Iowa caucuses

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The Iowa caucuses are an electoral event in which residents of the U.S. state of Iowa meet in precinct caucuses in all of Iowa's 1,682 precincts and elect delegates to the corresponding county conventions. There are 99 counties in Iowa, and thus there are 99 conventions. These county conventions then select delegates for both Iowa's Congressional District Convention and the State Convention, which eventually choose the delegates for the presidential nominating conventions.

The Iowa caucuses are noteworthy for the amount of media attention they receive during U.S. presidential election years. Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States. Although only about 1% of the nation's delegates are chosen by the Iowa State Convention (25 Republican delegates in 2012, assigned proportionately), the Iowa caucuses have served as an early indication of which candidates for president might win the nomination of their political party at that party's national convention, and which ones could drop out for lack of support.

Both Democratic and Republican Caucuses will be held on February 1, 2016.[1]


A 2008 Democratic caucus meeting in Iowa City, Iowa.

The Iowa caucuses operate very differently from the more common primary election used by most other states (see U.S. presidential primary). The caucuses are generally defined as "gatherings of neighbors." Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's 1,682 precincts. Typically, these meetings occur in schools, churches, public libraries and even individuals' houses. The caucuses are held every two years, but the ones that receive national attention are the presidential preference caucuses held every four years. In addition to the voting and the presidential preference choices, caucus-goers begin the process of writing their parties’ platforms by introducing resolutions.[2]

Unlike the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, the Iowa caucus does not result directly in national delegates for each candidate. Instead, caucus-goers elect delegates to county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to district and state conventions where Iowa's national convention delegates are selected. Ironically, the state conventions do not take place until the end of the primary and caucus season: Iowa is in fact one of the very last states to choose its delegates.[3]

The Republicans and Democrats each hold their own set of caucuses subject to their own particular rules that change from time to time. Participants in each party's caucuses must be registered with that party. Participants can change their registration at the caucus location. Additionally, 17-year-olds can participate, as long as they will be 18 years old by the date of the general election. Observers are allowed to attend, as long as they do not become actively involved in the debate and voting process. For example, members of the media and campaign staff and volunteers attend many of the precinct caucuses. Youth who will not be eligible to vote by the date of the general election may also attend as observers and may volunteer to attend the county convention as youth delegates.[4]

Republican Party process[edit]

For the Republicans, the Iowa caucuses 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 1987, 2007, and 2011. In June 2015 the party announced that the Straw Poll would no longer take place.

The process of selecting Iowa delegates to the Republican National Convention prior to the 2016 election cycle started with selection of delegates to the county conventions, which in turn affected the delegates elected to district conventions who also served as delegates to the state convention where delegates were chosen for the national convention.

This process rewarded candidate organizers who not only got supporters to the caucus sites but also got supporters willing to serve as delegates to county conventions and willing to vote for other delegates who supported a specific candidate. In 2012, this process resulted in Ron Paul supporters dominating the Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention, having 22 of the 28 Iowa delegates, with Mitt Romney getting the other six delegates.

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. 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. There were irregularities in the 2012 caucus site polling results, including the fact that eight precinct results went missing and were never counted.

Because of the irregularities in the process and the fact that the totals reported to the media were unrelated to the delegate selection process, there have been changes in both how the caucus site secret ballot polling is sent to state party headquarters and in how Iowa delegates to the national convention are required to vote.

Starting in 2016, the caucus site voting that was previously a non-binding poll becomes the binding method of selecting delegates. Acting in accordance with a mandate from the Republican National Committee, the delegates are bound to vote for candidates in proportion to the votes cast for each candidate at the caucus sites.

Charlie Szold, communications director for the Republican Party of Iowa, said, “We have partnered with Microsoft and they have built us a special app that allows our precinct captains to report data quickly. They can do that right there on their smart phones or tablets or computers and they can do it very accurately because you can see the number you are typing in."

He added that at the central collection point there will be special algorithms to flag any data that doesn’t match up to expectations, so unusual numbers will generate contact with the precinct for confirmation or correction.

Szold said, “The results will be made available almost in real time. The results will come to us. They will go through that internal check I was talking about and then they will be published on a public website with a map view of Iowa. You will be able to see results at the precinct level.”

Democratic Party process[edit]

The process used by the Democrats is more complex than the Republican Party caucus process. 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 (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.

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. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold is 15% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.

When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform. The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. 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; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses.

2004 Democratic process[edit]

In 2004, the meetings ran from 6:30 p.m. until approximately 8:00 p.m. on January 19, 2004, with a turnout of about 124,000 caucus-goers.[5] The county convention occurred on March 13, the district convention on April 24, and the state convention on June 26. Delegates could and did change their votes based on further developments in the race; for instance, in 2004 the delegates pledged to Dick Gephardt, who left the race after the precinct caucuses, chose a different candidate to support at the county, district, and state level.

The number of delegates each candidate receives eventually determines how many state delegates from Iowa that candidate will have at the Democratic National Convention. Iowa sends 56 delegates to the DNC out of a total 4,366.

Of the 45 delegates that were chosen through the caucus system, 29 were chosen at the district level. Ten delegates were at-large delegates, and six were "party leader and elected official" (PLEO) delegates; these were assigned at the state convention. There were also 11 other delegates, eight of whom were appointed from local Democratic National Committee members - two were PLEO delegates and one was elected at the state Democratic convention.

