NORTH LIBERTY, IOWA — After Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, Ed and Jane Cranston, a married couple from North Liberty, Iowa, wanted to take action. The Cranstons decided they would begin by organizing what they call a “potluck insurgency”: a monthly get-together of Johnson County Democrats to talk about political issues and hear from selected speakers.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do,” Jane Cranston said. “We were just so upset that Hillary lost that we thought we’d just keep commiserating and getting together, but then we got speakers, people really loved it.”

According to Ed, who is serving in his first year as the Democratic Party Chair of Johnson County — the home of the University of Iowa and a Democratic stronghold in the state — the group was able to bring in major political figures over the course of the past year. He credited this partly to the centrality of Iowa, the first state to caucus during primary season.

The Cranstons recall one night in early January 2019, when the group had arranged for Julián Castro, former San Antonio mayor, to speak. Coincidentally, they had scheduled it the same day Castro indicated he would announce his candidacy for the 2020 Presidential race.

“What happened was Julián Castro had just released that he was running that day,” Jane said. “So everybody wanted to cover him.”

As a result, what was intended to be a small get-together of Johnson County Democrats to hear Castro speak became so large that Jane likened it to the Dwarves of Middle Earth occupying Bilbo Baggins’ house in the movie “The Hobbit.” 

“It was just a crazy night,” Ed Cranston said. “We thought, ‘you know, maybe we’ll get a little local press.’ Well, like an hour before it starts, Fox News shows up, and we had everybody. I mean, ABC, NBC, in our house. CBS, AP, Hearst Papers. It was packed with 75 people. Normally we have a potluck, but that night was just going to be desserts. And it was so crowded they couldn’t even get the desserts. And then after they left, it was like we said, ‘Jane — what just happened?”

“If you look up ‘Castro, North Liberty,’ all those (pictures) are at our house,” Jane added.

The nation casts its first vote

As the first state to vote in the presidential primary season, Iowans like the Cranstons are used to being overwhelmed with the full attention of the nation every four years. This year, with 11 Democrats remaining in the race and 17 dropping out, the political mayhem is particularly visible: across the state, visitors can observe canvassers knocking on doors, restaurants filled with out-of-state political activists and stretches of Interstate 80 lined with campaign billboards.

For Iowans, the caucus is a point of pride. Not only do Iowans turn out for the caucus, but many involve themselves in the campaigns of their preferred candidates.

One such organizer is Dan Prescott, an Elizabeth Warren 2020 precinct captain for Scott County, which also voted for Clinton in 2016. Prescott, a retired social worker, was born and raised in Ames, Iowa, moved to Davenport in 1973 and has been caucusing ever since.

“At the caucus we all have different roles, and my role, basically, is to greet people as they come into our caucus, and then I’ll have other people assigned to do data, to do counts and maybe do some persuasion, going out to other people in the caucus area and talking to them about what Elizabeth Warren is about,” Prescott said.

Prescott threw his support behind the Sanders campaign in 2016, but having always been a loyal Warren supporter, he jumped at the chance to get involved after she announced her candidacy.

“She’s got a plan for everything,” Prescott said. “In our organization office, there’s about 30 different plans on the wall with envelopes where you can pull out the plan and read it. I’ve been involved with Obama’s organization, and with Bernie Sanders, now with Elizabeth Warren, and I’ve never seen a campaign organized as minutely as this one. She plans everything.”

The gravity of the Iowa caucus has brought in people from across the country not just to lend their support for a candidate, but to observe and document the process. 

Jerry Trieus is a filmmaker from Toronto who was previously located in Kentucky, documenting the races there. But the Iowa caucus particularly captured his interest. This interest was what brought him to Elizabeth Warren’s rally Saturday in Cedar Rapids.

“I think it’s fascinating,” Trieus said. “It’s democracy live. It’s amazing. But it also feels kind of like a relic because I’ve been reading about how it is much harder for people at a disadvantage to spend all day at a caucus event. I think it’s both wonderful and a challenge.”

The role of party volunteers

As the Democratic party chair of Johnson County, one of Ed Cranston’s main responsibilities is to coordinate with the state Democratic party and train precinct leaders for caucus day. Being in charge of all of the caucuses for a county of nearly 150,000 people would be hard enough — Johnson County will have more than 25,000 Democrats caucusing in 57 locations Monday — even without the intricacies of the system itself, Ed said. 

Unlike an ordinary primary in which voters simply show up and cast their ballot, the caucus occurs at a set time. Voters must show up between 6:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. to participate, though they partake in no ballot casting whatsoever. Instead, the caucus consists of several rounds of grouping voters into coalitions based on their preferred candidate, followed by realignment when coalitions are deemed too small to be viable.

In order to maximize turnout for the caucuses, Cranston has coordinated with various Johnson County officials over the last couple of months to make sure voters can make it to the caucuses easily and on time. 

