the “personal” touch that political scientists Green and Gerber have determined is key in boosting turnout.


Any candidate, whether it’s Clinton or one of the multitude of other hopefuls, will want to avoid panic and concentrate on the hard work of putting together an organization in the state that can pay dividends in the form of delegates on the night of the precinct caucuses.