The 2020 Iowa Caucuses Game Day Thread

Remember when there were 20 candidates?

It’s been a long and crazy road to get to February of 2020, and the Iowa caucuses. John Delaney was the first guy in, in July of 2017. Wow! You go John! Andrew Yang was next in, in November of 2017 and then West Virginia tough-guy Richard Ojedda after that…a year later in November of 2018. Most of the rest of the field filed sometime between January of 2019 and November of 2019.

Ojedda was also the first guy out, suspending his ridiculous campaign less than three months after announcing, in January of 2019 just as other candidates were thinking of getting in. August and September of 2019 were really the cruelest months. Kirsten Gillibrand, Seth Moulton, Mike Gravel, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee and Bill DeBlasio all folded the tents that month. Candidates who once looked like strong contenders – Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke – bowed out over the fall and winter. Candidates who looked like a consultant’s wet dream (Steve Bullock and Corey Booker) just never seemed to find an audience.

And thus, back to that whole 20 candidates thing. Remember that? There are really just a handful left: Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sure, Andrew Yang and Tom Steyer are both still in, and can stay in as long as they want. They’re both spending their own money hand over fist. Neither is likely to do anything in Iowa. Bloomberg is also still in, but not on the Iowa ballot. But he’s been rising in national polls, suggesting that he knows how to incinerate dumpsterfuls of his own billionaire money smarter than either Yang or Steyer do.

And there are other candidates still technically in. Michael Bennet is still in. Tulsi Gabbard is too. Remember when Deval Patrick declared? I kind of barely remember that, too but he’s still in. By Wednesday, all but Gabbard are likely to be out. Well, Patrick may stick around to finish below 1% in New Hampshire and then he’ll close shop.

So for the Iowa caucuses, I’ll focus on The Big Four +1. That’s Sanders, Biden, Buttigieg, Warren + Klobuchar. With apologies to the rest of the candidates and their supporters, those are the five who’ll be front and center on Monday night when caucus returns start rolling in.

So how do these caucus thingies work?

The first thing to know about caucuses is that they’re inherently undemocratic relics. You have to participate in real, live time. Which means you have to be at a designated area in your voting precinct at a designated time or no caucusing for you. And there’s a lot of standing around and being in crowds and possibly having to stand around for hours that makes it tough for older folks and folks with disabilities, not to mention anyone who works nights or has to work early the next day. Caucuses suck.

But yeah. As described, you go to your designated caucus site (usually a high school gym or cafeteria or firehouse or community park center) and precinct captains for each candidate try to gather their supporters around. The folks gatekeeping the caucus site mark off each person who enters, so they know the total number of folks caucusing. And once everyone’s in, the folks standing with the captain or campaign person for each candidate are counted. And here’s where it gets kind of interesting and strategeric. ;)

Remember, the workers at the caucus site know how many total caucusers there are who have shown up to participate. And so as the huddled groups for each candidate are counted, any candidate who doesn’t have at least 15% of the folks at the caucus site standing with his or her designated captain is termed non-viable. Supporters of non-viable candidates are then released, and are free to join another candidate. Sometimes two or three groups of supporters for different non-viable candidates will join together and make one non-viable candidate hit the 15% threshhold in that precinct. But most often, supporters of non-viable candidates are lured, cajoled, browbeat, and begged to join with groups for candidates who are viable. This is called realignment. After realignment, a final count is taken, affirmed, and reported to the state party/election officials.

It’s a crazy thing in practice, as you might imagine. Experienced precinct captains are already making deals long before supporter counts take place, even as caucusers arrive. And there’s likely to be this offshoot in a lot of caucuses where handfuls of Gabbard and Yang and Steyer supporters yell at one another before deciding not to join together as one OR support another candidate who is viable, and declare themselves uncommitted and taking their respective footballs and going home to get on twitter to start dumb hashtag wars and rail about the DNC or something.

