The Iowa caucus has always been about more than casting votes; since becoming the “first in the nation” to vote in the primaries in 1972, the coming of the caucus has always led Iowans to hold assemblies in schools, community centers, and neighborhood homes to discuss the candidates of either party and which presidential hopeful has the most to give to the state.
These events were originally as tech-less as they sound, but this year’s go around is timed with the societal changes that have come along with smartphones and the incessant rise of social media.
“We all have smartphones, and we not only tweet regularly, but we have Instagram and YouTube and video cameras in our pockets,” comments Professor Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines. “This will be a caucus that’s documented in a way no previous caucus has been documented.”
The Iowa caucus is different for Republicans and Democrats. For the Republican caucus, Iowans gather in their percents and cast private votes. Those votes are tallied and their numbers determine how many delegates each candidate receives at the party’s nominating convention, which takes place in July.
The Democratic caucus operates differently: When the Iowans assemble in their individual precincts, they publicly declare their support of whichever candidate by dividing themselves into sections within an assembly room. Then they mix again, attempting to convince friends, family and neighbors to join their cause or in turn being convinced to join the causes of other candidates. Apparently this process involves everything from begging to free cookies. If any group ever loses the minimum amount of people to become viable, that group dissolves and its members must then pick a new group with which to align. That’s when the real fun begins.
“It’s a weird parallel universe where stuff that would never fly in any other aspect of politics all of a sudden becomes really normal,” explained Crystal Patterson, a former digital team member of Clinton’s 2008 campaign.
At the end of the assembly, the number of members in each camp are written down and a formula is used to determine how any delegates each candidate will receive.
This year, we can add Twitter to the occasion. Twitter will allow for caucus-goers to understand how their candidate is doing in other districts, which can in turn influence their own home-town support. Statistics have shown that people tend to want to join the majority.
“Our voting calculations in our own heads change depending on which candidates are doing well,” Caufield explained. “We’re going to have a lot more information about that this time around.”
Adam Sharp is Twitter’s head of new, government and elections. He believes that Twitter will help people to understand the entire democratic process better this election, especially that of Iowa:
“The fair weather supporters of the candidates, hoping they neighbors speak for them, will now have more visibility to see and understand how critical their vote is when they are getting those real time reports,” he explained.
Tech is also expected to allow for more accurate recording, a much-needed change considering Republican leadership actually declared the wrong victor (Mitt Romney instead of Rick Santorum) in 2012. Microsoft has built a reporting app that they hope will allow for fewer embarrassing mishaps. The app will also flag inconsistencies in the data, such as a strangely large turnout four a district or missing precincts. Microsoft predicts that the biggest challenge will be simply beating the learning curve for the app; the company is used to developing software that can handle huge amounts of information.
The Iowa Democratic party will also be holding a tele-caucus for the first time ever this year.
Campaigns are also developing new technology for caucus counting. Bernie Sanders’ campaign has apparently built an app that allows precinct captains to track how preference groups change over the course of the night, information that will surely prove helpful to presidential hopefuls as primaries continue on through the nation.
“If we did well ind districts where there was a candidate who’d didn’t get viability, and we’re able to peel those people off, we’ll be able to surface that information in real time,” explained Pinky Weitzman, the digital director of Sanders’ Iowa campaign.