fb-pixel Skip to main content
Ground Game

Could O’Malley get zero delegates in Iowa caucuses?

Martin O'Malley spoke at the Central Iowa Democrats fall barbecue last month.Alex Wong/Getty Images/File/Getty

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley may get zero delegates in the Iowa caucuses, thanks to the quirky system Democrats use to run their nominating process in the Hawkeye State.

This is a strong possibility for a candidate who has spent more time campaigning in Iowa than his primary rivals, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. It must be frustrating for O’Malley, but it’s a potential reality nine weeks away from the Feb. 1 caucuses.

That’s because the Iowa Democratic caucuses are a contest unlike any other primary or election. Even Iowa Republicans run their caucuses in a different (and much simpler) way.


In each of the 1,700 Democratic caucus precincts in Iowa, a candidate must have enough support to be considered viable. In most locations, this means a candidate must have support from at least 15 percent of people in attendance at the caucus. In smaller precincts, that percentage is higher.

By contrast, Iowa Republicans caucus by submitting paper ballots, which are counted and determine how many delegates the candidates receive. In this system, even those candidates who receive 1 percent of support are recorded.

But for Democrats, a candidate must reach a threshold of viability for the campaign to be even counted. O’Malley will have some supporters show up for him at some caucuses. But unless they total 15 percent of the room, those O’Malley supporters will have two options: Vote for someone else or leave.

“I, myself, have worked in Iowa in 1983 and ’84, and I am very familiar with the caucus process,” said O’Malley, referring to his time working for Gary Hart’s first presidential campaign, in a brief Sunday interview on this topic. “And we have a great organization on the ground.”

To be sure, O’Malley does have some support. In the Real Clear Politics average of Iowa Democratic polls, O’Malley receives about 5 percent support. Sanders has an average of 35 percent, and Clinton gets 54 percent.


But on caucus night, the media do not report the raw number of supporters for O’Malley or any other Democratic candidate. The news is the tally of delegates that will represent each Democratic candidate at the country convention.

For O’Malley to get delegates, he needs to increase his support by 10 percentage points soon — or hope his loyal 5 percent live in the same neighborhoods. If O’Malley doesn’t reach viability anywhere, he will not pick up any delegates.

This is a problem because O’Malley has been staking much of his campaign on Iowa and its caucuses. Strategically, he would need a surprisingly good finish in either Iowa or New Hampshire to get any traction. But a New Hampshire boost is even less likely for O’Malley because Sanders has a foothold in that state and is in a stronger position to challenge Clinton there.

David Rogers knows this fear and can relate to O’Malley’s precarious position. In 2004, the longtime Iowa Democratic operative had to figure out viability scenarios for former US representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. He did the same for former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson in the 2008 caucuses.

“At this point in the campaign, I would imagine that the O’Malley campaign would be laser focused on avoiding disaster. They have to know they are a midget in the ring with two heavyweight fighters,” said Rogers, referring to Sanders and Clinton.

The O’Malley campaign in Iowa doesn’t reject the notion that it is focused on viability. O’Malley’s deputy Iowa director, Kristin Sosanie, said there’s an Iowa map on the office wall that charts the campaign’s progress and weak spots. What’s more, five campaign staffers have recently moved to Iowa from the national headquarters in Baltimore to bolster their effort there.


“Viability is one of the things we have been focused on from the very beginning,” Sosanie said.

O’Malley has been particularly focused on Polk County, which includes Des Moines. He has the backing of the Polk County Democratic chairman and several other local Democratic leaders there.

O’Malley received 24 percent in the Iowa secretary of state’s youth caucus that just wrapped up in high schools across Iowa.

Clinton, coincidentally, failed to reach viability in Clinton County as well as in growing suburban Dallas County and Johnson County, the liberal hotbed home to the University of Iowa.

Jim Eliason, the Democratic chairman of rural Buena Vista County, also pointed to the results of the “youth caucus” as the reason he thinks O’Malley’s prospects will be better than expected on caucus night.

“Having a 15 percent viability threshold tends to underestimate the support of candidates with little support,” Eliason said. “But I have a feeling that O’Malley’s support is already larger than you think and will grow as time goes on and that there will be three major contenders after the Iowa caucuses.”

In the end, while University of Northern Iowa political science professor Justin Holmes views O’Malley ending his Iowa campaign with zero delegates as a “distinct possibility,” he doubts it will happen.

“One or two little pockets of support might get him a few delegates,” he said.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at bostonglobe.com/groundgame.