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All Politics Is Personal At A Small-Town Democratic Caucus

February 2, 20165:11 AM ET
At the start of the caucus in Earlham, Iowa, there were 40 Clinton supporters, 40 Sanders supporters
and 11 O'Malley supporters, all massed around their respective tables in the concrete-floored town
community center.
O'Malley — in the language of caucus rules — was not viable: he needed at least 14 supporters to get
a delegate in this Madison County gathering. It was time to see if O'Malley's 11 would move to
someone else.
Clinton and Sanders supporters descended upon the O'Malley table. The woman running the caucus
announced that people had fifteen minutes to decide if they wanted to change camps.
It was brief horse-trading periods like this statewide that were vitally important to determine which
candidate would win the caucuses. In these fifteen minutes, 91 people in Earlham would decide how
to divvy up seven delegates.
Bruce Kempkes, an O'Malley supporter, explained beforehand that he thought the former Maryland
governor had the best combination of experience and electability. He cited what he called Clinton's
"baggage" and also said he thought Sanders would lose in a general election, particularly to a more
moderate Republican like Jeb Bush.
"I look at O'Malley as kind of in the sweet spot," he said.
But the O'Malley supporters knew going in that they might have to change camps eventually. This is
how Iowa's Democratic caucuses work: a candidate needs 15 percent support in a given precinct to
be viable. Failing that, supporters can switch to another candidate.
Kempkes' wife, Jill, also started out at the O'Malley table. She thought she'd end up caucusing for
Hillary Clinton. Bruce figured he'd go to Sanders.
And so the Kempkeses, after the first count, were suddenly two of the 11 most popular people in the
But it wasn't just Clinton and Sanders camps asking for new people. Rather, the O'Malley supporters
begged other people to defect and let them win just one delegate.
Instead of splitting the delegates 4-3 between Clinton and Sanders (or vice versa), the O'Malley
people argued, the precinct could have a 3-3-1 split, with one delegate for O'Malley.
One O'Malley supporter, a youth pastor named Nate Mason from the nearby town of Winterset,
explained to a young Sanders supporter why he should desert.
"Frankly, any candidate who says, "Oh, I'm relying on the youth vote to come out,' fails," Mason said.
He cited George McGovern's losing campaign in 1972.
Nearby, a young woman with a baby on her lap and an O'Malley sticker on her chest listened patiently
to an older woman from the Sanders camp. The older woman explained why she thought Sanders
would be better at reaching across the aisle.

"Women's rights!" yelled another." he added. and Kempkes. "It wouldn't have made a difference. A few voters had already defected to the Sanders corner. one of the three O'Malley holdouts." And why couldn't Kempkes. but this caucus was by no means an angry affair. but three men at the O'Malley table couldn't be moved: a 74-year-old veteran named Jack Johns. and those three men uncommitted. said he had congregation members caucusing for Clinton. pointing out that he knew the other two O'Malley supporters weren't planning on changing teams. so he alone couldn't have helped his wife push Clinton over the top." said Krissa Mason. Two women (one of them Jill Kempkes) left the O'Malley table for the Clinton corner. On Tuesday.The young mom countered by citing Clinton's foreign policy experience. and so I really felt like I should vote for the person I really felt like I agreed with most. bring himself to choose Clinton or Sanders? He said he just didn't "feel enough conviction" to move to another candidate. The Sanders and Clinton supporters yelled their dueling pitches as the O'Malley crowd dwindled." she said. The O'Malley camp never did get its delegate. The caucus goers may have been impassioned. the O'Malley precinct captain. Sanders would get four delegates and Clinton would get three. who switched to Sanders. Pastor Nate's wife. "This was almost a relief to go to. In a small town where everyone knows everyone. Eventually. the caucus leader called for quiet and the reshuffling began. Both sides cajoled for a few more minutes. and this is their first caucus. . Sanders had 45. So what helped get Sanders that extra delegate? "I was really torn. The Masons moved to Iowa from South Dakota. The caucus ended as it started — in a close matchup. She and Nate had started at the O'Malley table." a Clinton supporter shot back. "This is the first time I've ever been able to vote when it mattered. "Nothing is ever free. Jill Eichner Brown (Luke's wife) explained that this was just the first — and the lesser — of two big political decisions Earlham's residents would make this week. "I think that Bernie Sanders is probably a truer reflection of what I believe politically. and this may be the campaign season that's all about anger. the town members will vote on what she described as a divisive school expansion. "I'm trying!" said the first one. the 23-year-old precinct captain on the Sanders side. "College for all! Paid family and medical leave!" yelled Devin Bond. it's just smart thinking to remain civil. Clinton had 43 supporters. Another Sanders supporter walked up to see if she could help. Mason." she said. and they both eventually ended up caucusing for Sanders. Voter Luke Brown explained that people also know each other from high school basketball games. As the last few people folded up tables. where they were welcomed with cheers.