Global Affairs

Chaos in the caucus: a student volunteer’s story of a dramatic week in Iowa

Annalise Myre, an undergraduate in Georgetown University Class of 2023, comments on her experience as a student volunteer for Joe Biden’s campaign in the fraught Iowa caucus earlier this year.

When I boarded my flight to Iowa, I had no idea four days later I would be a precinct captain, grabbing the microphone from the caucus chair, and fact-checking CNN.

A week before the caucus, I received a text message from a family friend on the Biden campaign saying they needed more volunteers on the ground ahead of the 2020 Iowa Caucus. After experiencing a caucus firsthand, I am amazed that we use such a flawed system and allow a state with such little diversity to go first in deciding who becomes a presidential nominee.

Thursday night, my flight landed just after midnight and I still had not received word from the campaign about where I was staying. I got an email telling me to Uber to the Super 8 by Wyndham in Iowa City and met my roommate Erin, a 26-year-old working on a congressional committee in Washington, D.C. We became quick friends and I tagged along with her the next morning to the Biden Iowa City headquarters. People from all over the country had flown to Iowa to volunteer in the final days leading up to the caucus. We were all from different places but united under one common goal of electing Joe Biden for president. 

Once we arrived at headquarters, we were given clipboards with a list of names and addresses of registered Democrats and unregistered voters. Our job was to go door-to-door and convince people to come out for Biden on caucus night. I learned that day that Iowans are extremely persuadable. A staff member told me that ads don’t do very well in Iowa because residents care if you come to their door and speak with them face-to-face.

At one house, an older man with one leg was chipping ice on his front doorstep. He told me he was planning on caucusing for Sanders and I asked him what issues were most important to him. He was a veteran and I told him why I believed Biden’s healthcare plan would be the best compromise for a public and private option. I explained how Biden would build off Obamacare and how Biden would be able to win key states needed to defeat Trump. By the end of our conversation, the man told me he believed what I was saying and that upon further thought, he would come out for Joe on Monday. I asked him what convinced him and he said that he believes Joe is the only candidate that can beat Trump. 

Later that afternoon, I met a couple who supported Sanders and Warren and another man who supported Sanders, all of whom had invited me into their homes. Trusting that I wouldn’t get snatched by a nice Iowan, I sat in both of their homes and listened to their concerns about Biden and the rest of the Democratic field. I listened to what was most important to them and confidently shared why I was supporting Biden.

I think because I was a young person for Biden, people were willing to open their doors to me and hear what I had to say. I found that listening to what was most important to voters and then providing them with facts about what Biden has done in the past and what he will do in the future enabled voters to hear why Biden is the best candidate. I took away with me lessons in listening, persuasion and debate as I walked through the winter snow. The biggest lesson I learned was if you say anything with confidence and back it up with a few stats and anecdotes, people are willing to take your word for it. 

Monday was game day. In the afternoon, we had a two-hour training session to explain to us how a caucus works and what we should expect. I anxiously scribbled notes on a notepad to remember all the thresholds and procedures. The goal was to convince as many undecided Iowans as you could to join team Biden. They told us about 60% of Iowans could show up undecided. I was shocked to hear such a high number, especially after candidates had been campaigning in Iowa for months. 

That evening, I was sent to Liberty High School in North Liberty in the Johnson County district to serve as a precinct captain. The caucuses are set up at local community centres or in high school gyms and auditoriums. Luckily, mine was in an auditorium so people could sit. Mostly everyone who showed up was white and over the age of 60. I felt like a woman trying to sell Chanel perfume in a department store. I cornered people as soon as they walked in and asked them if they were here for Biden. I walked with a few undecided voters and tried to convince them to support Biden. 

At 7pm, we started the official counting process. Upon first alignment, people had 30 minutes to go and physically stand in the section for their candidate. Based on how many people are in the room, there must be a 15% threshold that determines how many people you need in order to be named “viable” for the second round. For my precinct, we needed 89 people. 10 delegates were at stake for the precinct. As the clock counts down, I convince undecided voters standing along a wall to join Biden. Many people told me Biden was their second option but they wanted to support Klobuchar or Buttigieg first. One man wandered around and said he would only join us if he is named the 89th person. Eventually, I gathered five more supporters.

I asked an older Biden volunteer how many people we had and he said we were going with our original number: 83. I told him frantically that I just convinced more people to join us and we better count again to make sure we are accurate. The room was extremely crowded with Iowans and campaign volunteers moving around and I was nervous we were miscounting. Eventually, I take it upon myself to recount everyone in our corner. I yelled at everyone to put their hand up if they are with Joe and began assertively counting people. The adrenaline was rushing through me as I tried so hard not to stutter as I counted. 87. We only had 87 people, meaning we were not viable for the second round. 

When the caucus chair announced the only viable candidates for the precinct were Warren, Klobuchar and Buttigieg, everyone began to murmur in surprise. Because of the crowded room and mass confusion about the rules, people misunderstood the caucus chair and thought they had to align with either Warren, Klobuchar or Buttigieg. Many Iowans began to leave the auditorium and I walked around to try to understand what to do next. As I was speaking with another volunteer, he raised the question if Biden could become viable in the second round of alignment even if he was previously not viable. Before answering, I thought back to training and had a gut instinct that Biden could, in fact, become viable if we gained those 2 more people we needed to reach 89. A CNN reporter told me I was incorrect and that was not the information they were hearing, but I trusted my instinct and said I was 99% sure we could become viable in the second round.

To clear up confusion, I ran onstage to the caucus chair and asked him to clarify if candidates can become viable in the second round if they were previously not viable. He says yes and informs me he has already explained that on the microphone. I frantically ask him to clarify over the microphone because people do not understand the rules and were leaving. He clarified over the microphone in a muddled voice, but nobody seemed to be listening.

I suddenly grabbed the microphone to better explain the rules and explain that Biden only needed two more people. We had people from Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar coming over to Team Biden but it was too late. Too many people had left. Biden received no delegates from the Liberty High School precinct. 

One of my biggest issues with the caucus is how you have to physically be present for your vote to count. The system does not allow absentee ballots, leaving people who work late hours, have young children or are disabled unable to participate in our democracy. During the counting process for alignment, there is no official oversight in reporting the numbers.

Later that evening, I saw in the news there is a delay of results because of an app used to report votes. As a precinct captain, I was unaware of the existence of the app alongside my fellow volunteers. I felt extremely frustrated after the caucus because the media focused on a flawed app when they should have focused on the mass confusion and overall flawed caucus system. I worried that if the media focused on the app, the Iowa Democratic Party will just get rid of the app and keep the system. The whole country was watching Iowa and the media needed to report on the flaws of the system, not just the app, to show why the whole system needs to be rethought. 

Before Iowa, I was even uncertain who I liked going into the 2020 election. I liked the messaging of moderates like Biden, Mayor Pete and Amy Klobuchar and knew I detested the extremism of Sanders, but in a large crowd of Democratic contenders, I found it difficult to see who would outshine the rest and be the Democratic nominee. My experience canvassing in Iowa had me supporting Biden and seeing first-hand the changes that need to be made for the voting system in America.