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Iowa Democrats Will Caucus In Florida (And Lots Of Other Places)

Democratic leaders expect record turnout for Monday's Iowa Caucuses will break records. The addition of caucus sites outside the state will make easier for Iowans to participate. DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR
Democratic leaders expect record turnout for Monday's Iowa Caucuses will break records. The addition of caucus sites outside the state will make easier for Iowans to participate. DONKEYHOTEY/FLICKR

Here’s an Iowa caucus story with a Florida twist: For years, only Iowans within that state could participate. But now snowbirds and students living in Florida will hold caucuses of their own.

Every four years, Iowa gets a lot of attention from presidential candidates. All of the major Democratic contenders have held rallies and other events in cities like Ceder Rapids last year. And that’s where Donna Winter, a retired schoolteacher, attended as many as she could.

“I have been to events with all the top candidates at least three times,” said Winter, who is a long-time Cedar Rapids resident, but who joins her husband every year by escaping the Midwest cold by spending a few months at Isla Del Sol in St. Petersburg. Winter loves politics and she’s committed caucus-goer. She hasn’t missed one since 1976.

“You actually know some of the people who are there, and you’ve gotten to know them over the years,” she said. “That’s one of the really nice things of caucuses. It’s a community coming together.”

That thing Donna Winter loves about the caucus – the community gathering – presents some challenges, according to David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Delaware and an expert on caucus history.

“A caucus is really a party meeting,” he said. “It’s not an election, it’s not a primary. It was never meant to be.”

Usually, the annual gathering picks local and state party leaders. But every fourth year, scores more Iowans show up for these meetings. There’s no ballot – instead they stand in a corner or a room with fellow supporters of their preferred presidential candidate. That’s what gets counted.

“And as a consequence, for most of the history of this, no one has really cared that much about whether Iowans who don’t happen to be in Iowa could participate or not,” Redlawsk said.

But that means if you’re an Iowan and you’re a Florida snowbird, the only way you could participate is to go back to Iowa and show up at a caucus site. Donna Winter flew back to Cedar Rapids for the 2016 caucus. But that doesn’t work for everyone, according to Kate Payne, a reporter at Iowa Public Radio and co-host of the Caucus Land podcast.

“Iowans of a certain age love to spend the winter in Florida and in Arizona. And of course, every year there are college students who are outside of the state,” Payne said. “And those folks initially if they couldn’t make it back in the middle of winter they were out of luck.”

After the 2016 election, the Democratic National Committee ordered  Iowa Democrats to make the caucuses more accessible for Iowans outside the state. At first, the Iowa Democratic Party floated the idea of a “virtual caucus” where the Iowa diaspora could participate by phone. But after the DNC raised concerns about hacking and manipulation, Iowa Democrats opted for remote caucuses at 97 sites across the United States and around the world.

When Donna Winter heard about this plan, she organized a caucus at St. Andrew Lutheran Church, just a few miles from her St. Pete condo.

“I did not know another Democrat from Iowa anywhere in Florida. It was a leap of faith, but I thought surely there have to be,” she said.

Turns out there are plenty of Iowa Democrats in Florida. About 100 registered with the state party to show up in St. Petersburg. In Florida, caucuses also are scheduled in Gulf Breeze on the Panhandle and Port Charlotte, and in other cities like Chicago, New York, Paris, even Tblisi, Georgia.

While more Iowans will get to caucus in 2020, Payne warns it doesn’t solve the biggest problem: a caucus is a meeting that could stretch well into the night.

“For people who can’t take that time out of their day for any reason, whether they’re working or maybe they have small kids or maybe they need extra transportation help or accessibility needs. There’s still a burden on those people,” she said.

For now, Iowa Democrats are focusing on this new kind of caucus and helping residents who aren’t in Iowa help pick their party’s presidential nominee.

It will be typically nice Florida weather for those Iowans at the St. Pete caucus.

Monday night’s forecast for Cedar Rapids: rain and snow and a low of 27.