We’re now just a few days from the Iowa caucuses, and the candidates are urgently trying to figure out how to pull ahead. Using past entrance polls as a guide, somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of those who show up to caucus will be doing so for the first time.
One sensible way candidates try to bring in supporters is simply to explain to newcomers how a caucus works. Eight years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama had great success with an online video titled “A Citizen’s Guide to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses.” The video was intentionally cheesy, designed to look like an old-style educational film, while being structured around questions like a website’s FAQ page. I was unable to find any evidence that this had been done before.
Obama’s video fit his successful 2008 Iowa ground game, targeting young, first-time caucus-goers who put him on top in the Hawkeye state. And so most of the top candidates this year, including Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, have posted their own how-to-caucus videos. The similarities and differences illuminate whom each campaign thinks its voters are — and are not.
What do these videos cover?
The Iowa caucuses are a bit like mini-political conventions held by the two major political parties in each of the nearly 1,700 precincts in Iowa. Caucus-goers need to know, at a minimum, where to go and when to be there.
Republican caucus-goers need no more than that. Republican caucuses are straightforward. Whoever shows up simply writes the name of their preferred candidate on a sheet of paper. The papers are collected, the votes are counted, and the results are sent on to a central location for a final tally.
Democrats’ caucuses are more complex. They don’t really vote at their caucuses. Participants sort themselves into candidate “preference groups,” or groups of supporters. For those in a preference group to actually be counted in the final delegate allocation, the group itself must be “viable.” Usually, this means that the number of people in the group must be equal to at least 15 percent of the total caucus-goers in the room. If a group is not viable, it must either recruit more members from other groups or dissolve, with its members joining other groups.
What are the Republican videos like?
Among Republican candidates, only Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) posted videos.
Donald Trump’s video: Narrated by former “Apprentice” contestant Tana Goertz, it’s very basic, looking a little like a late-night TV infomercial. It even asks viewers to call a phone number plastered on the bottom of screen to find out where their caucus will meet. Trump’s decidedly low-tech approach even reminds supporters to show up on time with a close-up of a small analog clock. Trump clearly is not reaching out to hip, young voters.
Marco Rubio’s video: Rubio likes to emphasize that he is the right candidate for the 21st century. That shows in his video. “How to Caucus for Marco Rubio in Iowa in 3 Steps” is as slickly edited as a campaign commercial. Potential supporters are told how to register as Republicans, and how to find out where to caucus. Here’s something curious, though: When supporters are being urged to show up to vote, we see a picture of Rubio standing in what looks like a gun store, in front of a rack of rifles. What is this — a subliminal message that Rubio supports gun rights?
What are the Democratic videos like?
Since Democratic caucuses are complicated, their instructional videos include more information. Obama’s video ran over six minutes, and went, slowly, step-by-step through caucus operations.
Hillary Clinton’s video: It lasts only 30 seconds, walking participants through what it calls three easy steps: find your caucus location; know when to show up; and celebrate. Apparently, the former secretary of state is aiming her instructions not at first-time caucus-goers but at old Iowa hands.
Bernie Sanders’s video: It clearly targets new caucus-goers and closely follows the Obama approach. With its shaky, hand-held camera shots, fast talking, music background and quick cutaways, this is a made-for-millennials production; my students said it looked like a Buzzfeed video. That’s a point made emphatically in the final segment, when former Iowa state senator Bev Hannon says that supporting Sanders will be “awesome,” using a bleeped multiword adjective.
What we learn from these videos
What might we glean from all of this? Trump, it seems, is appealing to older and less tech-savvy first-time participants. Rubio is targeting younger voters (and maybe gun owners), focusing first on making sure they are registered Republicans. Clinton may be relying on those who supported her back in 2008, along with some crossover Obama backers. Sanders most closely follows Obama’s path.
We know how well that worked in 2008. We’ll know by late Monday night whether it worked this year.
Paul Sracic (@pasracic) is chair of the department of politics and international relations at Youngstown State University.