Political pillars. Democrat David Nagle, republican David Oman, using extensive political experience and expertise in analyzing, advising and administering the Iowa Caucuses. We're seeking their insight on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, June 17 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa's political parties are enablers, providing the organizational philosophical umbrella for those holding office and for candidates hoping to be elected. With the primary elections past now, republican and democratic state parties are shifting gears, supporting now individual candidates and they're looking back too, analyzing their performances in the presidential nominating process. Through Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses last February, Dave Nagle, three-term Congressman, former state legislator, headed the state Democratic Party during the 1980s and he is now chairing the democrat's caucus review committee. David Oman was a part of Iowa republicans' introspective consideration of their caucuses back in 2012. He is a former Chief of Staff for Iowa Governors Ray and Branstad, also with experience co-chairing the state's Republican Party. Gentlemen, it's been a long time since you've been back in the Iowa Press chairs. It's nice to have you back.

Oman: Good to see you, Dean. You haven't changed a bit.

Nagle: The amazing thing is we all look young yet.

Borg: That means you haven't been watching, David.

Oman: I do.

Borg: There's similarities here, two David's at the table, we've got to be careful on which David we're calling on so we'll watch that. But you're both from Waterloo, you both have headed your respective parties in Iowa and there may be other similarities too but I'm struck by those.

Oman: Well we're also friends.

Nagle: Which in this era we need more of rather than less.

Borg: We'll see if we can get some divisions as we do the questioning.

Nagle: You're going to work today.

Borg: James Lynch writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Nagle, I've heard from national voices and actually James and I hear when we're out on the campaign trail from Iowans who say the caucuses have run their course. So the core question here is, why save these things?

Nagle: It's not we save them just for Iowa. It's important of course to us. But the more important aspect of the way we start the nominating process in both the Republican and Democratic Party is that we want to give candidates who may be lesser known an opportunity to compete in a field that is open, that has a reputation well established for being fair, that isn't subject to the whims of one person, a king-maker or a queen to designate them and it will give even the candidate with little funding, such as Howard Dean when he started, or Bernie Sanders, the opportunity actually to bring their message and their personality to national attention. You do that by providing a state that puts a premium on grassroots organization and interaction with the electorate rather than a media campaign conducted in one of the largest states where you need $100 million even to start.

Henderson: Mr. Oman, I've heard people say republicans kind of messed up in 2012, democrats messed up in 2016, it's time to move on. Why aren't they right?

Oman: Well, look, these caucuses we know are good for Iowa. We can talk about that in a second. But Iowa is good for the process and good for the country, Kay, and I think we ought to talk more about that. Look, we're 26th in area, which means we're a middle-sized state, you can get around with a tank of gas about anywhere. We're 30th with our gross state product. We're 30th in population. We're a great state. Not as diverse as some others but becoming more so. I agree with David as well that not only is it a state where someone unknown can become known, like Jimmy Carter or Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, but it's also a state where you can get people organized pretty quickly. Keep in mind these caucuses are also a party-building exercise. Yes, we indicate a presidential preference and that gets all the headlines, but it benefits our party.

Borg: The state party?

Oman: Both parties, both parties.

Borg: Democrat, republican or national and state?

Nagle: Probably all of them.

Oman: The caucuses start the process that go to the county and the district and the state convention and then the national convention. So it's a gathering of the clan, this year on the republican side it was a pretty big clan. We had 187,000 people caucus which was half again more than ever before. But I want to go back to why we're good for the country and why we should stay number one. We're also a clean state. We're an open state. We're an honest state. We're a transparent state. And thanks to some of the recommendations that were done by the task force in '12 that the GOP had after a photo finish, people tried to accuse people of certain things and look for ulterior motives, we had a photo finish. Look, I go to car races, people go to horse races, every so often you have a photo finish.

Borg: Why was that good for the country? Get to the point here.

