ST. PETERSBURG — Donna Winter hasn’t missed an Iowa presidential caucus since attending her first one in 1976. She cashed in her frequent flier miles and left sunny St. Petersburg for frigid Cedar Rapids four years ago to keep her streak alive.
Next month, her journey will be much shorter.
For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will hold 25 caucuses outside its state. Four of them will be in Florida, including one at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in St. Petersburg. Gulf Breeze, Miramar Beach and Port Charlotte will also host caucuses, too.
Winter spends this time of the year, in Isla del Sol. She “organized” the St. Petersburg caucus, meaning she sent in an application to the Iowa Democratic Party without the slightest idea how many other snowbirds like her might show up. She doesn’t even know any other Democrats from Iowa in the area.
“My husband isn’t a Democrat either,” Winter, 71, said. “I may be the only person who shows up.”
The Iowa Democratic Party is confident that won’t be the case. As of Saturday, more than 100 people have already registered to participate in one of the Florida caucuses. The deadline to register for a satellite caucus is Friday.
The Iowa caucuses are Feb. 3. It’s the first presidential nominating contest in the country.
Most of the 99 new satellite caucuses are in Iowa. They’re in places where there are a large number of potential participants who can’t make it to a caucus site, like assisted living facilities and factories with evening shifts. But the state party also approved two dozen in states with a high concentration of Iowa snowbirds, workers and college students. There’s even one in Paris.
James Benda, the organizer of the Gulf Breeze caucus, wasn’t planning to return to Iowa in February and would have missed the event for the first time in five decades.
“I’m loyal, but that would be a little much,” Benda said. He anticipates there might be people from across north Florida and perhaps even Alabama and Georgia who could attend his Panhandle caucus.
Benda and Winter will undergo training to ensure they know how to run a caucus site just like the hundreds that will take place across Iowa.
The Iowa state party is trying to get the word out to prospective satellite caucus goers through digital ads. Some of the presidential contenders are broadcasting the out-of-state caucuses to potential supporters. As tight as the race is, any edge helps.
No matter how many people show up, the caucuses here will take place," said Mandy McClure, spokeswoman for the Iowa Democratic Party.
“There have been caucuses in rural Iowa with small turnout numbers because of weather conditions," McClure said. "There’s not a requirement to have a certain number of people.”
In allowing caucuses outside the state, Iowa Democrats are hoping to fend off criticisms that their process for nominating presidential candidates discourages participation.
Unlike most states, Iowa does not hold an election where voters select their preference at the ballot box. Instead, political parties hold community meetings around the state where people are sorted by who they support and their votes are counted by hand. There, they select delegates who will eventually vote on a nominee at the convention.
The caucuses are typically held on a cold Monday in January or February. A person representing each candidate has an opportunity to speak before caucus attendees choose their preference. It’s not just one round. If a candidate doesn’t receive enough support to be “viable,” his or her supporters can join up with another campaign.
The meetings can last hours. People can’t vote early or by mail.
Critics of caucuses have said they aren’t inclusive, especially to low-income, older and minority voters. About one-in-five eligible voters typically participate. The Democratic National Committee has tried to push states away from caucuses and toward traditional primaries.
The national party approved the satellite caucuses for 2020.
Why go through all of this trouble to preserve the caucuses when a primary appears a more practical solution?
For better or worse, the Iowa caucuses have an almost mythical place in American politics, one that Iowans are reluctant to forgo.
Every four years, candidates spend months in the state, seeking a personal interaction with as many voters as possible. They gather in living rooms and ice cream parlors and make obligatory stops at county fairs and fish fries.
In turn, Iowans give the candidates unmatched attention as they test the viability of the various campaigns. Winter said she’s seen 19 current and former candidates in person and the front-runners at least three times.
“There’s something special about the caucuses that’s different than going in and voting,” Benda said. “Iowans do a great service in helping to narrow the field and it also shows strength of the candidates, both in organizing and connecting with voters.”
Plenty of people from the 49 other states disagree. Every four years ushers in a new round of dissidents who say Iowa and New Hampshire — two predominately white and hardly representative states — have too much influence in choosing the most powerful office in the country.
“Instead of letting Iowans vote in Florida, just let Florida go first,” Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote after Iowa Democrats proposed out-of-state caucuses. “How many late November nights has America waited for Florida results to ultimately decide an election? You might as well start with us in the first place.”