Here’s the way I see it, but this is just a lot of semi-informed opinion.

1. Bernie Sanders
Best case scenario: Bernie wins Iowa by more than 5 or 6 points and heads into New Hampshire’s primary 8 days later with a wind at his back. Bernie will want to bank wins in Iowa, NH, and Nevada before South Carolina can rescue Biden. A big win in Iowa would get Sanders a nice bounce into New Hampshire.

Happy with… Sanders will be happy with any win at all, really. And honestly, I’ll be fairly surprised if his name isn’t at the top of the list on Monday night. He won’t get a huge bounce to New Hampshire off a narrow win, but he probably won’t need it.

Not happy with… A narrow defeat, especially to Biden. That would be a surprising result, and send Biden to New Hampshire with a bounce. Not what Sanders wants or needs out of the gate.

Worst case scenario: Sanders finishes third, somehow. I think this scenario is almost impossible to actually occur, but if it should, it’s easy to see a Sanders negative bounce to New Hampshire and would be a disaster for his campaign.

2. Joe Biden
Best case scenario He wins, even narrowly by a whisker. It won’t mean much for the delegate breakdowns, but it’s likely to seem like a bit of a surprise and will get him a bounce based on expectations to take to New Hampshire. Would make Grampy Joe awfully tough the rest of the way, too.

Happy with… Honestly, second or third, as long as Sanders doesn’t win by more than 6 or so. Biden would be happy to just play stalking horse until March 3 and Super Tuesday.

Not happy with… …a fourth place finish or Sanders winning by a wide margin of 8-10 or more. would bounce Bernie nicely into New Hampshire and dig a deeper hole than Biden wants out of the gate. Could dent that “electability” argument, too.

Worst case scenario Biden finishes fourth, and it’s a distant fourth, under 15%. That would make his poor performance and questions about electability arguments drive the narrative for the rest of February.

3. Pete Buttigieg
Best case scenario Mayor Pete somehow wins a squeaker in Iowa thanks to some precinct captain magic and earns a nice bounce to take him to New Hampshire.

Happy with Hard to say, really, because its tough to envision a scenario where Mayor Pete wins anything without a win in Iowa and/or New Hampshire. I suppose a close 2nd to Bernie would be OK.

Unhappy with… …3rd or below. That’s probably a negative bounce (as in, numbers fall) in New Hampshire. Hard to see a path here, but…

Worst case scenario If Mayor Pete finishes fourth in Iowa, it’s probably over. There’s no bounce to take him into New Hampshire, and he looks dead in the water in Nevada and South Carolina and his “I’m not Joe Biden” moderate left lane is going to run smack dab into a brick wall called Mike Bloomberg on Super Tuesday.

4. Elizabeth Warren
Best case scenario She finishes 2nd, but within 5-7 points of the winner. The Iowa winner will bounce into New Hampshire, but so too will Warren if this happens, and if the Iowa winner isn’t Sanders, she’s live for New Hampshire.

Happy with A more distant second or close third that puts Mayor Pete into a distant fourth place and puts Klobuchar below 10% in Iowa. Should one or both drop out by Super Tuesday, it gives her a reason to stay in until then.

Not happy with… Pretty much anything where she’s polling right now. A 16-19% state delegate portion finish and coming in behind Biden and Sanders gives her nothing for New Hampshire, where she could finish fourth in her neighboring state. She might not make Super Tuesday in this all-too-likely scenario, and certainly might not make it far past Super Tuesday.

Worst case scenario She finishes fifth, getting picked off by Klobuchar on her flank. Would possibly end her candidacy after New Hampshire.

5. Amy Klobuchar
Best case scenario Finishes 3rd and would thus bounce sky high into New Hampshire. Like fetch, though, it’s not happening. (I don’t think.)

Happy with… …a fourth place finish, where she picks off Warren or Mayor Pete and maybe gets up to 15% to take some token delegates. It’d at least give her a reason to continue for another week or so.