In 2014, the Iowa Democratic Party announced changes to the caucus system that will allow members of the military to participate in a statewide caucus and establish satellite caucuses for the disabled and others who have trouble making it to the physical location of the caucuses. They will also work for the passage of a new law that requires employers to allow employees to take time off for the caucuses.[6]

2008 process[edit]

The 2008 Iowa caucuses took place January 3 at 7 p.m. CT.[7] Candidates spent tens of millions of dollars on local television advertisements[8] and hundreds of paid staff[9] in dozens of field offices.[10] Barack Obama (D) and Mike Huckabee (R) were the eventual winners.

2012 process[edit]

The 2012 Iowa caucuses took place on Tuesday, January 3, starting at 7 p.m. CT. Incumbent president Barack Obama only faced minor opposition in the Democratic caucus and received 98% of the vote,[11] but the Republican caucus was heavily contested between several challengers. Initial results reported that Mitt Romney beat out Rick Santorum by just 8 votes,[12] but when the final results came out two weeks later Rick Santorum secured the victory over Romney by a margin of 34 votes with Ron Paul in a strong 3rd. Results were certified by the Caucus but not by the Republican party who declared it a split decision due to missing reports from 8 precincts,[12] but who later certified the caucus as a win for Santorum.[13] The caucus winner changed yet again when the Iowa delegate totals were finally determined giving Ron Paul the win along with several other states that same weekend.[citation needed]

Past winners[edit]

Candidates in bold eventually won their party's nomination. Candidates also in italics subsequently won the general election.




Democratic caucus participants (though not Republicans, whose caucuses vote by secret ballot) must publicly state their opinion and vote, leading to natural problems such as peer pressure from neighbors and embarrassment over whom his or her preferred candidate might be. Another criticism involves the amount of participants' time these events consume.[citation needed] Participants are often required to listen to speeches from local political leaders.

An Iowa caucus can last around two hours, preventing people who must work, who are sick, or who must take care of their children from casting their vote. Absentee voting is also barred, so active-duty Iowan soldiers lose the opportunity to participate. The final criticism is the complexity of the rules in terms of how one's vote counts, as it is not a simple popular vote.[citation needed]

Arguments in favor of caucuses include the belief that they favor more motivated participants than simple ballots, and that supporters of non-viable candidates are able to realign with a more popular candidate and still make their vote count.[citation needed] Additionally, many caucus-goers consider them more interesting due to how much more interactive they are than a primary. Lastly, one other argument in favor is that caucus-goers get more information before making their vote, so those voting will potentially be more educated about their candidate choices than primary-goers.

Each precinct's vote may be weighed differently due to its past voting record. Ties can be solved by picking a name out of a hat or a simple coin toss, leading to anger over the true democratic nature of these caucuses.[16] Additionally, the representation of the caucus has had a traditionally low turnout.[17] Others question the permanent feature of having caucuses in certain states, while perpetually ignoring the rest of the country.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Schultheis, Emily (August 25, 2014). "The Date of the 2016 Iowa Caucus Is Set. For Now.". National Journal. Retrieved August 30, 2014. 
  2. ^ "Iowa Caucus: Iowa Caucus – History, Candidate Profiles, Campaign Events and Caucus News". Archived from the original on 22 December 2007. 
  3. ^ "Republican Party of IOWA - Caucuses". Archived from the original on August 17, 2007. 
  4. ^ Staff. "2008 Precinct Caucus Guide" (PDF). Iowa Democratic Party. Retrieved January 3, 2008. 
  5. ^ "Iowa Caucuses a Challenge For Pollsters, Poll Positions: Low Turnout, Chance To Vote for Second Choice Make Contest Difficult To Forecast". CBS News. November 28, 2007. Retrieved October 27, 2008. 
  6. ^ Wilson, Reid. "Iowa Democrats propose changes to caucus system". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2 August 2014. 
  7. ^ "Iowa Caucuses 101: Arcane Rules Have Huge Impact on Outcome". CNN. January 3, 2008. Retrieved May 5, 2010. 
  8. ^ Healy, Patrick (December 28, 2007). "Iowa Saturated by Political Ads". The New York Times. 
  9. ^ "Clinton, Obama, Edwards Wage Door-to-Door Fight for Iowa Voters". Bloomberg. December 26, 2007. 
  10. ^ "Where the Iowa Field Offices Are". MyDD. December 27, 2007. 
  11. ^ a b
  12. ^ a b c "2012 Iowa Caucuses". Fox News Network. January 4, 2012.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "foxnews1" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  13. ^ "Iowa GOP Now Says Santorum Won Iowa Caucuses". KCCI. January 22, 2012. 
  14. ^ "Election Center 2008 Primaries and Caucuses". CNN. January 4, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  15. ^ "NPR: History May Not Help Figure Out Iowa". 
  16. ^ Kantor, Jodi (January 2, 2008). "Caucuses Empower Only Some Iowans". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2008. 
  17. ^ "Some Basic Facts About the Iowa Caucuses". Associated Press (via Yahoo! News). February 1, 2008. Archived from the original on December 2, 2008. Retrieved November 30, 2008. 
  18. ^ Alexovich, Ariel (December 31, 2007). "Blog Talk: Why Iowa?". The Caucus (blog of The New York Times). Retrieved October 27, 2008. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Hull, Christopher C. 2007. Grassroots Rules: How The Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press
  • Redlawsk, David P., Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan, 2011. Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
  • Skipper, John C., 2009. "The Iowa Caucuses: First Test of Presidential Aspirations, 1972-2008. McFarland Publishing, Jefferson, N.C.,
  • Squire, Peverill, ed. 1989. The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Winebrenner, Hugh. 1998. The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event. 2nd ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

External links[edit]