Understanding the Iowa Caucuses

Most of us are familiar with how elections usually work, whether we have experience in the ballot booth or simply voting among friends on what pizza toppings to order. In the general elections in November, people show up to vote at any time during the day, cast their ballot for the candidates of their choosing, and head home to watch the results trickle in.

The process that the political parties use to select their presidential nominees, however, is much more complicated. Delegates at the national conventions vote on the parties’ nominees in the fall and are selected based on the results of a series of statewide primary elections and caucuses in the 50 states, Washington D.C., and the US Territories. Delegates that the states send to the convention are pledged to vote for a particular candidate on the first ballot based on the results of those primaries and caucuses. Thus, the key to winning the nomination on the convention’s first ballot is to have a majority of the delegates supporting you the convention.

The first of these races is the Iowa Caucus on Monday. A caucus is quite different from most people’s experiences voting. When someone votes in an election, they are free to show up any time the polls are open (6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in Illinois) or even vote absentee by mail or in-person. Not so with a caucus – because each caucus is a public event, it is held at a precise time and late arrivals are shut out. At 7 p.m. sharp, voters around Iowa will gather by political party in school gymnasiums, churches, and other large spaces to select their party’s nominee.

This distinction leads to a key difference between caucuses and primary election voters. Because caucus participants have to show up at 7 p.m., far few people are able to participate than in a primary election. Voters who work multiple jobs, work second shift, or have trouble securing or affording childcare are often shut out from the process. On the contrary, retirees are heavily represented among caucus goers.

What happens once the caucus starts varies significantly by party. The Republican caucus is fairly straightforward – representatives from each campaign make a brief pitch to voters followed by a secret paper ballot. The Democratic caucus allows for much more intrigue. Voters supporting the various candidates will literally congregate in various areas of the caucus site, such as in different corners of the school gym. Voters who are undecided will stand in the middle or some other visible location and will be publicly courted by the various candidates’ supporters. Once everyone is in position, an initial count is made and candidates not receiving at least 15% of the vote in that particular location are eliminated, making their supporters “free agents” that can be wooed to the corners of other candidates. Supporters will shout and cheer to coerce as many voters as possible to their side of the room. Once everyone is settled, a final count is taken to determine the final vote total for that location.

The idiosyncrasies of this process have significant effects. Regardless of party, the process takes much longer than voting at the ballot booth; caucuses usually last at least 30 minutes and often longer than an hour. As a result, only the most committed partisans from the electorate are likely to attend. If you are a voter who is ambivalent about politics and not particularly attached to a political party or campaign, you are going to find better things to do with your evening than cram into a school gym. As a result, the participants at caucuses tend to be more ideologically extreme than the typical voter.

Secondly, the vote is essentially public on the Democratic side. Your family, neighbors, and friends are able to see who you are voting for based on where you are standing in the room. Needless to say, this might cause some people to feel uncomfortable revealing their true preferences or skip the process altogether.

About Dr. Steven Nawara

Dr. Steven Nawara, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at Lewis University teaches American Politics and Research Methods.

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