Democratic U.S. presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders pose together before the start of the NBC News - YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate, Jan. 17, 2016. 
Photo by Randall Hill/Reuters

Clinton and Sanders aren’t the only Dems that matter in Iowa

The race for the Democratic nomination looks like a two-person contest, pitting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has struggled for months to gain traction, and polling shows him in an uncompetitive position in state and national polling.
But that doesn’t mean O’Malley and his supporters are irrelevant. On the contrary, tonight they may very well represent the difference between winning or coming up short. The New York Times published this report about a week ago, and though it went largely overlooked, today is the day to re-read it.
Martin O’Malley has rarely broken above 5 percent in Iowa polls, but on caucus night he could be the most popular person in the room – or, rather, his supporters will be, as activists for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders desperately try to scoop them up.
The arcane rules of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses mean that most O’Malley supporters will be ruled “nonviable” if he does not get 15 percent support at a caucus; his supporters will then be up for grabs by another candidate. With polls showing the race between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Sanders narrowing to a near tie, O’Malley supporters, along with attendees who enter their neighborhood caucuses undecided, could swing the results.
This gets a little complicated, but bear with me. When Iowa Democrats show up for their caucuses tonight, they’ll break up into groups based on which candidate they prefer. In precincts in which O’Malley’s support falls short of 15%, the former governor will be considered “non-viable,” at which point O’Malley’s supporters will be able to move to their second choice – either Sanders or Clinton.

As a practical matter, that may very well lead to plenty of situations in which O’Malley backers give one of the top two candidates a meaningful boost. Based on the latest data from Public Policy Polling, the Maryland Democrat’s supporters generally prefer Sanders to Clinton, 57% to 27%, so this may represent an important edge for the senator during the caucuses themselves.

Of course, Clinton’s team knows this, and BuzzFeed reported over the weekend that her campaign has some tactics in mind that would help O’Malley – and itself in the process.
The tactical move is rooted in the complex math of the Iowa caucuses Monday night, where the campaign is looking to defeat Sanders in a state whose caucus-goers have historically backed progressive challengers.
A precinct captain, Jerome Lehtola, confirmed to BuzzFeed News that the campaign has trained precinct captains to release supporters to O’Malley if the move can make him “viable” without hurting Clinton. A Clinton aide said the campaign has trained more than 4,000 volunteer precinct captains to handle a host of different scenarios, including ones where caucus-goers are released to or recruited from another camp.
If, right about now, you’re thinking that primaries are far less complicated than caucuses, you’re absolutely correct.
* Postscript: In case anyone’s curious, the rule about the 15% threshold is unique to Iowa Democrats. There is no such rule in the Republican caucuses.