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Politics

An Iowa caucus yields scrums, bribery and cajoling: ‘The only thing people get excited about here’

Iowa caucuses

Republican voters register before taking part in caucusing at Carroll High School in Carroll, Iowa.

(Jeff Storjohann / Carroll Daily Times Herald)

After spending 30 minutes hand-counting hundreds of bodies packed inside a middle school gymnasium, Jeffrey Goetz had an unfortunate confession to make.

“We’re going to have to count again,” the Iowa caucuses precinct chairman told the crowd sheepishly, eliciting groans. “The numbers don’t add up.”

Every four years, Democrats in Iowa forgo ballots and other modern vote technologies in favor of what some claim to be the nation’s most authentic form of democracy. At more than 1,000 caucus precincts like this one at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines, participants are encouraged to argue on behalf of their favored candidates, and the outcome ultimately comes down to a hand vote.

GOP race: Ad dollars spent per vote in Iowa
(Kyle Kim)
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The process is sometimes described as quirky, or messy, or arcane.

But ultimately, it is human. And therefore, not always perfect.

That was evident early Tuesday morning, hours after the caucus, when state Democratic officials said they still were unable to declare a winner in the nail-biter race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders because more than a dozen precincts around the state had not reported the outcome of their votes. Officials eventually declared Clinton the winner.

And it was clear at Merrill on Monday, when Goetz somehow miscounted the number of attendees backing Clinton, Sanders and a third candidate, Martin O’Malley, and had to start again.

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To his credit, there were a lot of people to keep track of.

More than 600 Democrats showed up at the precinct in Waterbury, a well-to-do Des Moines neighborhood with historic brick homes and oak-lined streets. While the Democrats tussled in the wood-floored gymnasium, hundreds of their Republican neighbors conducted their own caucus — this one with ballots — in the school cafeteria.

Among the idiosyncrasies of the Democrats’ process is this: If a candidate does not get the backing of at least 15% of the voters in a precinct, he or she is deemed not “viable,” and his or her supporters have 30 minutes to move on to a second choice, or go home.

It often unleashes a mad dash of lobbying and cajoling as backers of rival candidates try to draw the newly available voters to their side.

And it’s how Steve Balderson came to be one of the most popular guys in the room.

Balderson was a supporter of Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who barely registered in polls. When supporters of each candidate had finally been successfully counted, O’Malley’s team had only about 50 supporters — not enough to be considered viable. And so the wooing began.

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“Come on, Steve, I’m going to buy you a beer,” a neighbor with a Clinton sticker implored.

“No, come over here,” said another neighbor, this one in a Sanders T-shirt. “We have a really nice seat for you.”

Low-level bribery is allowed. Caucus-goers have been known to offer baby-sitting or snow-shoveling in exchange for votes. A common enticement is an invitation to the state Democratic convention.

Balderson, who is retired, and who has been taking part in Democratic caucuses since the early 1970s, ended up with the Sanders team, along with more than 20 former O’Malley supporters. They were promised two convention spots in return. Some O’Malley supporters left rather than give their votes to other candidates.

But the additional votes weren’t enough for Sanders to come out on top.

In the end, Clinton’s camp had more than 100 votes over him, which means she went home with more state delegates.

She ended up besting Sanders statewide, as well, although just barely. Clinton was awarded 699.57 state delegates compared to Sanders’ 695.49, according to the state party early Tuesday, with the results from one precinct outstanding but not enough to push Sanders over the top.

A few people were there mostly to watch the process.

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Mike Kalhorn said he was a Democrat but uncommitted to either of the leading candidates.

His wife and her mother were on Clinton’s team. But his father-in-law was on Sanders’ side.

“I’m just going to stand here and get yelled at,” Kalhorn said. “Maybe somebody will say something amazing and convince me.”

Caucus day, he said, is the culmination of months of campaign phone calls, door-knocks and back-to-back political advertisements on television. Come Tuesday, the most-courted voters in the nation would suddenly go back to being regular people.

Kalhorn wasn’t sure whether he was ready for it all to be over.

“This is, like, the only thing people get excited about here,” he said.

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