Bernie, Hillary supporters to duke it out over tiny O’Malley camp

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Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley leads attendees in a song after holding a town hall at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, Wednesday. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa — On Monday night, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s tiny band of supporters will be the center of attention in Iowa precincts across the state.

O’Malley had only 3 percent support in the final Des Moines Register-Bloomberg Politics poll, but because of the Byzantine rules of the Democratic caucusing process, his supporters could end up deciding the incredibly close race between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In each of the state’s 1,681 caucusing locations, a candidate must get 15 percent of voters to be considered viable during an initial count that’s taken at the beginning of the evening. O’Malley isn’t expected to reach that threshold in the vast majority of precincts, which means his supporters will be up for grabs — they must either choose another candidate, or their vote will not count.

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Wooing voters who back candidates that fail to meet the threshold has made a big difference in elections in the state in the past: John Edwards finished a surprise second in 2004 thanks in part to Dennis Kucinich’s supporters defecting to him. And Bill Richardson’s backers joined Barack Obama’s camp in 2008.

The Clinton campaign is arming its precinct captains with special software to help them figure out how to keep O’Malley supporters from defecting to Sanders’ camp, BuzzFeed News reported Saturday. Meanwhile, Sanders’ precinct captains are being told to beef up on their O’Malley knowledge so they can entice his fans over to their side and to offer them delegates for the county convention as inducement.

“You might have to cut a deal,” said Mitch Henry, a Democratic activist who was leading a small training for Sanders precinct captains Saturday afternoon in a coffee shop in Des Moines. “Let’s say in this case you have 10 O’Malley supporters. You would maybe offer them a delegate. You could say to them, ‘OK, you 10 come over, we give you a delegate.’”

This is a largely symbolic concession — the O’Malley supporters’ votes would go to Sanders in the caucus, but in the county conventions later on, their delegate could switch back to supporting O’Malley.

If horse-trading fails, there’s always the power of persuasion.

“I would definitely beef up on the O’Malley top 5 issues, see what they are,” Henry told the precinct captains. Henry, who supported Sanders until a little more than a month ago, added that he believes most O’Malley supporters’ second choice is Sanders.

“Talking to a lot of O’Malley supporters, there are a lot of ways Bernie lines up on the issues. A lot of them will say the environment [is their top concern], and Bernie is clearly superior to Hillary on the environment,” said Bri Steirer, a precinct captain for the Drake University area.

But the Sanders plan to convince O’Malley fans with delegates and issues may not be able to compete with Clinton’s scheme. The Clinton campaign has trained its precinct captains to use software that calculates when it benefits Clinton to give O’Malley supporters a few of their votes in order to block them from defecting to Sanders. That means Clinton supporters would help O’Malley become a viable candidate in precincts where she would still carry the day.

A Sanders precinct captain, Darlene Lawler, asked Henry about whether Bernie supporters should be trying to do the same thing — helping O’Malley become viable in cases where it would help Bernie.

“I would not give them three or four people to be viable because you just don’t know what could happen,” Henry said, adding that the “math” can get complicated as the night goes on, and it’s easy to make a mistake.

Clinton’s campaign has an app that will help caucus leaders calculate the risks, however, which means they don’t have to worry about mistakes.

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