For anyone who has watched an election night, the ritual is pretty formulaic. Votes are cast. Exit polls (usually incorrect) are released. And then everyone waits for ballots to be tallied and for the objective arbiters—the television networks or the gold standard, the Associated Press, to tell the public who won. That will not be how caucus night in Iowa goes down this year.
So here’s my advice to this year’s Democratic campaigns on caucus night: Don’t wait. Take the reins and bypass the AP and the networks. If you’re confident you’ve won Iowa, call the results yourself.
In 2016, I worked as head of Iowa communications for Hillary Clinton, and caucus night was a nail biter. As Iowans caucused in each of the more than 1,500 precincts, we received reports from our precinct captains and volunteer leaders at every juncture—starting as our voters were checked in and until the final vote—to give us a picture of where we stood. This gave us real time data that the networks and the AP did not have. Instead, they had to wait on data from the Iowa Democratic Party, which slowly filtered up from all corners of the state.
So after most caucuses had closed, the networks still saw the contest as too close to call. But while we knew it would be close, our data told us a definitive story: Hillary Clinton would become the first woman to win a presidential caucus in Iowa’s history.
On a regular election night, you’d take that information, crack open a beer, and wait for the networks to call it. But Iowa is different and the caucus process is different. The caucus system relies on tallies by human beings on the ground instead of machines, and precinct results get argued down to every decimal point in caucus locations and at the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters. On caucus night 2016 we knew that could take hours or even days before there was a final result. We couldn’t wait to get the momentum we needed from Iowa. So we made a decision—we needed to call it ourselves and I drafted the simplest press release I’ve ever written: Hillary Clinton wins the Iowa caucus.
It will be even more imperative for campaigns to do that on February 3. This year, the caucus will be more difficult to judge for voters and for the press than in the past. There are four or five campaigns neck and neck at the top, three different metrics that will be released on caucus night (raw vote totals and delegate equivalents) that may be won by different candidates, and other new changes to the process including more than 100 remote caucus locations that have never been tried before. All of these have the potential to slow down results. So, with all due respect to the networks and to the AP, if you wait for them, the story will get written by your competitors.
This play isn’t without risks. If you jump the gun and your data is faulty, you’ve damaged your credibility with reporters and they’ll make you pay for it. Or if you overstate your victory and the final numbers prove you wrong, you’ll be accused of trying to steal a victory and with good reason. Then not only will your campaign be damaged, your candidate’s reputation will be as well. But as they say, no risk no reward, and any campaign worth its salt better have a tight boiler room operation linked with an organizing team and precinct leadership team, feeding up results in real time. Most campaigns will have done one or two dry runs at this point to fine tune this process. When every campaign needs momentum out of Iowa to slingshot them through the rest of the month the campaigns can’t afford to play it safe.
This will be one of the most highly relevant, confusing, and competitive caucus nights in recent memory. Tell your own story, tell it quickly and then get the hell to New Hampshire.
Lily Adams was communications director for Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign and was Iowa communications director for Hillary Clinton. She is currently a fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics.