Delegates: They’re What It’s Really About!

Posted: December 27, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses

By David Redlawsk, Harkin Institute Mabry Fellow

Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and Director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling


Since 1972 for the Democrats, and this year for the Republicans, the Iowa Precinct Caucuses have not really been about voting for presidential candidates.

Well they have (and are) but the real goal is to win delegates (ultimately) to the respective national conventions. Precinct Caucuses do NOT elect delegates to the national convention, but they do elect them to the county convention, and the process continues from there through district and state conventions, then to the national convention.

The stakes then, are not just the media bump that generally comes from exceeding expectations on caucus night, but also ultimately claiming a share of the delegates Iowa will elect to the national conventions. No one gets nominated to be their party’s standard-bearer without having 50%+1 of all the delegates to the national convention. To be sure, Iowa’s share of those delegates is quite small (see here [GOP | Democrats] for details on every state’s delegate counts) but at least for the Republicans, every delegate may well count given the fractured nature of the field.

Historically, there was no connection between the vote in Republican Precinct Caucuses and the national convention delegates won. It was strictly a beauty contest. This year, however, for the first time GOP convention delegates will be bound on the first ballot. What does this mean for the Iowa GOP? It would either mean electing individual delegates based on whom they support – something they have never done – or coming up with an alternative. The latter is what Iowa has done. Individual delegates will still be elected at large, starting at the Precinct Caucuses, without respect to which candidate they support. But if there is a contested nomination at the national convention, on the first round Iowa’s vote will be reported based on caucus night results. So if Rick Santorum gets 10% of the caucus vote, Iowa will announce that he gets 3 votes on the first ballot (10% of the state’s 30 GOP delegates.) This will be regardless of whether he is still in the race by then. If the nomination is uncontested, Iowa GOP will announce 100% for the nominee. This represents a major change for the GOP; for the first time the vote at the caucuses will correspond directly to the vote on the national convention floor. Now, if the nomination goes to a second ballot, those individual delegates are free to vote for whomever they want.

Turning to the Democrats, the story is completely different and has been since the modern process was put in place in 1972. Democrats have never announced the actual vote counts in their caucuses. Instead, because they publicly divide into groups supporting candidates, the election of county convention delegates is done within those groups, which means that supporters of Martin O’Malley (and any candidate, subject to threshold requirements) will elect members of their own group as county convention delegates.  Thus, while Democratic delegates are not bound in any subsequent convention, because they are almost always activist supporters of the candidate, they stick with her or him until told otherwise.

My own experience in 2008 illustrates this. At the time I was an active Democrat in Johnson County, IA, home of the University of Iowa where I was teaching at the time. (I should note that I left partisan politics when I moved to Rutgers to run the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.) The night before the 2004 caucus I announced my support for John Edwards. Obviously he did not win that year, but his strong showing beat expectations and ultimately he became John Kerry’s running mate. Fast forward to 2007, and I was on the Edwards bandwagon again, joining his statewide advisory team. When the January 3 caucus rolled around, I wanted to be sure I was elected as an Edwards delegate to the county convention from my precinct, Iowa City 8. Our precinct was allocated 6 delegates; for me to be elected the Edwards group would have to be viable and its members would have to elect me as a delegate. As I was chairing the caucus, I was not organizing the Edwards folks; others were doing that.

As it turned out, our group was not viable initially. Had that continued, I could not have been elected to the county convention as an Edwards delegate. Fortunately for me, some second-round politicking enabled us to viability, and we were awarded one of the six county convention delegates. First hurdle, done.

Next step, getting elected as a delegate. Fortunately, I was well known by Edwards folks in the precinct and was probably the one who wanted the position most. It was also the case that anyone not elected as a delegate could be designated an alternate, and if some elected Edwards delegates failed to show to the county convention, they would have the opportunity to be seated. My recollection is that no one else ended up running for the slot, so I had it.

