Every four years, Americans submit themselves to one of the most grueling job application processes around and run for president. They campaign hard — by shaking hands, taking selfies, releasing policies, hosting town halls, and standing on tables — but only one candidate can represent each party on the United States’ general election ballot in November. In order to be that candidate, presidential hopefuls have to garner enough public support from voters in primary elections and caucuses.
The first of those caucuses is coming up on Monday (February 3). Some call it the Iowa Caucus; others point to it as the unfortunate time of the year when grown adults vying for that sweet, sweet Oval Office gig stuff their faces with midwestern-style meats.
This year, all eyes are set on the Democratic caucus, given that there isn’t an active primary season for Republicans in this election. (Both former Representative Joe Walsh and former Governor Bill Weld are technically running, though!) So we’re going to focus on the Democratic caucus and answer some key questions. Why Iowa? What is a caucus? Why do we have them? Why are they so important? And why does a state with three million people get so much attention in a country with 300 million?
Why Have A Caucus?
The entire point of a caucus and a primary election is to help pick a party nominee. Nominees are chosen by delegates who cast their vote on behalf of a group of voters at the National Convention. Whichever candidate has the majority of delegates at their party’s convention wins the party’s nomination. The number of delegates, and determining how those delegates vote, varies depending on the state: Some states use a winner-take-all system, in which the candidate with the most votes in the state takes all of the delegates’ votes; some use proportional representation, and some use a combination of the two.
Iowa, always the overachiever, fits into that last category. As Business Insider lays out, 27 of the 41 Iowa Democratic delegates are allocated by the state’s four congressional districts; the other 14 are “at large” delegates, which are allocated to each candidate in proportion with their statewide support. Five of the 14 “at large” delegates are called “PLEO” delegates, which are saved for “party leaders and elected officials.” Iowa has an additional eight “superdelegates.” Superdelegates are cool because if the party hasn’t decided a winner by the time the convention rolls around, they get to vote for whomever they want; if the party has decided a winner, the superdelegates don’t vote.
It’s worth pointing out that Republicans and Democrats caucus very differently. But the reason Iowa still uses a caucus system is simple: It’s just what they’ve always done.
What’s The Difference Between A Caucus And A Primary Election?
In a primary election, people vote for the candidate they would like to represent them in the general election on a secret ballot and go home. In some states, they can just mail in their primary ballot.
Caucuses, on the other hand, are way more intense. As the Washington Post points out, if you want to cast your vote in a caucus, you have to go to a specific place at a specific time and participate for several hours. If you are busy, you cannot participate. If you don’t have a way of getting to the caucus place, you cannot participate. You cannot be late. You will have to listen to speeches. At Democratic caucuses, you have to vote with your physical body. Truly chaotic energy.
How Does The Iowa Caucus Actually Work?
On Monday, registered Democrats in Iowa will go to one of any 1,678 designated precincts, like a school cafeteria or church, at 7 p.m., the Wall Street Journal reports. They listen to some speeches and pick a favorite candidate. Then, the real games begin.
First, party officials count everyone in attendance. Then everyone gets together in one big room and makes small talk with other caucus-goers in an attempt to convince everyone else to caucus for their favored candidate. Then comes “alignment,” which, yes, does sound very Hunger Games.
Alignment requires that all caucus-goers write their first choice down on a presidential preference card. They then squad up with like-minded supporters. For instance, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s supporters might meet up under the basketball hoop while Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s supporters meet on the bleachers, and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s supporters gather in the corner of the court. Caucus-goers can also choose “uncommitted” and not pledge immediate allegiance to any one candidate.
Party officials count the number of people in each gaggle, and begin the process of “realignment.” If caucus-goers chose a “viable” candidate — one whom 15 percent or more of the room has decided to support — they are not allowed to move from their cluster. Everyone who caucused for a candidate who was deemed “not viable” is then forced to realign. They have a few options:
1. Write a new candidate’s name on their presidential preference card, and go stand with that new team
2. Try to woo some of the other eliminated voters to support their candidate in an attempt to bring them over the 15 percent threshold
3. Stay with their original candidate and go home
4. Decide to caucus as “uncommitted”
While the eliminated caucus-goers decide their next move, those who chose viable candidates are allowed to talk to everyone else in the room. (It ends up looking a lot like that scene from Disney’s 1997 classic Air Bud where the mean clown and Bud’s real owner, Josh, are trying to get Bud to go to them: The clown waggles a newspaper, Josh pats his knees. “Come to us, Bud! Choose our president!”) Once everyone has chosen their allegiance in that round, party officials count again — and the process continues until only the viable candidates are left. At that point, officials translate those results into delegates. They aren’t always picked out that creatively — in 2016, a dozen sites decided delegates by coin flips.