Oman: Because we took a look at that photo finish, Dean, and came up with some very good recommendations about how to better train our caucus leaders. We had 300 training sessions, two at least in every county, and we have a much better process on reporting the results. People vote with paper ballots, we used a Microsoft app to send in the totals, they were immediately placed onto the Internet, everybody could see the numbers and our task force recommended that we certify in 72 hours. This year with a record turnout the numbers were certified in 22 hours. By five o'clock the next night every number written down on paper in every precinct was checked and double checked and those results as the candidates were still landing in New Hampshire they knew the results in Iowa were clear and confirmed.

Borg: Jim Lynch?

Lynch: Both of you have talked about party building and the grassroots process here. But I'm wondering if the caucuses haven't been a victim of their own success. You had 187,000 people turn out this year. But in the contested U.S. Senate race earlier this month, 97,000, 98,000 democrats voted. There seems to be a real drop off after the caucuses. How do you maintain that enthusiasm and that energy, Dave Nagle, and keep building the party and the grassroots?

Nagle: That's a very good point because one of the criticisms of the caucuses is only this year I think roughly 30% of the democrats, registered democrats, registered republicans participated in their respective caucuses. And people say, well we ought to go to a primary and everybody can vote. Well, that's not true, first of all. But secondly it really depends on the race. Now if you want to go back to 2014 and look at the Iowa Democratic Party caucuses or 2012 rather, participation was way down, I think it was around the 75,000. So part of it is generated by what the contest is. If you have a competitive contest on the democratic side in the primary there weren't the heated contests that generate a larger turnout. But the fact that people choose to participate in the caucus I don't think is a sign against them, I think it's a sign of affirmation of their importance.

Lynch: But does the interest in the process drop off then and it doesn't carry through into the primary?

Nagle: Well, to a certain extent everybody is interested in the president, fewer or less people are interested in who their senator is, fewer less are interested in who the Congress representative is and fewer less state representative, state senators. So as you go down the ballot the interest of the public generally has a tendency to wane anyway.

Oman: Jim, I might just jump in here. The interest that we had in our caucuses wasn't just with the number of people showing up, think of the number of people that ran. You had them out here one after another all through calendar 2015. We had 17 people, 15 of whom made a serious effort, a couple dropped out along the way. That rippled through where after the caucuses in the counties, in the congressional district where I am, the third, we met in Creston, we had 31 people running to be delegate. So I think it fueled a lot of energy and that has sustained today.

Nagle: Let me get you, if I could, with your permission, just get you back to a more fundamental question. And that goes to the very heart of why do we have political parties? What role do political parties play in the democratic process? And is the caucus doing the public a service by having strong political parties? And the answer is yes because the purpose of a political party, and a very quick answer is, one, it combines people with similar ideological beliefs into a form of action. It marshals the resources of those individuals to elect representatives who reflect their views. And third, it puts a measure of accountability of those holding office because if the republicans are in power and do well their electorate will reward them, if they do poorly they'll punish them and remove them.

Henderson: So why are there more registered no party voters if the parties are so strong because these caucuses are so great?

Nagle: Well, it's not just because the caucuses are great. But the truth is it's about a third, a third and a third in Iowa. You've got about a third, 600,000 -- some people don't care about government and their focus is on their kids, their focus is on their church, they have that right. This is America. You're free to make your choice. But for those of us concerned about government policy and focus on it, for those individuals, our citizens, the parties allow them a mechanism of expressing their belief.

Henderson: When you convened your working group to review the caucuses for the Democratic Party it was said nothing was off the table.

Nagle: That's correct.

Henderson: And then about 20 minutes later the thing that was taken off the table was a head count. Why don't democrats concede that they should take a head count of how many people are there?

Borg: At the caucuses.

Henderson: At the caucuses.

Nagle: Because that's not our system. Our system is designed --

Borg: But Kay's asking, Dave, why not change the system?

