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In Vast White Iowa, Black Dems Ready to Play 2020 Role

In the state where Obama's 2008 candidacy cleared its first important hurdle, black Democrats are energized as seldom seen

Vastly White, Iowa, Black Dems
In this May 23, 2019, photo, Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro speaks with a supporter in Durham, N.C. VOA

In Iowa, one of the whitest states in the nation, more than 100 black Democrats who expect to attend the 2020 caucuses crammed into a tiny community center in the capital city to position themselves as a force in the most wide-open presidential campaign in a generation.

“There is hope! There is hope, I tell you, the same hope that Barack Obama brought us,” Jamie Woods, former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus, implored the cheering group last month.

In the state where Obama’s 2008 candidacy cleared its first important hurdle, black Democrats are energized as seldom seen, in part motivated by overwhelming dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump. That enthusiasm could make a difference in a state that holds a presidential caucus, which, unlike an open primary, attracts only the most motivated voters. That means a candidate who can rally more black voters in the caucuses can gain an outsized advantage, even though African Americans make up only 2% of Iowa’s population.

Iowa’s caucus, coming next February as the first event in the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating contest, is an early test of how voters are going to respond to nearly two dozen candidates and could be a harbinger of the primary a few weeks later in South Carolina, where African Americans comprise most of the Democratic primary electorate.

Vastly White, Iowa, Black Dems
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker speaks during a campaign stop on at Allen University in Columbia, South Carolina, April 26, 2019. VOA

“They’re realizing that their voice needs to be heard,” said Deidre DeJear, the first African American to win a primary for statewide office in Iowa and now state chairwoman for Sen. Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign. “And they are using the platform they have whether they’re elected or whether just a regular voter.”

Stacey Walker, the first black county board chairman in Iowa’s second-most-populous metro area, said she hasn’t seen this kind of energy among black operatives, activists and officeholders in Iowa in years.

“Not since the Obama coalition have we seen so many persons of color actively engaged and inspired by our politics,” Walker said. “It hasn’t always been this way, and certainly not in Iowa.”

Giving an early indication of the energy within this small but influential segment of the caucus electorate, more than 200 black Democrats braved a driving ice storm in February to attend the Iowa Democratic Black Caucus winter fundraiser at a north Des Moines union hall.

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Candidates are looking to harness that energy. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential candidate and former mayor of Newark, has convened city leaders, including Quentin Hart, the first black mayor of Iowa’s most densely African American city, Waterloo. Booker met Saturday with Shane McCampbell, the first black mayor of Burlington, along the Mississippi River in southeast Iowa.

Harris met privately with state Rep. Phyllis Thede, who is African American, before the four-term lawmaker moderated a campaign event for the California Democrat in eastern Iowa earlier this year.

In 2008, when Obama became the first African American to win the Iowa caucuses, 4% of caucus participants were black, double the percentage of the state’s overall black population. Obama received 76% of the black vote on caucus night.

Non-black candidates are working to attract influential black supporters, who can help make the difference in a close race, especially given the crowded field.

Vastly White, Iowa, Black Dems
In Iowa, one of the whitest states in the nation, more than 100 black Democrats who expect to attend the 2020 caucuses crammed into a tiny community center. Pixabay

Amy Klobuchar, for instance, last month hired Woods, the former Iowa Black Democratic Caucus chairwoman, as her caucus campaign’s Iowa political director, giving the Minnesota senator a key ally in the competition for black votes.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang hired Al Womble, a black Des Moines-area businessman known for his behind-the-scenes organizing, as his Iowa campaign chairman.

Multiple black candidates in the race and the outreach by others in the crowded field create a different scenario than in 2008, when Obama was the only black candidate.

What’s more, most of the candidates put ending racial disparity in income and criminal justice atop their agendas.

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“Even though we’re talking about racial disparity and white supremacy, and all this is bad, that this isn’t who we are. No one single candidate is leading the charge,” said Guy Nave, a Democrat from Decorah who is black and plans to attend the caucus.

Iowa Democrats are predicting turnout in the 2020 caucuses will beat the record 237,000 set in 2008, as Trump’s approval in Iowa has struggled to top 50 percent. Meanwhile, candidates themselves are working to attract first-time caucus participants to eke out any advantage in a field that now numbers 23.

That means even a narrow edge of support from African Americans, in combination with a coalition of other voters, could make the difference for the winner in Iowa next February, said former Iowa Democratic Party executive director Norm Sterzenbach.

