Illustration for article titled What the Hell Is the Iowa Caucus?

You know you were going to ask.

On the evening of Monday, February 1, Iowan voters will meet to vote for their preferred presidential candidates as part of the Iowa Caucuses. It is a bizarre, imperfect practice that probably makes little sense unless you were reared in a caucus state, and it matters only because we say it matters.


What actually happens in a caucus?

GOP and Democratic caucuses are operated differently. In both cases, voters arrive to a meeting place in one of the state’s 1,681 precincts by 7 p.m. Central Time (8 p.m. EST), and no later, according to CNN. Republicans perform the pledge of allegiance, and then conceivably hear a last-minute pitch from a representative of each candidate. They then cast a secret vote, either on ballot paper or by writing a candidate’s name on a slip of scrap paper. The votes are then sent to the state’s GOP headquarters and are used to determine how many delegates each candidate is granted at the convention.


The Democratic system is more complicated. When the precinct meeting begins, voters express their support for a candidate by sitting in a portion of the room reserved for supporters of that candidate. Undecided voters join the “uncommitted” group. If a candidate receives typically less than 15 percent of the caucus turnout in this first round vote, they are considered unviable; their supporters must choose to support a viable candidate, and supporters of the viable candidates attempt to persuade them who to choose. That the vote is public makes the Democratic vote somewhat tricky—voters may be intimidated or pressured by their peers to choose a specific candidate.

The Republican Party of Iowa’s chairman Jeff Kaufmann recently described the caucuses as such: “A primary is a vote; a caucus is a conversation and a vote.”

Who votes?

Since the caucuses are more time-consuming than a normal ballot vote, generally only the most politically-active Iowans participate. According to Vox, on average only one in five voters show up across party lines, meaning the vote is often unrepresentative of the state’s population’s views.


Iowa’s demographics are also unrepresentative of the nation: the state’s population is predominantly white, rural, and older than the national average. Republicans often work to win the significant and valuable Evangelical vote, while Democratic caucus voters tend to fall on the more liberal side.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Rutgers University political scientist David Redlawsk noted that the first four states to cast votes—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada— “do a pretty good job of representing the constituencies and issues that drive American politics.”


Who has won in the past?

In 2012, President Barack Obama was unopposed, while Rick Santorum won the GOP vote by .1 percent (24.6 percent compared with eventual nominee Mitt Romney’s 24.5 percent). In 2008, future nominee and president Barack Obama won the Democratic caucus with 37.6 percent of the vote; Mike Huckabee beat future nominee John McCain by over 20 points with 34.4 percent. In 2004, future nominee John Kerry won with 37.6 percent on the Democratic side; President George W. Bush was unopposed on the Republicans. In 2000, Al Gore won 63 percent of the vote; George W. Bush won 41 percent—both received the nomination.


Does it really matter?

Basically, it matters because we say it matters. Practically, the impact is small: Iowa only determines one percent of a candidate’s delegates (52 delegates of 4,700) at the national convention. Still, since Iowa is the first state to cast an official vote for a nominee, the nation typically pays attention. Itcan help build a candidate’s momentum—or break it.


How might it affect this election?

Both parties are looking at close races between two leading candidates: on the Republican side, Donald Trump vs. Ted Cruz; for the Democrats, Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders. In either case, the winner of Iowa will be seen has having a material advantage, and could win momentum that could affect the rest of the race. Whoever comes in third on the GOP side will also have a big step up going into other states’ primaries.


The other important thing to note is who does particularly poorly—candidates who make a weak showing in Iowa (ahem, Santorum) will likely choose to drop out of the race. We’ll also learn who Martin O’Malley supporters will realign with when he inevitably isn’t a viable candidate in certain precincts.

Main takeaway?

Pay attention, but don’t freak out.

Contact the author at

Share This Story

Get our newsletter