Who’s Left Out Of This Process?
It’s true that every person who caucuses gets just one “vote,” which is ultimately translated into a delegate, but caucuses are also extremely exclusionary. The Iowa caucuses are notoriously white and notoriously middle-class. They’re inaccessible for a variety of reasons: They take a large time commitment on a weeknight and are often hosted in locations deemed inaccessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as Gen reports.
“If you want to encourage people to have a voice in your party process, the last system you want to design is caucuses,” Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier told ThinkProgress. “It disadvantages working people, parents with children, and the disabled.”
How Has The Caucus Changed?
As Gen points out, the Iowa caucuses started in the 1850s and were organized by party leaders as a way to pick out delegates: Caucuses made it easier to exclude a large portion of a population and were simpler to complete than popular votes at the time.
Fast-forward to 1968, when the Vietnam War was raging on. Young Democrats wanted radical, structural change. They headed to the National Convention and protested the war and the Democratic establishment. Police brutally kicked them out of the Convention, which selected then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic nominee. Richard Nixon ultimately beat Humphrey in the 1968 election, and progressive activists had even more reason to want to change the system. So, according to Time, new rules were established to root out corruption, which ended up moving the Iowa caucus because of a logistical error regarding hotel room availability in Des Moines.
At the time, it wasn’t that exciting of a change for anyone except Iowans and maybe people in New Hampshire, which became the first state to hold a primary election. Enter: Jimmy Carter, who ran for office in 1976. The underdog peanut farmer didn’t have much money or political clout, and no one was really taking him seriously. But his campaign saw an opportunity to change that in Iowa, given that none of the front-runners were paying much attention to the first caucus. Carter campaigned hard — he kissed babies and shook hands and came second in the Iowa caucus. (The winner? “Uncommitted.”) Since Carter technically beat out all the other human candidates, he took the win, which coalesced into winning the Democratic nomination, and later, the presidential election. According to The Atlantic, he revolutionized the way candidates approach the Iowa caucus.
Why Is Iowa Important?
Because it’s first! That’s basically the whole thing! Bye!
Kidding, kidding! But it has always been important for candidates to win the first few primaries or caucuses because winning those makes you look electable as hell, and anyone following along this election cycle knows the importance of electability. Winning Iowa a pretty good guarantee that candidates will get a burst of momentum and media attention, and Democrats who win the first caucus nearly always go on to win the party’s nomination.
Other campaigns took note of Carter’s historic campaign and began making Iowa a big part of their ground game. A recent example? In 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses after trailing behind his biggest competition, Hillary Clinton, in nearly every poll. There are, of course, exceptions: In 1992, then-Sen. Tom Harkin won the Iowa caucus but ultimately lost the Democratic nomination to Bill Clinton.
But Is That Scope Of Influence Changing?
The caucus’s predictive power has become less impressive each year, due to its exclusionary policies and a parallel upswing of diverse voters turning out in other states.
This is a glaring issue within the Republican party: In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz won the Iowa caucus and lost the Republican nomination to Trump; in 2012, then-Sen. Rick Santorum won the Iowa caucus but lost the party nomination to Mitt Romney. In 2008, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa, and Romney came in second — and Sen. John McCain ultimately won the Republican nomination. In 1988, neither then-Sen. Bob Dole nor then-Rep. Dick Gephardt won their parties’ nominations after winning Iowa — those nods went to then-Vice President George H. W. Bush and then-Governor Michael Dukakis.
Now, with the expansion of early voting, some voters in California can send in their primary votes around the same time as folks in Iowa meet in the sweaty gym to caucus. It seems as though each year, the Iowa Caucus could be getting even less predictive and, as a result, even less impactful.
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