Unhappy with/Worst case scenario If Klobuchar can’t hit 10% in her neighboring state, it’s hard to see her hitting 5% in any other contest before Super Tuesday, and the money’s just not going to be there for her to make it worthwhile to stay in. Fifth or worse and she may be out before New Hampshire or right after.

If I wanna see Trump lose, what should I root for?

You should probably root for Bernie and Biden to get a real scare from either a strong performance from Buttigieg or Warren or both. No really.

See, so far both the old guys are running somewhat sloppy, uninspired campaigns at the moment. Biden’s organizing has been terrible, even with a lot of old campaign hands. They seem to know they have a lot of Biden voters out there, but they also seem almost adrift as far as how to galvanize them.

And Sanders has been running a better campaign than he did in 2016, but that’s like saying your blimp landed better than the Hindenburg. He’s still letting his supporters and especially his surrogates get off message, and generally seems either uninterested in message discipline or unwilling to publicly enforce it. Biden can be undisciplined. People sort of expect it and it’s baked into his brand. “Oh Joe, you funny old guy.” But people expect Bernie to be the ideas and big policy guy. He can easily enforce message discipline without alienating his adoring, core supporters. But will he?

What’s really disturbing to me is that Iowa has been right there for either front-runner to win. It was right there back in June. July. September. December.

And yet, it’s the Buttigieg and Warren campaigns that have been snapping up the best and most experienced precinct captains and putting together the best organized ground games in the state…the kind of ground game folks that can steal you the handfuls of supporters of non-viable candidates on caucus night that can make a difference in a close race.

Both front-runners need to tighten their respective shit up by June, if either guy is going to be the nominee and beat Trump in November. It wouldn’t hurt them at all to get scared early here and be forced to make some tough organizational changes.

Best explanation of the Caucuses I’ve seen, Man you should be on CNN,or MSNBC.

Thanks for the description of how the caucus works, very useful. I think Bernie will win, and personally hope he does. Seeing Pete or Warren come second would be great too, I think the primaries will be better having one of those campaigns survive as a clear 3rd alternative.

Agree with this. Here’s an observation from on the ground:

By the way, McDonald reporting that there seems to be a distinct lack of enthusiasm for Biden. Still, I think fear of a trump 2nd term and the perception that Biden has the best chance for winning will result in a good finish for him. (I wonder how Bloomberg would do if he were in. I’m quite surprised Bloomberg is doing so well.) One thing I ignored from 2016 is primary turnout. Republicans trounced Democrats in that regard and I just hand waved it away. Big mistake.

Oh and a blast from the past.


Rubio followed his “surprise win” by finishing … 4th in NH. (I recall being really concerned Rubio would win the nomination and beat Clinton. So quaint.)

My predictions:

  1. Sanders
  2. Biden
  3. Warren (from more reading, she seems to have put together a very good ground game there.)

((The chattering class is really beating the Klobuchar drum, I see her as this years version of Rubio. Not in terms of policy or ideology, but rather favoritism (not the right word but close enough.))

This is a good explanation of the caucuses, with info graphic

This thread is good and trigger should feel good.

I feel good and agree with you. Thanks, triggercut! Great read.

So caucuses are a real -time version of weighted balloting.

Yeah, albeit with the added bullshittery of people being able to bully others.

Yup. I’d love to see a turn around, but my great terror is that I look at this field, look at the folks most likely to win, and don’t see anyone I trust to win against Trump in November.

Imagine if you will, the DNC is like Leslie Knope at one of Pawnee Indiana’s notorious town meetings, trying to decide what goes into the time capsule.

If you can envision that, you can envision the mess the Democratic Party finds itself in when it comes to counting and reporting on votes, both in Iowa and kiiiiiiinda going forward into the primary process. First though, a couple of things to know:

  1. “Local delegates” or “County delegates” are sort of important, but not the ultimate prize. When each precinct counts up the folks all standing in various areas of the high school gym for various candidates, those percentages translate into local delegates.

