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The Iowa Caucuses, Explained

At exactly 7 pm central time on February 3rd, hundreds of thousands of Iowans will meet in high school gymnasiums, fire stations, and other caucus locations to take part in a tradition that some have criticized as arcane but others have heralded as a commendable spectacle of civil discourse. Caucuses serve as an alternative to the more common primary system for holding presidential nominating contests. Whatever one’s opinions are of the idiosyncratic system Iowa utilizes, the results of the Iowa caucuses are critical, even if only for the purposes of punditry. Since the year 2000, every winner of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses has gone on to carry the party’s banner in the general election. Iowans take their positions as the first Americans to render judgment on presidential hopefuls very seriously. In fact, it is enshrined in state law that Iowa should be the first state to hold a presidential nominating contest.

In a normal caucus in a given precinct (this year’s caucuses are not going to be normal; read on to find out why), once caucusgoers have gathered at the appointed time and place, a caucus chair and secretary are elected. After this initial formality, speeches are given by supporters of each candidate (or the candidates themselves). Next, depending on whom they support, caucusgoers stand in separate corners, in a manner of voting by physical location. The supporters of each candidate are then tallied. Then, supporters of candidates who have been deemed “inviable” due to their failure to gather 15% support are asked to pick a new candidate. Supporters of candidates who made the cut will attempt to convince them to come to their corner. The room erupts in the noisy passions of Iowans who, as I mentioned, take their caucusing quite seriously. Only after this process, known as “re-caucusing,” are final tallies made and the delegates to the county convention selected.

The delegates to the county convention will later select delegates to the congressional district convention, who will eventually select the delegates to the state convention. Based upon the loyalties of the delegates to the state convention, 41 pledged delegates from Iowa will be sent to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, WI. They may only constitute a small fraction of the almost five thousand delegates, but the results of the first nominating caucus inform pundits’ predictions of candidates’ future fortunes, which often prove to be self-fulfilling prophecies. A candidate who might have a chance of picking up more delegates in larger states with later primaries (think Michael Bloomberg) might see their support diminished by pundits’ constant insinuations that they are not a viable candidate.

Historically, in states holding caucuses, vote totals haven’t been released. The numbers you saw on television in 2016, for example, were just percentages of the delegates sent to the next stage (or “state delegate equivalents,” in political jargon). This year, however, caucusgoers will fill out “preference cards” indicating their choice of candidate in both the original and re-caucusing stages. This change allows for the unprecedented publication of two raw vote tallies, one for the first stage and another after re-caucusing. Given the thin margin separating the frontrunners, it is entirely possible that the winner of the majority of delegates does not emerge with the majority of votes in either tally. This could lead to an ambiguous result, with no clear winner of the caucuses. Although the candidate winning the traditional caucus will emerge with the most delegates to the national convention, the Iowa caucuses are mostly about spin, because Iowa is a small state of inconsiderable importance in the national delegate count. Thus, a candidate who successfully brandishes their strong showing in the raw vote tallies might ultimately gain more momentum, reaping a higher benefit from the caucuses.

One could be forgiven for wondering why Iowa’s Democrats would choose such a complicated system for their presidential nominating process. Indeed, their Republican counterparts have a much simpler caucus system, and recently, many states have gotten rid of caucuses altogether, switching to primaries for the 2020 campaign. After his close loss in the 2016 caucuses, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) challenged the accuracy of the caucus system, leading to a review of caucusing procedures. This has resulted in several reforms, including the release of raw vote tallies, and the addressing of various administrative shortcomings. Additionally, some observers have complained that caucuses are unfair, although the Iowa Democratic Party (which organizes the caucuses) has taken steps since 2016 to make the caucuses more inclusive.

One criticism of the caucus system is that it fails to accommodate people who might not be able to spend several hours at a specific location on a weeknight. People who have work commitments or need to take care of a child or an elderly relative are unable to participate in the caucuses as they are currently organized. Conversation and debate are integral parts of the appeal of a caucus, so it is not feasible to allow for remote or individual participation. One reform that has been made to address this concern is the establishment of 34 “satellite” caucus sites outside of Iowa for Iowans who relocate without changing their voter registrations (mostly college students; failing to change one’s voter registration after moving is illegal unless you maintain residency in the state in which you’re registered). The satellite caucuses are spread across 13 states and the District of Columbia, in addition to sites in Tbilisi (Georgia — the country, not the state), Glasgow (UK/Scotland) and Paris (France). These caucuses work the same way as those in Iowa, essentially functioning as a form of absentee voting. There are also 65 satellite caucus sites in Iowa universities, hospitals, and nursing homes. The establishment of these satellite caucus sites in Iowa is meant to make it easier for people who might not otherwise be able to make it to a caucus site, like the elderly and ill, to participate.

No matter how one feels about caucuses, there is no question that they have a unique character. We can all admire a room full of concerned citizens, engaging in a passionate and productive discourse, deciding amongst themselves who our next commander in chief ought to be. What many find charming in the Iowa caucuses is their communal spirit. Politics at its best should bind us together in the process of achieving a more perfect union, and caucuses are a crystallization of that spirit. While Iowa may not be a microcosm of our nation, for it is rural and homogenous, perhaps we can look towards Des Moines on one Monday night in February to find something that we can all aspire to: a sense of shared interest in the governing of our nation.


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