POLITICS

How Martin O'Malley could decide who wins the Democratic caucuses in Iowa

Jamie Dockendorff, a passionate supporter of Martin O’Malley, argues he is the only Democratic presidential candidate who can bridge the partisan divide in the nation’s capital and plans to caucus for the former Maryland governor when Iowa holds its presidential nominating contest Monday.

But because of the quirky nature of the caucus process here, the 24-year-old software engineer may not be able to stick to that plan. Instead, Dockendorff and other O’Malley supporters could determine whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders win the first contest of the nominating season.

Voting in the Iowa caucuses is far more complicated than it is in states, such as California, where a voter can simply walk into a polling booth at any point on election day and cast a ballot.

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On Monday, Democrats will gather with friends and neighbors at 7 p.m. in 1,681 precincts -- schools, libraries, community centers -- across the state. After supporters give speeches on behalf of their preferred candidates, the caucus attendees will move to different corners of the room, based upon which candidate they back. An initial count will be taken to see how many supporters each candidate has.

If a candidate does not get the backing of 15% of the voters in a precinct, he or she is deemed not “viable,” and their supporters have a half-hour to move on to their second choice. That sets off a scramble of cajoling, lobbying and soft-scale enticements as supporters of rival candidates woo the newly up-for-grabs voters.

“It’s like playful bribing, like ‘c’mon I’ll mow your lawn,’" joked Sam Lau, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic party. More often, he said, it’s “what issues are most important to you? Let me talk to you about that.”

With Clinton and Sanders in a close race and O’Malley mired in the single digits in the polls, “it really could come down to where those O’Malley people go,” said Brad Anderson, a Democratic strategist and Clinton supporter. “The importance of those voters cannot be overstated.”

O’Malley and his supporters say that if they fail to reach viability in the first round, their first effort will be to try to persuade Clinton and Sanders backers to join them during the reshuffling.

“My schedule over the last eight months has been all about putting together the organization that will hold firm on caucus night and allow us to beat expectations,” O’Malley said in an interview after a visit to a union hall in Burlington. “It will be a viability battle in every precinct, and our goal is to win that battle in as many as possible.”

It may seem counterintuitive for a supporter of a viable candidate to switch to a rival campaign, but it can be strategic. Each precinct has a fixed number of delegates to allocate among the viable candidates. In certain situations, Sanders or Clinton supporters might be able to deny a delegate to the rival campaign by throwing enough support to O’Malley to make him viable in a precinct.

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Sallee Garst Haerr, an O’Malley precinct captain in Fairfield, has already begun drawing up lists of Sanders and Clinton supporters she hopes she can peel away if O’Malley is only a few supporters short of viability.

“Part of being an organizer is having strategies,” said the 62-year-old website builder. “It’s really a question of numbers.”

In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama’s backers are widely believed to have worked with supporters of John Edwards to keep him viable as a way of denying delegates to Clinton. The tactic was partly responsible for her embarrassing third-place finish in the caucuses that year, said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

“It was a pretty sophisticated maneuver, the neatest trick I’ve seen in the caucus,” said Yepsen, who covered politics for the Des Moines Register for 34 years.

The Sanders and Clinton campaigns did not respond to requests for comment about their second-choice strategies.

Such analysis can be difficult to do on the fly. And O’Malley supporters concede that it is pointless if he has no realistic shot of reaching viability in their precincts.

“If it looks like I’m the only person, then I have to decide” between Sanders and Clinton, said Haerr. “I’m kind of undecided [on my second choice]. I’m leaning toward Hillary.”

She is already facing pressure from supporters of other candidates, including in her home. Her husband is a Clinton supporter, while her daughter backs Sanders.

Sally and Jeff Fager of Mount Pleasant, in the southeastern part of the state, are O’Malley backers who have already been courted by other campaigns. They plan to back Sanders if necessary.

“I’m kind of tired of the Clintons,” said Sally Fager, a 61-year-old retiree. “They always have a little hint of scandal around them that just turns me off. I would love to be able to vote for a woman, but Bernie kind of speaks to me and some of the issues that I am really concerned about.”

Several voters said they would select their second choice after hearing the candidates’ supporters make their case at the caucus.

“I’ll listen to what they have to say and decide then,” Dockendorff said. But she held out hope that she would be able to caucus for O’Malley on Monday night.

“We’re going to talk to both the Hillary Clinton and Sanders people in the room and say, ‘Hey, you’d rather us have delegates than your opponent, so give us some of your people,'" she said, adding that they were counting on the fact that the top two candidates do not view O’Malley as a threat. “They don’t believe we’ll actually do anything so they’re perfectly fine with it.”

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