Nagle: Because, well first of all we'd have to get the DNC's permission. But the second is we think by using delegates from precincts to county that we actually build a stronger party and we incorporate more grassroots input to it. Now there has been some criticisms of delegate equivalency. But if you stop and look at how delegate equivalency, how people are elected from an individual precinct, it's based on proportional representation, the same as our representatives, the same as our state senators, the same as our city council people and it works and it has worked. And the fact that this race was close, big races never bring any criticism to the process, the fact that this race was close, as you found out in 2012, brings a lot of scrutiny. But the reality is that the results we found in the caucuses have been proven throughout the entire process. So we're not going to do I don't think a head count. Now I'm still open if somebody can come and make a persuasive argument. But if you were at the first meeting -- pardon?

Henderson: Mr. Oman's party does a head count. Why? If it's so great to have delegate equivalence why do republicans have a head count?

Oman: Well, we've agreed and chairs and co-chairs before us have agreed that we celebrate the other party's choice, we respect and honor that and I'm not here to tell the Democratic Party how to run a caucus. I'm glad ours is a little more simple. It's perhaps the world's biggest straw poll. We don't need a slide rule and abacus and a calculator and all the rest to figure it all out. But we verify, we are able to verify, as we talked about a couple of minutes ago, who is there, how many are there, their preference for a presidential nominee of our party, it is all written down, it's all reported in as I mentioned and those names then exist and we're able to follow up and talk with them through the rest of the campaign. That's a good process.

Henderson: And that's the point that the Sanders folks make, there was no head count, there was no way to recount a race that was razor thin.

Nagle: Well, here's the other point about the reason we do it different from the republicans, and I respect their process, our party respects their process. But we also, in the concept of a caucus with the election of delegates, seek to reach a consensus. There's a magic threshold in the democratic caucus called the 15% rule. You have to have 15% in order to qualify to elect a delegate. But you don't do that just by walking in. You, in the Democratic Party, get a second choice. And the reason for that is our party is trying to build a consensus on who the candidate or candidates should be that advance. And so if you go in there and you were for O'Malley and you find out that you're the only one in the county that was, then you have a chance to consider Sanders, you have a chance to consider Clinton, you have a chance to go independent on this scenario. So part of the reason we do it the way we do is we find that it helps build consensus as we move through the process.

Lynch: David Oman, I think the Republican Party raised about a million dollars to do the caucuses this year. What does it get spent on and is that priced too high for state parties to keep these things running, a million dollars to put on caucuses?

Oman: That's a fair amount of money. We know that. But look, when we had that photo finish in '12 the charter for the task force that 15 of us worked on was to come back with a plan that made sure that Iowa had the most honest, open, transparent caucus anywhere in the United States. And we did that in 2016. I've already talked about that I think a couple of times. Sure, money was spent to get that electronic reporting. A lot was spent to do the training. I went to training again even though this is now my 11th cycle. And the training was fabulous and people showed up at those caucuses knowing what to do. And if I could just take a second, we haven't mentioned it today, but these caucuses also bring a whole lot of people into the party and help them become volunteers. If you think about it, 1,700 caucuses, do the rough math, you've got a chair, a secretary, people checking people in, others counting the votes, distributing ballots, speaking on behalf of candidates, let's call it 10 or 11 volunteers per precinct. You add it all up, James, that's 17,000 volunteers just on our side and a like number on your side. That's an incredible number. It may be the largest volunteer event that goes on in the state every four years.

Borg: You bring a lot of people in but they're pretty much novices who are coming in and in coming in many of them are turned off also. I think you have to admit, both of you, many of them are turned off by what they see is not what they are expecting and a well-run, organized and that projects a positive image to the world.

Oman: Dean, I would beg to differ on that.

Nagle: I'm not with you on that one. Do you want to go first?

  Oman: Sure.

Nagle: Go ahead. I'll hit him second.

