There was a moment on caucus night of 2016 when Tom Carsner started to panic.
“I was doing pretty good until I walked out the door,” he laughed nervously,” and saw the line going all the way to the Statue of Liberty….then I said, oh, and maybe a few other words.”
Carsner was in charge of precinct 17 at City High School in Iowa City. The line of people waiting to get into their caucus site stretched out the door and down the hill some 500 feet away.
“Well…we had 935 people, the largest in the state,” he said.
And this year, local leaders are expecting even more people.
Every four years, Iowans go in person to cafeterias and church basements to pick presidential nominees while the world watches. As high profile as the caucuses are, in some years less than 10 percent of eligible voters show up.
But tonight, Iowa Democrats are expecting record turnout at the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. That turnout may push some caucus sites to their limit.
Carsner and a few other caucus night volunteers recently did a walkthrough of the school.
They’re trying to picture what a thousand Democrats will look like packed into an auditorium that seats 734.
“For now the basic idea is to have Sanders on one side, Warren on the other side, and then Buttigieg perhaps on the stage and then Klobuchar maybe out in the lobby. And I think the other groups up in the balcony” he said.
There have been some nervous jokes about the fire code and an extended debate about which doors to lock to keep traffic moving in the right direction. Because, in places like Iowa City, which is the state’s most Democratic county, record turnout is becoming a logistical issue like it was in 2004.
John Deeth is in charge of coordinating all the caucus sites here in Johnson County.
“We ran out of everything. We ran out of voter registrations, we ran out of the sign in sheets…” Deeth says. “I never saw the pizza box that people supposedly signed in on, but I did get paper towels back with people signed in."
Since then, Deeth says they’ve learned to bring even more voter registration forms and recruit more volunteers. But he says what they can’t do at the largest urban precincts is make the rooms bigger.
For many rural parts of the state, the caucuses are still seen as one of the best ways to get Iowans involved in politics.
That’s not necessarily true in Iowa City.
“When you're managing 1,000 people, you're not recruiting people. Sometimes, in fact, you're driving people away. They take a look, see how chaotic it is, and decide they don't want anything to do with it,” he explains.
Back at City High, volunteers are still arguing about which doors to direct people through.
There’s no absentee option for the Iowa caucuses. People have to physically show up. That’s why Anne-Marie Taylor loves it. She’ll be running this precinct for the first time tonight.
"We’ll get it all sort of pulled together. You know, as long as we're grabbing space from wherever we can, I think that's the most important thing,” she says.
She’ll find out tonight if they pulled it off.