“We’ve worked with the city of Iowa City (and) their bus system so that they will reroute the buses to go to precincts, locations that are not on the normal route,” Cranston said. “We’ve talked with police departments to be more lenient so that they won’t ticket on-street parking unless it’s a safety issue.”

According to Jane Cranston, both Iowans and Americans in general don’t understand the work that goes into the caucus organizing process, all of which is staffed and funded by the state Democratic party rather than the state or federal government.

“I don’t think people realize how amazing it is to get 25,000 people,” Cranston said. “And the whole caucus thing is a very complicated process with realignments and everything, and it’s only volunteers who are doing it.”

Where second choice matters

Aside from arranging the logistics of the caucus, considerable planning and strategy go into making sure one’s candidate comes out on top at the end of the night.

Prescott, who will be helping to consolidate support for the Warren coalition in Davenport on Monday, explained the need to pick up voters from unviable coalitions.

“Some people will be committed to candidates who aren’t viable,” Prescott said. “For instance, somebody like Tom Steyer, who’s not big in this area, probably won’t meet the definition of a viable group. So then we’ll realign and we’ll try to pick up those people and move them to the Warren camp.”

This process of picking up support from other candidates involves a fair amount of strategy. During the caucus, Prescott will try to convince voters to join the Warren camp during periods of realignment between rounds.

“We have talking points, which are in these boxes,” Prescott said. “This is sent out by the Elizabeth Warren organization. Elizabeth Warren is identified by what we call ‘Liberty Green,’ so anything you see that’s Liberty Green, like this, is Elizabeth Warren. So we hope when people get to the caucus they’ll be able to see us and identify with us.”

According to Jane Cranston, things can get even more complicated from there. 

“Math is a big thing,” she said, using the 2016 caucus as reference. “So let’s say Hillary’s group needed 90 (voters) to be viable. For each 90 they get one delegate. They have 100, so they really have 10 extra. So they might go to the competition of somebody they don’t want. Let’s just say they don’t want Bernie because they think he’s going to win, they go to some other person.”

Because of this, Jane said the second and even third choices of Iowa voters can end up making a big difference in who comes out on top. This is something candidates are acutely aware of, as last week in an interview with Bloomberg, Andrew Yang noted that he wouldn’t be surprised if after caucus realignment his supporters were to go to Bernie Sanders as their second choice.

Roger Ouellette, communications director for the Sanders campaign in Iowa, acknowledged the importance of this factor.

“We’re always considering the second choice,” Ouellette said. “Lot of candidates in this race. We know that there are some folks out there who are going to have to make the second choice, and we want to show that this is a campaign that’s inclusive. Maybe the Senator’s not your first choice, but hopefully we’ve resonated enough, we’ve been a kind enough campaign that they’ll consider joining us on another alignment.”

Energizing the base

Because the caucusing process in Iowa is so distinct, the election poses a unique challenge to securing voter turnout. The 11 campaigns still in the race have used differing strategies in making sure voters follow through by showing up and caucusing.

A hallmark of the Sanders campaign in Iowa, for instance, has been the “caucus concert,” which on Friday night featured Bon Iver in Clive, Iowa, and on Saturday, Vampire Weekend in Cedar Rapids. According to Ouellette, the events are meant to entertain and excite, but also to lock down caucus participation from supporters.

“We know that two days before the caucus, a big strategy in order to get people out, to get our organizers in the room talking to them is to try to get as many people into one place as possible,” Ouellette said. “These big caucus concerts are fun, they’re loose and they’re a great way to celebrate all that we’ve accomplished, but really what they are is organizing activities.” 

Ouellette says this is meant to combat the fact that many voters are discouraged from caucusing due to its unorthodox nature.

“It’s difficult for any campaign to make the convincing argument for your candidate and have them show up and cast a ballot, but it’s increasingly difficult when it’s a caucus, when it’s a specific night at a specific time,” Ouellette said. “And not only that, you don’t get to go behind the curtain and cast a ballot. You are visibly out there for a candidate. You have to stand in line, stand in one place, and your body represents your vote.”

Prescott echoed this sentiment, explaining that the uniqueness and complexity of the caucus system is something he has seen repel potential voters in the past.

“I’ve run into a few people who are obviously educated and so forth who just think the caucuses are just nonsense because they’re so chaotic, and so mixed up and they just don’t even bother going anymore,” Prescott said.

But for Ed and Jane Cranston, Iowa’s perennial role in the presidential election process — and all the political mayhem that comes along with it — is something for Iowans to embrace.

“Everybody gets so upset about so many candidates,” Jane Cranston said. “I think it’s great. More ideas, more excitement, throwing out all these solutions, discussing them at length, all the national attention. I mean Iowans are so earnest. They take it so seriously that it’s been covered all over the place. I think that part of it is okay. I know people get frustrated, but oh well.”

Daily News Editor Ben Rosenfeld can be reached at bbrosenf@umich.edu

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