Oman: We had a lot of people crowd rooms and venues and I think something we've talked a little bit about is larger rooms, larger venues probably need to be thought about for next time. That may mean more public facilities get used. We saw, look, we saw people who were patient, I didn't see people impatient, people were friendly, they're in their neighborhood, they're talking with their friends, they're going in doing something they feel is very important. The check-in process could be improved of more people funneling in through the lines that we have.

Borg: I'm talking about, Dave Nagle, coin flips and 15% rule, people don't understand that across the world. They're used to organized elections.

Nagle: Well, I'm sorry. Democracy is hard and I'd like to make it easy for everybody so they could just go in and mindlessly cast a ballot and it takes two minutes and out the door they go. But the reason we start in Iowa is because the bulk of the people that attend, 70%, 80% of the people that go to caucuses, are experienced. They have been there before. And that's not important by itself but what is important is when we talk about being first-in-the-nation we're bringing an electorate that has a well-earned reputation for being informed about issues, that is experienced in meeting people who say I want to be your president, evaluating them, living with the consequences of those decisions in subsequent elections. And so the fact that new people come in and they find it a little complex doesn't alarm me because they can learn it and it's not rocket science or I wouldn't be involved in it.

Henderson: Let's talk about a few changes that might be considered. Would you consider ranked choice balloting where you would pick your first choice, your second choice and your third choice?

Nagle: Well, that's not something we've talked about but if the committee wants to take it up I'm certainly open to it. But I do think however we're still going to stay, probably stay with the delegate equivalency and the delegate selection process that we have. Now how we select those delegates we can look at that. It hasn't been mentioned but if someone wants to present it to us we'll certainly consider it and weigh it.

Henderson: Would that be something republicans would consider?

Oman: I don't think so. The process we've had of welcoming and hosting candidates for a year, year and a half, two years pre-caucus works. People love the opportunity to go downtown whether it's a county seat or downtown Des Moines and meet bonafide presidential candidates. I always encourage people to go meet them, someone might actually get elected to be your president. Look, back to Dean's comment, question, this is a celebration of democracy. I came home from our caucus February 1 at night after everybody had left, we were the last two guys in the room, and I just thought what a remarkable experience. The world is on fire, chaos everywhere and we had in a room for 240 people, 440 people, everybody was there but the fire marshal and everybody had a good time and felt that they contributed something to the process.

Henderson: And you raise one of the complaints about the venues that were chosen. Is it time to, for instance, have a state law that would require public buildings to be open for these events? Because that is one of the big problems was the venues, number one, and some of the venues had no connectivity so they could not use that little phone that you picked up.

Borg: Dave Nagle, why don't you take that one?

Nagle: Well, I think you hit on something. We had a conversation yesterday and we've had several before, these are political party operations and while we love the government and we want to lead the government we have a real reservation about having the government step in and starting to run the caucuses or getting any kind of a lever of control on them. Nevertheless, as one of the things that clearly has emerged from our first meeting was we need bigger venues, we need better facilities, we need --

Henderson: How do you get them?

Nagle: We need better training. We might have to go to the legislature to do it. We might have to look at organizations like the chambers and union halls to try to expand the facilities. But we have a subcommittee on resources and that's one of the things we're looking at. If the democrats had a problem here it wasn't necessarily the accuracy of the counting at the end, it was the jam at the door trying to get in and that's something we have to address. I think Dave appeared in front of our committee, in fact one of the first people we had testify, because we wanted to find out what the republicans found from their review of '12. So this really is a bipartisan effort to reform these processes.

Lynch: Speaking of going to the legislature for some help, there has been a bill introduced a number of times that would allow employees to take time off to participate in the caucuses. Republicans have tended to oppose that. And the other idea that I wanted to suggest or ask you about is, should the state legislature declare caucus day a state holiday? Dave Oman?

Oman: Well, I think we have plenty of holidays right now, some questionable holidays. I wouldn't support that. I don't get a vote on that.