“If you can find a candidate that has a stronghold in a particular demographic and is able to turn them out, that could turn into something extraordinary on caucus night,” said Sterzenbach, who is advising former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign. (VOA)


Next Story

Iowa and Nevada to Cast their Votes over Telephone

Democrats in the early presidential contest states of Iowa and Nevada will be able to cast their votes

FILE - An audience member arrives at a rally for a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, March 8, 2019. VOA

Democrats in the early presidential contest states of Iowa and Nevada will be able to cast their votes over the telephone instead of showing up at their states’ traditional neighborhood caucus meetings next February, according to plans unveiled by the state parties.

The tele-caucus systems, the result of a mandate from the Democratic National Committee, are aimed at opening the local-level political gatherings to more people, especially evening shift-workers and people with disabilities, whom critics of the caucuses have long said are blocked from the process.

The changes are expected to boost voter participation across the board, presenting a new opportunity for the Democratic Party’s 2020 candidates to drive up support in the crucial early voting states.

“This is a no-excuse option” for participation, said Shelby Wiltz, the Nevada Democrats’ caucus director.

Iowa, Nevada, Votes
FILE – A precinct captain argues his position during a Democratic caucus at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada, Feb. 20, 2016. VOA

Party officials don’t have an estimate of how many voters will take advantage of the call-in option. But in Iowa, some recent polls show as many as 20% of Democrats will participate virtually. In Nevada, most voters tend to cast ballots early during regular elections, and party officials expect many will take advantage of the early presidential vote.

While rolling out a new voting system holds the promise of more voter participation, it also comes with potential risk for confusion or technical troubles. But the party is moving forward to try and address long-standing criticism that the caucuses are exclusionary and favor some candidates over others.

Increasing criticism

The Iowa caucuses, a series of party-run, local-level organizing meetings that adopted a presidential preference element more than 50 years ago, have come under increasing criticism in the past decade for their fixed evening time and place. Such rules effectively barred participation in the first-in-the-country nominating contest, for instance, for parents unable to find child care or older voters hesitant to venture out in the dead of winter.

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Hillary Clinton and her supporters complained that Iowa’s process “disenfranchised” those unable to attend after she finished a disappointing third place in the 2008 caucuses.

In 2016, backers of Sen. Bernie Sanders cried foul over the Iowa results when Clinton won a razor-thin margin, 49.9% to 49.6%, despite some irregularities in reporting results. The dispute, replicated in part in Nevada, was a key factor in the push from groups on the left to overhaul the nominating process heading into 2020.

Nevada, the third state in the Democrats’ nominating contest sequence, has only been an early caucus state since 2008, and the process still remains relatively new to many residents.

Rural benefits

Iowa, Nevada, Votes
FILE – Precinct Chairwoman Judy Wittkop explains the rules during a caucus in Le Mars, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2008. VOA

By opting for a dial-in program, the systems can reach people in Iowa’s and Nevada’s vast rural stretches where broadband internet coverage may be spotty. Iowa since 2014 has offered a smaller-scale tele-caucus, allowing out-of-state members of the military and Iowans living abroad to call in to live neighborhood caucus meetings and participate over the phone.

“One, we are a rural state. And let’s be honest, outside of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada is a rural state. Everyone is connected by phone,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said.

The DNC’s mandate has been a challenge for party operatives who sought to maintain security while also maintaining the spirit of the caucuses, which are chiefly local, party-building activities aimed at electing delegates to party conventions. Officials say by avoiding an internet-based program, they are reducing the risk of hacking, a key concern in an era of renewed concern about election tampering.

While Nevada Democrats said accessibility, not security, drove them to opt for a phone-in system, Iowa Democrats said they felt a lower-tech option was safer.

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“With this system, it’s easier than making sure thousands of computers across the state are not filled with malware and not being hacked,” Price said.

Security concerns

Yet officials acknowledge that relying on phone systems does raise security concerns.

“Are they unhackable? Certainly not,” said Jeremy Epstein, a voting systems expert with ACM, the largest international association of computer science professionals. “None of these technologies are really bullet proof.”

The state parties presented their plans late last month to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. Committee members applauded the work and gave conditional approval but asked for more information about the security and functionality of the systems.

“We are working with every state party that is integrating these tools so they can make their voting process secure and successful. We look forward to working with Democrats in these states to address the committee’s questions,” DNC spokesman David Bergstein said in a statement.

Both state parties plan to require Democratic voters to register online in advance of their virtual caucus, verifying their identity with a “multi-factor authentication.” Voters will receive a PIN that they’ll have to enter when they call in to participate.

Iowans who register on time will have six times to choose from to participate by phone, including the in-person caucus night, Feb. 3. Nevadans who register for the virtual caucus can participate on Feb. 16 or 17. Unlike Iowa, Nevada is also offering four days of in-person early caucusing to give people more options.

Wiltz said security experts with the DNC will be vetting the systems later this year to test for vulnerabilities to breaches or hacking.

“This isn’t something that we’re taking lightly. We understand our responsibility,” Wiltz said. (VOA)