So, how do the Iowa Caucuses actually work?

As many of you know, after much blustering and prognosticating and poll taking, the actual voting process for the 2016 Presidential Elections begins today with the Iowa Caucuses. Finally, we’re going to begin to have some actual results. If you’re like me, you know very little about the Iowa Caucuses or about the Caucus process at all. Enter Wikipedia, and the opportunity for a little bit of self-education.

First, a couple of things to consider:

  1. The process for electing presidential candidates really is controlled by the parties. And because of that, the parties can make different rules for how a selection works, as can be seen by the differences in the Iowa caucuses. It’s also why you can have a brokered convention and why the popular vote does not need to be followed in the candidate selection process.
  2. The Iowa Caucuses take a lot more time than a primary election would. At a primary election, voters just show up, cast their secret ballot and go home. The caucuses, on the other hand, are a “gathering of neighbors,” where one participant has the chance to change the vote of another participant, and the whole thing normally takes hours. Because it’s not held on a weekend or a national holiday, it can also difficult for ordinary working people to participate.[1]

So, what actually happens at the Iowa Caucuses? Delegates, who will represent voters at these conventions, are elected from all of Iowa’s 1681 precincts. Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at schools, churches, public libraries and even individuals’ houses. Republicans and Democrats hold their own set of caucuses in separate locations, and with separate party rules. Observers are allowed to attend, as long as they do not become actively involved in the debate and voting process.

With respect to the Democratic Party, the process looks something like this:

  • Each precinct divides its delegate seats among the candidates in proportion to caucus goers’ votes. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site, thereby forming a preference group.
  • For roughly 30 minutes, participants engage in discussions, trying to convince their neighbors to support their candidates.
  • After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are “viable,” which normally requires support by 15% of the caucus goers.
  • When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to a county convention in one of Iowa’s 99 counties. At this point most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of electing delegates.[2]

For the Republican Party, the process is somewhat different. It should be noted, that the process for the Republicans has changed dramatically in 2016, as there were problems with the previous process.[3] What happens now is:

  • After the pledge of allegiance (naturally!), Republican caucus goers hear a final pitch from representatives of the candidates, and then get down to voting.
  • Some caucus sites have a printed ballot while other caucus sites literally just use slips of paper to count the votes.
  • Raw totals of votes are tallied by local party officials and sent to Iowa GOP headquarters, where a running count is kept.

Because they’ve been first in the nation since 1972, the Iowa Caucuses get a disproportionate share of media attention, as this is the first actual “voting” that takes place in the Presidential election season. Iowans have been uncompromising in holding onto their first in the nation status.

The story of the Iowa Caucus goes back to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, at which Hubert Humphrey was nominated by the Democratic Party bosses, who at this time were largely in control of the nominating process. The lack of accountability and widespread frustration about the Vietnam War culminated in chaotic protests and riots. In an attempt to avoid more of the same, party officials changed the presidential nomination process to make it more transparent and democratically accountable.

Part of the new rules established by the Democratic National Committee were scheduling guidelines that required at least 30 days between major state and local political processes. In 1972, there we no available hotel rooms in Des Moines for the week when the Iowa Democratic State Convention was going to be held, so it was moved up earlier in the calendar, and landed on January 24, the first nominating contest of the cycle.

George McGovern, the eventual Democratic nominee, realized the opportunity that Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status could provide to his campaign, and dedicated time and resources to campaigning in the state. In 1976, after the Republican Party in Iowa realized the potential influence and exposure the state could have in the nominating process by going first, it planned its caucus on the same day as that of the Democrats.

Since 1976, both parties have held their first presidential nominating contests in Iowa, and the Iowa state legislature passed a law saying that its caucuses need to be held at least eight days before any other nominating contest. And that way, Iowa is assured of getting disproportionate attention, along with New Hampshire, which has long had the first in the nation primary.


[1] Generally, caucus participation has been around 20% of registered voters in each party in recent election cycles.

[2] Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level

[3] For the Republicans, the Iowa Caucus previously followed (and should not be confused with) the Iowa Straw Poll in August of the preceding year. Out of the six Straw Poll iterations, the winner of the Straw Poll failed to win the Iowa caucuses three times. In June 2015 the party announced that the Straw Poll would no longer take place. Prior to the 2016 election cycle, the process started with selection of delegates to the county conventions, which rewarded candidate organizers who not only got supporters to the caucus sites but also got supporters willing to serve as delegates to county conventions. Because the delegates elected at the caucuses did not need to declare a candidate preference, the media did not have an objective way to determine the success of individual candidates at the caucuses. Instead, the media focused on the secret ballot polling conducted at the caucus sites and have generally referred to this non-binding poll as the caucus.

About a1skeptic

A disturbed citizen and skeptic. I should stop reading the newspaper. Or watching TV. I should turn off NPR and disconnect from the Internet. We’d all be better off.
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2 Responses to So, how do the Iowa Caucuses actually work?

  1. koolaidmoms says:

    Thank you! I read about this every year and it always seems odd to me. Love your explanation.

  2. a1skeptic says:

    Evan Horowitz has also written an interesting piece on how caucus goers try to change other voters minds at the caucuses. See: http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/politics/2016/02/01/changing-minds-iowa-caucuses/4dakkOnRZs5G8bM58T1WcK/story.html

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