  2. Local delegates go to the state convention. At the state convention later in the year, those local delegates (who will number in the thousands) get pared down to a handful of delegates for the Democratic National Convention to nominate the presidential candidate. In 2016, Iowa had roughly 1,400 local delegates to pledge. Those local delegates end up as 44 pledged NATIONAL delegates. There are fairly complex rules, but basically, it’s sort of a 1:1 ratio of the 1400 down to 44 delegates, but certain counties get more delegates, and win margins matter and yeah. It’s complex. But generally, there’s local pledged delegates (lots of them) who translate and eventually convert to national pledged delegates (just a few of them, relatively speaking). In the end, the national pledged delegates are the real, real prize.

But wait, it gets more complicated! Lots of states now also hold out a handful of NATIONAL delegates, who will then be pledged in a bloc to the candidate who wins the state; it’s the award for actually winning the state outright, after all. See, in 2008 Team Obama showed off some loopholes in the system in Nevada (see below), and so some of the states decided that there should be a bonus for being the person who wins the state outright, and that’s those “held” NATIONAL delegates, who are pledged to the state’s winner.

So, for instance, in Iowa in 2016, Clinton won 23 pledged NATIONAL delegates, and Sanders won 21, based strictly off the Iowa Caucus results. But then Iowa had 6 unpledged NATIONAL delegates were to be granted to the winner of the state, and thus awarded them to Clinton for winning.

That created this scenario: Iowa handed out 50 pledged NATIONAL delegates in Iowa in 2016.

To earn them, Bernie Sanders got 696 pledged local delegates. Hillary Clinton got 700 pledged local delegates; that’s three tenths of a percentage point separation. Yet because of the 6 delegates awarded by local state party rules, Clinton ended up with 29 of those 50 pledged NATIONAL delegates, while Sanders got just 21, despite losing by 3 hundredths of a percentage point in the local pledged delegate caucus.

Which made people howl. So let’s have a little history on that.

In 2008 when Barack Obama won Iowa narrowly in a 3-way race, and lost New Hampshire narrowly we got to Nevada. And already Candidtate Clinton was salty about it all. She’d won almost as many state delegates and pledged delegates (more on that shortly) as Obama in Iowa. And he’d won almost as many as her in New Hampshire. But to her campaign of grievance, “the media” (god I hate that term SO MUCH) was reporting Iowa as an Obama win, while reporting New Hampshire as a state where both candidates won almost the same amount of delegates.

And so in 2008, we get to the Nevada caucuses, typically the third contest. Hillary won 51%-45%. Huzzah for her! She won the most local/state delegates. Go ahead, declare victory Hillsy.

But wait! Obama campaign manager David Plouffe had noted that Nevada’s delegate system, which was entirely conceived, built, and enacted by the local Democrats in the state of Nevada itself YEARS and YEARS earlier, had a weird loophole. If you could, say, get ~40% of the vote in Nevada’s rural areas, you could focus on Clark County (Las Vegas) and Reno and, if you ran up a huge win total especially in Vegas, you could actually come out of Nevada with MORE national convention delegates (which, let’s face it, is the real prize here.)

Clinton’s legendarily terrible campaign staff never noticed it. Plouffe and Axelrod did. And that was their strategy in Nevada. So when the smoke had cleared, the unthinkable had happened: Clinton won 6% more of the local county delegates…but Obama had won 13 of the 25 delegates pledged to the national nominating convention. Clinton won just 12. And “the media” had a field day with THAT too…and the Clintonistas HOWLED about it.

