The tradition-bound Iowa caucuses are set to allow some online voting next year and among the likely beneficiaries are older voters, who’ll press candidates to focus on issues such as prescription drug prices, Social Security and Medicare.
Boosted participation by those 65 and older — a demographic that already accounts for more than a quarter of the Democratic turnout in the caucuses — could provide even more incentive for presidential hopefuls to pitch to voters who otherwise might not venture out on a winter night to attend in person.
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The plan by Iowa Democrats is for the virtual caucus meetings to generate roughly 10% of the delegates from each of the state’s four congressional districts, no matter how many people actually participate. While remote participation could carry less voting weight than in-person caucusing, it will be a slice of the electorate that can’t be ignored.
“Ten percent is not small potatoes and good campaigns will have to figure out how to turn that group out,” said Brad Anderson, Iowa director for AARP and a former Democratic nominee for secretary of state. “They can’t afford to ignore any voter, but a smart strategy for any candidate would be to make sure that they are addressing issues important to the 50-plus demographic.”
It would be the most significant change to the Iowa caucuses since their inception in 1972, and is being made as many of the Democratic candidates are making direct appeals to younger voters, who overwhelmingly favor the party.
One of the beneficiaries is likely to be Joe Biden, who is still expected to declare his third bid for the presidency this month, despite statements from two women that his uninvited physical contact made them feel uncomfortable. The former vice president, 76, gets some of his strongest support from older voters, while Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, 77, who would be Biden’s chief rival at this stage, relies heavily on younger supporters.
The Iowa Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee are expected to approve the proposed changes in the coming months, creating the first-ever form of absentee voting in the caucuses.
Once it’s in place, Democratic voters will be able to cast ballots the week before the in-person meetings, with participants allowed to submit a list of as many as five candidates ranked by preference. In the past, they had to show up at school gymnasiums, fire stations, community centers and other gathering places to show their support for a presidential candidate. In 2020, there will be roughly 1,700 such precinct locations.
The Iowa chapter of AARP, the largest advocacy group in the U.S. for people 50 and older, is already preparing to train its members to participate in the virtual caucuses if they’re unable to attend in person. Four of the six scheduled voting sessions are during the day, with the remaining two at 7 p.m.
“I believe the real winners are seniors,” Anderson said. “Those are times that work really well for people who are older and retired.”
Anderson said he expects there will be 60,000 to 75,000 AARP members participating in the 2020 caucuses. The organization has about 370,000 members in Iowa and is one of the largest statewide organizations.
Those 50 and older already typically account for the majority of participants in Iowa, the first state to winnow the field. That age group accounted for 58% of Democratic caucus-goers in 2016, according to entrance polls, while 28% were 65 and older.
Sanders only received 26% of the 65 and older Iowa vote in 2016, while Hillary Clinton was backed by 69% of those in that age group. Sanders did much better among younger voters, securing 84% from those 17 to 29 (people who are 17 can participate if they turn 18 by Election Day the following November). But they only represented 18% of the electorate.
Overall, Sanders nearly tied Clinton in the 2016 caucuses, and he is looking to improve on that performance to break away from other 2020 Democrats. Sanders, like other candidates next year, will have to adjust his strategy to target voters participating in person as well as those taking advantage of the virtual caucus system.
Dave Nagle, a former congressman who also served as chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, said he expects both older and younger voters to most heavily take advantage of the new option. “You might see it on the ends of the spectrum,” he said.
“The desire is still to get people in the room,” said Scott Brennan, a member of the DNC from Iowa who has worked on the proposal and is helping guide it through the party approval process.
“I would be surprised if a particular demographic would really jump to the virtual caucus,” he said. “It may just be a scattering. Once it is over, we will have some data and predictability for next time.”
The Nevada State Democratic Party also recently released a plan that calls for two virtual caucuses in its Feb. 22 contest, after Iowa and New Hampshire hold their votes.
Weather is always a consideration for the Iowa caucuses, but it isn’t likely to be much of a determining factor for whether people decide to participate in person or electronically. Registration for participation is expected to close more than two weeks before the actual caucuses. “If it turns out to be a snowy night, you still have to go out,” Brennan said.
The record for participation in the Democratic caucuses — about 240,000 people — was set in 2008 on a very cold night when then-Senator Barack Obama scored a win that would set him on a path to the White House. Most political observers in the state expect that mark will be surpassed next year given the large number of candidates and strong opposition to President Donald Trump.
If the caucuses do skew even older, that could bolster complaints of party leaders from other states who say that Iowa is too rural, old and white compared with the nation as a whole to be given so much power in the nomination process. Some of that criticism is fueled by envy over all the attention the state gets every four years.
Iowa’s population is 86.5% non-Hispanic white, compared with 61.5% nationwide, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Those 65 and older represent 16.1% of the state’s population, while nationally it’s 14.9%.
The presidential campaigns and Iowa interest groups are already gaming out how to best take advantage of the new rules. Candidates will likely have to make voter-by-voter decisions on whether to push someone to attend the regular caucuses or the virtual ones.
“The people in the room are still the best example of your organizational strength,” Brennan said, “but because of the size of the field you can’t ignore it.”
— Read Sherrod Brown Seeks Medicare Buy-In Option Now, on ThinkAdvisor.