What Is the Iowa Caucus and Why Is It so Important?

Iowa is not first because its important

Every four years, this small state becomes a focal point of international media attention. It's the first state in the U.S. electoral process to name a party leader for president.

It may seem like a lot of fuss for a state that contributes just over 40 delegates out of around 4,000 to picking a party's presidential candidate. 

Democratic presidential candidate former U.S. Vice
Democratic presidential candidate former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign stop at the National Cattle Congress Pavilion on Saturday in Waterloo, Iowa. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

But Dennis Goldford, a political science professor from Iowa's Drake University, said the reason is simple: "Iowa is not first because it's important. It's important because it's first."   

"In any serial nomination process, whichever state goes first basically sets the parameters for what the field looks like," said Goldford, co-authour of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event.

It's the first time voters have a real, direct say over who they want to be the nominee, said Peterson.

The Iowa caucus has also become a pretty reliable indicator for determining who will become the party's nominee. Indeed, since 1976, almost every Democratic candidate who took Iowa faced the Republican nominee for president. The two exceptions were Michael Dukakis, who lost to Gephardt in 1988, and Bill Clinton, who lost to popular Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992.

But it was also here where an Illinois senator named Barack Obama gained huge momentum after claiming victory over Hillary Clinton, who finished third in the state.

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What is the Iowa caucus? How does it work?

Caucuses are like neighborhood party gatherings. They are held in schools, community buildings and churches around the state, and begin with messages from state and local party officials.

Instead of voting for a candidate using a secret ballot, caucuses involve physically moving to a designated part of a room along with others who support the same contender. Because it all happens in the open, Iowans are able to try to persuade others to switch their support.

Iowa has 1,678 precinct caucuses plus nearly 100 "satellite" caucuses for Iowans scattered around the country, along with some taking place internationally.

The voting process takes place in two phases.

  • The first phase: Caucus participants may pick any candidate. The number of supporters each candidate has is then tallied up by state party officials as well as by representatives of each of the campaigns.
  • The second phase: The number of candidates is whittled down. Presidential candidates who received less than 15% are considered nonviable. That means their supporters have two main options: pick a viable candidate to support or persuade enough supporters of other nonviable contenders to join their side to meet the 15% threshold.

After the second phase is done, support for each candidate is tallied again. The number of delegates each candidate receives is ultimately based on the number of supporters each candidate has once the nonviable contenders are eliminated.

This is what one caucus in 2016 looked like in a rural part of the state:

A child looks on as Democratic party voters sit in the living room of a private residence during the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus in rural Deep River, Iowa, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016.Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

How Does Someone Win the Caucus?

It’s a Democratic caucus, so of course it’s a little complicated: The ultimate goal is to win a set number of Iowa delegates for the Democratic National Convention in the summer. At least 1,991 delegates are needed to win the nomination. Iowa, a tiny state, has 41 delegates to win in the caucus.

While delegates are awarded in rough proportion to the number of votes someone gets in the Iowa caucus, results this year will also show vote breakdowns for each round of caucusing — so candidates can see if they are successfully persuading voters to join them.

That could help someone make the case that while they “lost” the caucus by number of delegates, they have reason to be hopeful in future states because their campaign is resonating with persuadable voters.

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Can you vote absentee in a caucus?

According to the Iowa Democratic Party’s rules, “there will be no absentee or proxy voting at any precinct caucus for any reason.” However, for this year’s caucuses, the party designated nearly 100 “satellite caucus sites,” which allows Iowans unable to attend one of the main caucuses to vote in other states, countries or other locations within the state. Proposals to allow caucus voting by phone in Iowa and Nevada were quashed last year by the Democratic National Committee over ballot security concerns.

How Does It Work and When Does It Start?

Fundamentally, the Iowa caucus works like any other election in the country: Voters show up to their respective voting locations and make their choice for a candidate. But it’s the specific rules for the Democratic caucus that make it so much different from the kinds of elections millions of Americans are used to.

Democratic Iowa caucus-goers are required to be at their voting locations longer than it takes to just cast a ballot: Instead, they gather at their location and physically — openly — declare their vote by sorting into different groups. So Biden voters will go in one corner while Sanders voters go in another.

Candidates who do not get enough voters to reach a minimum threshold (15 percent, in most cases) then lose those voters — who can be persuaded in the room to pick a second candidate.

This year’s caucus begins at 7 p.m. local time, or 8 p.m. on the East Coast.

There will be two rounds of caucusing.

The final results take into account those voters who needed to pick a new candidate if their first choice didn’t get enough support.

Iowans will gather at local precincts to discuss and cast their votes. These precincts are commonly held in community spaces, like gymnasiums or VFW halls or local utility buildings, but they can even be held in homes. There are 1,678 precincts across the state, with an additional 99 satellite precincts.

In contrast to the Democratic version, Republican caucus-goers in Iowa vote by secret ballot, like a more conventional election.

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Democratic caucus-goers sign in at Valley Church, the caucus site in precinct 317, on February 1, 2016 in West Des Moines, Iowa Democratic caucus-goers sign in at their local caucus site in West Des Moines, Iowa, in 2016. | Credit: Brendan Hoffman/Getty

How Iowa gained its status

It was back in 1972 when Iowa started to gain its status. After 1968, both parties decided to open the system up and give voters more say in choosing delegates to the national convention. 

But In Iowa, because of its complex caucus system, getting delegates to the national convention meant going through the process that included a state, district and county convention, along with precinct caucuses. 

Because of all the stages and time involved in that process, Iowa would have to go first.

As former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen recalled in a recent podcast, it was George McGovern and his campaign manager Gary Hart who decided to come to Iowa in 1972 when seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination. McGovern, not the front runner or establishment choice, campaigned for three days and would place third.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sand
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar, far left, take a group photo with supporters at a campaign event at The Black Box Theater on Saturday in Indianola, Iowa. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

He eventually secured the party's nomination, which helped legitimize the state's importance in the process.

Four years later, Jimmy Carter, a relatively unknown southern governor, committed a lot of resources into the state and placed second and eventually won the party's nomination.

"So historically, that's sort of where it started after Carter's eventual nomination. That became the playbook," Peterson said.

There have, however, been questions about how important Iowa remains, particularly in this election. It's not a "winner-take-all" state, meaning the delegates are awarded proportionally. This means, with so many candidates in the field, no one may really come on top. 

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who entered the race late, is ignoring Iowa to concentrate on larger states. Back in September, the campaign of former Vice-President Joe Biden reportedly indicated that Iowa was not considered "a must-win" state and instead focused on Nevada, South Carolina and the Super Tuesday states.

Are Republicans caucusing, too?

Yes. While other states are planning to cancel their GOP primaries and caucuses in solidarity with the incumbent President Trump, the Republican Party of Iowa will hold its traditional straw poll at caucus meetings Monday.

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