Ask just about any Iowa Democrat about the state’s 2016 fight-to-the-death caucusesand it elicits a similar response: a long pause, a deep breath and a plea to talk about something — anything — else.
The ghosts of Hillary Clinton’s razor-thin victory over Bernie Sanders are still so vivid, and the vitriol of their Iowa battle is still so fresh, state and local Democratic Party leaders are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure the 2020 caucuses are as peaceful and bloodless as possible.
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They’re shutting down the conspiracy theorists at local meetings who continue to insist the 2016 caucus outcome was rigged for Clinton. They’re holding back on candidate endorsements in the hopes of avoiding conflict. They’re even encouraging the individual candidates to save the aggression for the general election,while going so far as to hold social events to help rival Democratic campaign staffers build a rapport.
By exerting subtle but persistent pressure on the campaigns to remain respectful to each other, Iowa officials are aiming to keep Democrats focused on the prize — defeating Donald Trump — rather than risk a repeat of a destructive cycle three years ago that ultimately hobbled the party as it moved toward November.
“There is no tolerance whatsoever for the bullshit this time,” said Polk County Chair Sean Bagniewski. “When I see people standing up spouting conspiracy theories in meetings, people start reacting. When it’s on social media, there’s an avalanche of people saying, ‘not this year, we’re not doing this again.’ There’s almost an overreaction.”
It’s hard to overstate the bad blood created by the rancorous 2016 fight. Clinton barely edged out Sanders by three-tenths of a percentage point, 49.9 percent to 49.6 percent, on caucus night, leading to a subsequent round of county and district conventions that, in many cases, devolved into shouting matches between the Clinton and Sanders factions. A fist fight broke out in one county; in another, activists dug through trash cans to make sure evidence of their turnout weren’t destroyed.
“It was just hell,” said Bagniewski, who was not yet county chair in 2016, describing the convention he attended. “Worst day of my life.”
Party leaders say the Clinton-Sanders divisions ran so deep, it depressed the Democratic general election turnout in Iowa, contributing to Trump’s 10-point romp after Barack Obama twice carried the state.
“To get the reputation that you’re helping serve this up to Trump again – it’s a deathwish,” Bagniewski said.
Those marathon, cutthroat county and district conventions took their toll on party leaders: according to the Iowa Democratic Party, 75 percent of Iowa’s county chairs have changed since 2016, with many of them stepping down or feeling pressured to retire.
State party leadership also changed over, and sweeping new rules to the caucuses were adopted.
This time around, fearful of reigniting distrust at the grassroots level, many county Democratic chairs — who have the abilityto act as influential on-the-ground surrogates for candidates — are holding off on endorsements.
Woodbury County Chair Jeremy Dumkrieger, who supported Sanders in 2016, is among the chairs who won’t endorse in 2020 and he’s called on other chairs to do the same. That’s not always easy given the aggressive courtship by 2020 contenders who are inundating local pols with invites to dinners or private meetings in the hopes of winning their support.
“We just don’t need any question whatsoever about that kind of thing,” Dumkrieger said. “We need to be on the complete up and up.”
The presidential campaigns have gotten the message. Bagniewski says he’s noticed the friendly banter between candidates when they’re visiting the state at the same time. Staffers of competing campaigns in Iowa and other early states have helped to advance the notion of civility, posting photos of social gatherings under the hashtag #friendship2020.
Bernie Sanders’ senior adviser in Iowa, Pete D’Alessandro, said thatif in an organizing meeting a supporter reopens complaints from the last election, they’re immediately cut off.
“We can’t keep rehashing 2016 because every time we’re doing it, even at a meeting, we’re not organizing. We’re not knocking on doors,” he said. “2016 is over. It doesn’t do us any good to have blood in the eyes. It’s gone. This is 2020, it’s a different race, it’s a different dynamic. We have to win this time.”
Not everyone is convinced the efforts will work in such a high-stakes environment. Some Democrats say if the 2020 primary heads toward an ideological struggle over the soul of the party, the clash will first play out in Iowa.
“The activist crowd is still thirsty for a fight,” said a Iowa field organizer with one top-tier 2020 candidate, who declined to speak on the record. “There is plenty of discontent under the surface and it’s a matter of how much bubbles up. Main Street Dems just want to win the general but activists are fighting a lot of other internal struggles.”
This time around, new rules will “lock in” the number of delegates on caucus night. Under the old practice, the delegates apportioned to each candidate would remain in flux even after caucus night, contingent on how many supporters for each campaign turned out to subsequent county, district and state conventions, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price said. That only served to extend the primary battle for months.
“Iowa had the Bernie-Hillary divide longer than anywhere in the country; one of the last delegate selection contests in the country,” Price said. “The locking of caucus night results allows us here to move on from the caucuses. The day after the caucuses we can start focusing on the general election.“
Other caucus mechanics will be different in 2020 — more lessons learned from the 2016 experience. The historically close outcome between Sanders and Clinton exposed flaws in a system in long need of a professional upgrade, Price said. There was no mechanism to order a recount, for example, and no uniform way to check in caucus-goers to their local precinct caucuses. Both of those issues have been addressed for 2020.
Price says it’s more evidence the party has moved on from 2016.
“I don’t see a lot of the anger that existed three years ago still at play,” Price said. “There’s still a lot of people out there sizing up candidates. I think that broadly speaking the party is in a much better spot.”
Still, just to be sure, local party leaders like Dumkrieger are doing their part to ensure the 2016 experience isn’t repeated: he’s hosting a barbecue event where he’s inviting staffers from competing 2020 campaigns.
“I just want everyone to know our mission is the same and that’s to get rid of Donald Trump,” he said. “There’s no need for sharp elbows.”