What happens if you’re still undecided on caucus day?
DES MOINES, Iowa — It’s lonely to be uncommitted.
When the first round of voting was called at a Democratic caucus precinct in Des Moines Monday night, 392 people sided with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The remaining few? Undecided. Still.
After being bombarded by months of ads and media coverage of the 2016 presidential election, eight voters showed up to this precinct without having made up their minds about who to support for the Democratic nomination in the Iowa caucuses.
As the undecided voters raised their hands, the packed cafeteria at Hanawalt Elementary School turned and stared.
“You could feel the shift in the room,” said Lola Phillips, a senior at Valley High School who was among the hand-raisers. “I kind of felt like everyone was judging me.”
The first tally gave Clinton a 210 to 164 lead over Sanders, with O’Malley finishing a distant third at 18 and the uncommitted crowd right behind him at 8.
Because O’Malley failed to win at least 15 percent of the vote at the precinct, a second vote was called. A scramble ensued to divvy up the O’Malley supporters and convince the uncommitted group to find a political home.
Remember, the Democratic caucus process works this way: When voters arrive at their caucus site, they organize by candidate. Numbers are counted, and if one candidate fails to get 15 percent of all the voters in the room, those voters are released. A round of intense lobbying ensues, as caucus captains try to persuade the undecided voters to join their candidate’s corner.
At the Des Moines precinct, Phillips was immediately swarmed by three Sanders fans who urged her to caucus for the Vermont senator.
“They weren’t really giving reasons,” said Phillips, who is eligible to caucus because she will turn 18 years old before Election Day. “They just, like, came over.”
So Phillips joined them, giving Sanders a new, if skeptical, supporter.
Erica Abell-Holland, another uncommitted voter, also broke for Sanders. Abell-Holland said she remained undecided until the very last minute because she isn’t enamored of either Clinton or Sanders.
But in the end Abell-Holland, who has two young daughters, said she was swayed by Sanders’ proposals to make education more affordable, though she still isn’t sure how Sanders will pay for his plans.
Once the allotted 10-minute debate period, or “realignment,” was over, and all of the O’Malley supporters and undecided voters had moved to the Clinton and Sanders camps, the precinct chair, Mark Cooper, called a second and final vote.
This time, Hillary received 223 votes. Sanders finished second with 176.
Afterward, as the cafeteria emptied out, Ellen Pirro, another member of the original uncommitted contingent, reflected on the process.
“I like Bernie’s positions but he’s not electable,” said Pirro, who wound up backing Clinton. “And Hillary has foreign policy experience. That’s big for me.”
When asked how she felt at the start, when the uncommitted group was singled out, Pirro, who teaches political science at Iowa State, laughed out loud.
“I didn’t think about it,” Pirro said. “I teach, so I’m used to being the dominant figure in the room.”