The county convention came next, in March 2008. Before that, Edwards had suspended his campaign, so we Edwards delegates no longer had a candidate, although he had not yet endorsed anyone else. So our group of county convention delegates worked hard to maintain our viability as our own group at that convention. We managed to do so, which meant even if our candidate was no longer running, we elected Edwards delegates to the district and state conventions. We had enough delegates that I had no problem being one of those elected to move on.

By the time of the district conventions in April (each of Iowa’s congressional districts holds its own convention) things were still uncertain, with no instructions from Edwards about what to do. As we canvassed Edwards delegates from all of the counties in the 2nd District, it became clear it would be touch and go as to whether we could retain viability at the district. Some delegates were already committing to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama; others said they just might not bother showing up.

To keep a too long story from getting even longer, I won’t go into the details, but we managed in the end to maintain our viability at the 2nd District. The district convention was allocated 6 national convention delegates, and I really wanted to be one of them. However, Democrats have a strict gender quota rule: the state delegation must be evenly divided between men and women. To accomplish this, there is a procedure for determining the gender of each delegate slot won by a candidate at district and state conventions, and the election for delegates is separated by gender (everyone votes on all delegates for their preference group, but female and male delegates are elected in separate votes.)

So the question was, would the sole Edwards delegate from the 2nd District be male or female? The answer had been pre-determined some time before in Des Moines. Of the six delegates to be elected, the order was MFMFMF. The genders were allocated in order of the vote. Since Obama has the most delegates, his first delegate would be male. Clinton had the second most delegates; her first delegate would be female. Edwards, the only other viable candidate, came in third, so his first (and only delegate) would be male. This closed the door on any female Edwards supporter who wanted to be a national convention delegate from my district, and opened it for men.

My recollection at this point is a little hazy, but I know a large number of men submitted petitions to be the Edwards national convention delegate from our district; perhaps as many as 10 or more. I was one of them. I had to get a certain number of signatures and file with the convention before I knew if we were going to win any delegates; fortunately I had done so.

To win any delegate position for the Democrats, one must get 50% + 1 of the votes. Given the large field, it took hours to complete our process. Preference groups members cast their vote for delegate on a ballot paper that is numbered; this creates a record of the vote, since all votes in Democratic conventions are actually public. After each round, the ballots were taken to be counted, and eventually results announced. On the first (and several subsequent ballots) no one got 50%+1; the decision was made to drop candidates below a threshold for the next ballot. I seem to recall at least four rounds, and at least three hours going by. I survived each round; in the final one it was me and one other gentleman still standing.

To this day I am surprised I won that election. It ultimately gave me the opportunity to be one of Iowa’s Democratic National Convention delegates in an historic year. Ultimately, after some wooing, I committed to Obama in early June, some time after Edwards himself had endorsed Obama, and a couple weeks before the Iowa State Convention, where more national convention delegates would be elected. By then, there was no longer a viable Edwards group; but through some negotiations we still managed to get another one or two Edwards activists elected as Obama delegates, to join the 4 of us who had been elected at district conventions around the state. I believe we Edwards delegates all ended up supporting Obama on the floor at the national convention.

But the entire Iowa delegation did not. When it came time to announce our vote to the nation, we split 48 for Obama and 9 for Clinton. Note that this is not what actually happened in the precinct caucuses, where Obama won 38%, Edwards 30%, and Clinton 29%. While critically important in boosting Obama’s campaign, the Democratic precinct results did not in the end drive the national convention vote.

The lesson of this very long story is that for the Democrats the road to becoming a national convention delegate is a story of grassroots politics, starting with your preferred candidate at the precinct caucuses. If your candidate does not make viability in your precinct, you are done, unless you can convince folks in another preference group to elect you to the county convention. And the same is true through the process. It is complex, but it ensures a certain amount of opportunity for grassroots activists.

However, given the change in the GOP rules this year, it will be the Republicans – if their nomination is contested on the floor of the convention – who will better translate the actual Iowa Precinct Caucus vote into national convention delegates. Democrats will reduce their actual vote to delegates and will do this over and over throughout their convention process, so that by the time of the national convention, the actual floor vote (if the nomination is contested) will probably not reflect what happen in caucuses so many months before.