“Caucus chairs are more concerned this cycle than I’ve ever seen them,” Dockendorff said. “They’re very nervous.”
Read: The Iowans who reject their state’s special privilege
Dockendorff has organized and led a dozen caucuses since she moved to the state from Virginia in 1996, and she’s used to being a keeper of caucus knowledge. She gets a lot of questions about the caucus from confused Iowans and out-of-state reporters, and she delights in the intricacies of the process. Sitting across from me at a café in Burlington, wearing purple glasses on her face and sunglasses on her head, she used a piece of paper to illustrate a set of realignment scenarios. While we spoke, a middle-aged woman came over to our table and sat down, hoping Dockendorff could help assuage some of her fears: “I heard some really scary news on Twitter today about the caucuses!”
This year, Dockendorff has fielded a lot of questions. The parties have run the caucus the same way for decades: Voters show up to an assigned precinct—a church or an elementary school in their neighborhood, say—and stand under a sign or in a corner associated with their favorite candidate. For half an hour, people hustle between groups, trying to coax fans of other candidates to join their team. Then organizers count each candidate’s supporters, and there is a realignment period, during which people can switch allegiances. Members of any candidate group that doesn’t get at least 15 percent of caucus-goers must move to a new candidate. Once this part is done, delegates are assigned to the remaining contenders using a mathematical formula, and reported to the state party.
For the 2020 contest, though, there are a few major changes. Caucus-goers who choose a viable candidate in the first round can’t switch. For the first time ever, voters will write down their choices on preference cards, in case there’s a recount. If a precinct has only a small number of delegates to give out, even supporters of viable candidates may have to realign; which group realigns could depend on a coin toss. (The state party instructs caucus chairs to bring their own quarter or some “other method to conduct a game of chance.”) “Some precincts have three delegates, and it’s not inconceivable that five candidates are viable,” Dockendorff said.
But the most crucial development this year is that each of Iowa’s 1,700 precincts is required to report two data points in addition to its final delegate count: the totals each candidate received in the first count and the totals they received after the first realignment.
Releasing these numbers is meant to add transparency to the process. But the new rules make it more likely that several Democratic candidates will claim victory on Monday. The traditional winner—the Democrat who receives the most delegates—will be able to boast the best organizing strategy in Iowa. But it’s about more than just delegates, Dockendorff said. “There’s going to be somebody who’s going to be able to say, ‘Look, we had 1,000 more people show up to the caucuses for us. Obviously we’re the strongest,’” she explained. And the candidate who ends up with the most total supporters after the realignment—when voters from unviable groups find a new group—can brag that he or she has built the broadest coalition of support, or has the most persuasive organizers.