Now flash ahead to 2016. It’s Iowa, and candidate Clinton essential has a draw with a surprisingly strong Candidate Sanders. Only this time, Clinton knows what’s up with the Iowa Caucuses and Nevada Caucuses. And so she gets 23 of the 44 national pledged delegates – again, the real prize. Sanders earns 21. And team Sanders HOWLS about it. And then Nevada. Clinton now knows it’s important to run up the score in your strong areas, and she does that. And she once again gets a 6-point win in Nevada, but this time over Sanders. And this time, with 35 national delegates to be automatically pledged off the Caucus totals, Hillary wins 20 of them. And team Sanders HOWLS again. They finished 6 back! Just like Obama did in 2008!! How in the heck did they end up with 5 fewer delegates than Clinton?!? (Hint to future candidates: get yourself someone in your campaign who understands the weird little individual rules each state’s own party enacts for national delegate allocation.)

So. That brings us to 2020. And as you can imagine, if you’re Leslie Knope/The DNC, you’ve been sitting at the table up front while a town hall of candidates snipe at you and snipe at one another about how all this gets counted and reported. How come this thing goes into the time capsule, but not this thing?

Here’s how supporters for various factions of the various parts of the Democratic Party peacefully and rationally lobbied the National Committee about the way votes would be counted and reported for the Iowa caucus in the years from 2017 to 2019:

<More, unfortunately>

What Leslie Knope decides to do to placate all the individual people yelling about that time capsule is to just do multiple time capsules. Now will everyone just shut the heck up?

That’s kinda what the Iowa Democratic Party decided to do with the 2020 caucuses, and the DNC said “Fine, whatever. Please just shut these people up.”

So in the past, the networks have all reported on State Delegate Equivalents out of the Iowa caucuses. Let’s call those SDEs for short. They’re the couple of thousand local delegates who’ll be pledged to the state party convention in the spring, based off of the caucus results. So in 2016, when it was Clinton 49.6% to Sanders 49.3%, those were actually the percentages of the 1,400 state delegates.

But in 2020, the Iowa Democratic Party is going to report FOUR different results. FOUR!!!

  1. They’re going to report results of each precinct site based on initial candidate preference. So if you’re non-viable and below 15%, you’ll know where.

  2. They’re going to report results based on totals after realignment of caucus-goers for non-viable candidates. You’ll be able to tell which precinct captains were making deals like crazy.

  3. They’re going to report SDEs, just like always. Most nets, including the NYT, CNN, the Post, the AP, etc. are still sticking with SDEs as their report, since there’s no fundamental change to the actual goal of the caucuses, just the way they’re counting things.

  4. They’ll also show likely pledged NATIONAL delegates, which is the ultimate prize.


The problem with this level of complexity, is that no matter what the DNC does, basis interested parties can claim some kind of malfeasance, even when none exists, because they can spin an incomplete description of events.

And the reality is: the DNC is basically telling the state parties: “You jerks come up with some damned thing and tell us what and how you’re going to do it and if it makes sense…just do that damned thing.”

Are primaries more expensive to run for the state party? Seems it would be easier than that Rube Goldbergian mess.

Yep. That’s the main reason – you’ve got to basically engage with the ballot-counting/polling place expertise of the state government apparatus for a primary, which means lots more paid workers, equipment, etc. Even so, the DNC really did make an effort to try to get caucuses off the schedule where they could by offering to defray costs. And I’d expect them to continue to do so.

As an outsider, this thread was incredibly helpful at breaking down how the caucuses work, trigger. Thank you for taking the time and effort to make it. Was an informative and entertaining read.

Seconded. I actually learned something, wich I always appreciate.

If anyone is looking for more info to add to trigg’s excellent posts, pod save america has a series of 5 podcasts called ‘on the ground in iowa’ that goes into a decent bit of detail on the nuts and bolts and weaves it with a lot of interviews with the candidates ground teams. It’s a good listen.

I have a weird love of convoluted systems. At practical level, the world is filled with highly complex systems. The Iowa caucus has no where near the complexity of the sectarian and tribal politics of the Middle East. I’d argue that being able to attract and trust smart guys like Axelrod who can figure out how to win this game, is decent training for actually being president.