Borg: How about time off from work?

Oman: Pardon me?

Borg: Time off from work?

Oman: Speaking for myself I have no problem with that. I think we ought to do everything possible to sustain that high level of turnout that we saw on both sides out into the future. I don't believe we ought to do extended voting or remote satellite, then you're starting to make it look a little bit more like a primary and that bumps into our pact with the state of New Hampshire which we have to honor.

Henderson: What about Saturdays?

Nagle: The calendar was set on purpose, there's a reason why, why does Iowa go eight days in front of New Hampshire, and that is because a candidate that wants to come here and run here and has success here needs some time to capitalize on that before the next contest. And in the studies we had at the time this was set up showed that eight days was about the maximum you'll get from an impact of that. In '84 when the Democratic National Committee was threatening to shut us down and was getting ready and sued me in federal court because they wanted us to go one day before New Hampshire. Every presidential candidate told me that if we did that they were leaving, every network in unison told me that if we did that they were leaving and they'd cover us back from New Hampshire. So eight days is what it is. Moving it to a Saturday or Sunday, some have suggested Sunday, it's something we can explore with the national committee. But we've got to stay pretty much within the framework, I don't think a day is going to make a difference or two days, but that suggestion may have some merit if the national committee -- and if New Hampshire will approve.

Henderson: What about national rules that standardize the process for all primaries and all caucuses? Would Iowa republicans go along if there were standard rules for every contest that match from state to state so people would know going in what the rules of the game are everywhere in the country?

Oman: I'd be open-minded to that. The State Central Committee, which I used to serve, don't anymore, would have to look at that. Iowa is the gold standard, certainly in the Republican Party, and our people go to other states and coach them on how to run, prepare and train for a caucus. I wouldn't change too much, particularly after the success we had coming out of '12 running into this year.

Nagle: I've got to, if I could, I've just got to come in on that. I may be John C. Calhoun, state's rights, but I think that the function of a federal system is to allow states to experiment and you lose the diversity and the process that necessarily might fit in South Carolina wouldn't fit in Iowa. So I'd have some real reservations about the uniformity because it would destroy creativity and diversity.

Henderson: He brings up a point about the strength of his party.

Nagle: Powerful, man, they're powerful.

Henderson: Well, if you look at the Democratic Party you have one out of six members of the congressional delegation, you have only two out of seven statewide elected officials and you're only two seats away from losing both houses in the Iowa legislature. Don't you have a problem at the grassroots? And isn't changing the nature of the caucuses the way to address that problem?

Nagle: No, I don't think so because we've had the caucus process when we were strong and when we were healthy and we have both been in this battle for a long period of time and we've learned one thing about elections, in two years they're going to hold another one and you may not like the results. But we'll be back, we'll be back, we're fine.

Henderson: But there were people in the transportation industry who said railroads are the way to go and maybe railroads weren't the way to go. Can't you, shouldn't you be willing to change?

Oman: Kay, I think you're overworking the problem.

Nagle: I'm not worried that he isn't going to be competitive because they use a straw poll and I'm not worried that we're not going to be competitive because of our method.

Borg: David Oman, I have a final question for you. Going to the current presidential campaign, Eric Branstad is heading Donald Trump's Iowa campaign. How should we read that?

Nagle: I've got to leave now, I'm sorry. I just remembered an engagement.

Oman: I may leave with you.

Nagle: I want to hear this, go ahead. Get him, get him.

Borg: Just another campaign chairman whose name happens to be Branstad or is there additional significance?

Oman: Eric is a talented young guy and he has got his own political chops. I'm sure the Trump people were interested in the family name and having that linkage. But Eric will do that job on his own and he'll do it well.

Borg: Good. Thank you both for joining us today.

Nagle: It's been fun. Good to see you all again.

Borg: It has been fun. Come back soon.

Oman: Thank you.

Borg: We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press. That will be 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa Public Television Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa Public Television.    

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