DES MOINES (AP) — While there has been little fanfare, the 2014 Iowa political calendar effectively begins Tuesday night at the precinct caucuses for both parties.
These organizing meetings — which kick off a series of party events, culminating with the state conventions in June — tend to mostly attract loyalists in nonpresidential election years. But party leaders are urging Iowa residents to participate, insisting that coming out on a chilly January night really does matter this year and beyond.
“For us, this is our team, these are the folks that we are going to rely on in 2014 to get us across the finish line,” said Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Troy Price. “These are the folks that help us carry out the presidential caucus in 2016. We want to see a robust group of folks that will represent our party.”
The caucuses begin a process of building a volunteer base that sets the tone for the elections in 2014 and starts organizing in advance of the 2016 presidential election in the early-voting state of Iowa. The attendees at these events select people who will serve in county-level party roles, and they hold the first round of voting for delegates for the 2014 district and state conventions. They also vote on issues to be included in the official party platforms.
Attendance is expected to be much lower than in presidential years. More than 120,000 attended the 2012 Republican caucuses, when there was an open primary, and more than 200,000 Democrats participated in the 2008 caucuses, the last time there was an open Democratic presidential primary.
Party leaders declined to predict turnout but said it would be nowhere near those numbers. That means the caucuses for the 1,688 precincts will be consolidated into fewer locations this year, with many precincts gathering at single locations — such as a high school — before breaking into smaller groups for discussions and votes.
While nonpresidential caucuses are more procedural and designed for building the party ranks, there is some political intrigue building this year around this process.
Most importantly, some of the people who come out Tuesday could end up playing a key role in deciding contested 2014 primary elections. If no one gets 35 percent of the vote in a June 3 primary election, then the candidate is selected by party delegates at district or state conventions. The process for becoming one of those delegates begins Tuesday and continues at the county conventions in March.
Several races could end up being decided at a convention this year, most notably the Republican Senate primary, in which six candidates are vying for the nomination. The Republican primary for the congressional seat being vacated by retiring U.S. Rep. Tom Latham is also growing crowded, and there are competitive GOP and Democratic primaries for the congressional seat open because U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley is running for the Senate.
“If you want to have a say in a potential convention campaign, then you need to be involved next Tuesday and be involved in the delegate selection process,” said Iowa GOP Party Chairman AJ Spiker.
In 2002, U.S. Rep. Steve King became the Republican nominee for his congressional district through a convention selection process.
Some candidates are trying to make sure they are enlisting sympathetic people to participate Tuesday night. Republican Senate candidate Sam Clovis said his campaign was actively encouraging people to participate, though he stressed that no one showing up Tuesday would be obligated to support a particular candidate down the line.
“I think for any candidate what really is the process is to make sure you have a good ground game and ID as many people as you can so they do get into the caucuses,” Clovis said. “This isn't the end of the game; in fact, it's just the start.”
Another effort underway going into Tuesday is a push by some veteran Republicans, such as Gov. Terry Branstad, to grow the number of people who participate on the GOP side. There is rising concern in the establishment wing of the party that evangelicals, Tea Party supporters and libertarians have taken over the GOP party apparatus and have alienated more pragmatic voters.
Branstad's allies fear that this shift creates a perception that the Iowa caucuses are optional for some presidential candidates, and they hope that expanding the rank-and-file numbers could pave the way for a mainstream candidate to win in 2016.
“An engaged and strong party with a vibrant headquarters is essential to winning elections in the off year, and the ability of the party to raise money and be in a strong position in 2014 will carry on into the next cycle ... as we look to select the nominees for president,” said Republican consultant David Kochel, who has been critical of the current party leadership.
Spiker, a supporter of former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, dismissed talk of conflict within the party, saying there are “always going to be disagreements.”