I’m 19 and Planning The Iowa Caucus

Posted: September 26, 2019 | By: Tanner Halleran Tagged: Blog

At 17.5, I was elected to be the youngest county chair in state history and while still being chair, at 19, I continue to have the distinction of being the youngest chair. Being the chair of a county party is at times often aggravating and other times exhilarating. By charter, it is our duty to engage citizens in the Democratic Party and plan the caucus. While it is an easy statement, much more time goes into the ‘behind the scenes’ than it seems. From organizing parades, canvassing and hosting fundraisers to holding monthly meetings and trying different ways to reach new voters, it is a tremendous task that comes with no compensation and often no recognition. 


Every two years, I am tasked with planning my county’s precinct caucus and county convention. In Keokuk County, we have approximately 10,000 citizens, 6,000 registered voters, and 15 precincts. To truly understand the beast of planning the caucus, I should note that not only do I find the location but also a chairperson. That is at least thirty phone calls assuming the stars align and everyone says yes; however, as a realist and from experience, I can tell you my phone log has far more than thirty outgoing calls for this spectacle we call the Iowa caucus. 


For locations, it is especially hard for the presidential caucus as each location should be in the precinct. This gets hard, especially for me in rural Iowa, because I must also ensure that each location is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Historically, it would be common for people to meet in their neighbors’ home but since its passage in the 1990s, the ADA has transformed how we approach the caucus. For me, this often leaves community spaces only: churches, town halls and schools. Oftentimes, however, there may not be spaces like those aforementioned in the precinct or they are unwilling to let us use the location. In Iowa, if the entity receives tax-payer money, they are obligated to lend us their space. However, in the instance of a church, they are sustained most often through tithing and are then able to deny our request for space should they so choose. In more recent times, those, especially in rural Iowa, who actively participate in a congregation of a church vote republican and they too host a caucus. So, after initially finding a location, assuming they we can use it, the next challenge is capacity. 


In 2008, turnout for the Iowa Democratic caucus exceeded expectations and therefore, many precinct locations were inadequate to handle the caucus. Whether it’s years like 2008, 2016, or perhaps even 2020, as a county chair, I have to take past participation numbers and expected turn out into account. As was the case in 2008, far more people turned out, and during this presidential cycle, turn out is as predictable as Trump’s next tweet. While attempting to account for this uncertainty, I also have to pair this guess with the requirements laid out by the ADA. So, when it comes to finding a location and taking both these big factors into account, it often seems as though I’m looking for a ‘needle in a haystack’. 


The final component of the caucus, and arguably the most important, is the chair. These people are selected before the caucus because they must be trained and capable of running the caucus. These are volunteer positions and they are committing about five hours of time to the caucus: two hours of training and three hours on the night of the caucus. It is not a job for the faint of heart and requires them to be physically and mentally present on caucus night. Therefore, many people do not want to do this job and also why I’m unable to simply make thirty calls in preparation for the caucus. 


To end on a high note, I am able to say that as of September 19th, I confirmed all precinct chairs and caucus locations. For those who think the process is simple and easy, I hope that this blog has helped you understand more of the process and see what goes into the Iowa caucus that media and attendees often miss. So, the night of caucus, I hope you’ll see the manifested work that went into it and will thank your precinct chair and other volunteers.