What the Iowa Caucus Is Explained In Plain English

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What is it:

The caucuses are an event where voters from all of 1,774 Iowa voting precincts meet to elect delegates to the county conventions.

From the county convention, of which there are exactly 99, delegates are chosen for the state party convention. Eventually, the state party convention elects delegates to attend the national party convention, where a Presidential nominee is selected. The process is similar for both Democrat and Republican candidates.

Why Do They do It:

The winner of the Iowa caucus receives the most delegates elected to the county convention, which then elects delegates for that candidate to the state convention, and eventually, to the national convention.

How do they do it:

Caucuses are usually held in homes or smaller venues, where voters discuss the candidates, then make their choice. The results are tallied and sent into party headquarters. Iowans, some many political observers, actively defend the caucus as a shining example of grassroots democracy, others charge that caucuses are archaic, arcane, and unrepresentative.

The Procedure: 

  • Republicans begin the presidential straw poll. In most precincts this will be carried out via a paper ballot (the state party’s preference), which may be simply torn pieces of paper or a more formal ballot prepared ahead of time by the temporary chair. Those in attendance are asked if anyone wishes to speak on behalf of a candidate
  • Democrats meet in a room and physically take part. You will have the ability to stand with your neighbors in support of your preferred candidate, or to declare yourself as uncommitted. This is as simple as walking toward the corner of the room that’s been reserved for your candidate. If your group is too small to be “viable,” a threshold set at the beginning of the night, you will be asked to realign—a process during which you can join another group or acquire people into your own group to become “viable. “ After all groups are viable (meaning each group has enough members to be eligible to elect at least one delegate to the county convention), your group will elect your county convention delegates from its members.

Why Do You Care:

The caucus elects delegates for that candidate to the state convention, and eventually, to the national convention.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.