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How the Iowa caucuses work—and what’s new for 2020

February 2, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

The Iowa caucuses, on Feb. 3, will start the process of anointing the Democrat who will take on President Donald Trump in November. A vestige of old-style organizing in an age when most political action has moved online, Iowa’s caucuses can seem obscure and anachronistic to outsiders. Some changes this year in response to long-running criticism of Iowa’s importance and procedures might make things even more complicated.

1. What’s meant by a caucus?

The state-by-state contests that the Democratic and Republican parties rely on to choose their presidential candidates come in two varieties: a primary election, in which voters select their preferences on ballots in private, or a caucus, where voting is public and participatory. Caucuses were once the norm, requiring more time and effort than merely casting a vote in a polling place. A decades-long movement toward greater participation has made them an endangered species. On the Democratic side, only Iowa and three other states — Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming — will hold caucuses rather than primaries this year. And Republicans have canceled caucuses in many states as part of an effort to clear Trump’s path to re-nomination.

2. How does a caucus work?

At 7 p.m. Central Time on Feb. 3, Iowans in 1,683 precincts will convene in schools, libraries, church basements and private homes to register their preferences for president. Republican caucuses will be relatively straightforward, confirming Trump as their party’s candidate. For Democrats, the process is more complicated. After some introductory business, participants physically divide themselves, Westminster-style, into groups according to their candidate preferences. The process can be chaotic, with precinct captains using all manner of persuasion — up to and including baked goods — to win over supporters. Some participants might even form an uncommitted caucus as a protest or out of indecision, inviting entreaties from candidate groups.

3. So that’s it?

Not quite. That initial division is called the first allocation, and it determines which candidates are viable. Those that fail to make the threshold — set at 15% to 25%, depending on the size of the precinct — have a choice to make: Try to win enough new members to become viable, join the caucus of their second choice, become uncommitted, or even go home. There’s intense face-to-face lobbying as candidate surrogates try to woo supporters of non-viable candidates into their camps. In this re-alignment, a non-viable candidate could gain enough supporters to win delegates, but a candidate that was viable in the first round can’t lose support in the second round. Following this one round (and only one round) of re-shuffling, a final allocation tally is taken to determine the number of precinct delegates sent to later county conventions.

4. How are the results reported?

That could get confusing this year. Historically, the Iowa Democratic Party has reported the results in terms of state delegate equivalents — an estimated number of delegates each candidate will get to the state convention June 13. But there’s a wrinkle this time. In the interest of greater transparency, the party will release three numbers: The first allocation (the number of caucus goers supporting each candidate before non-viable candidates are eliminated); the final allocation (the number supporting viable candidates); and the state delegate equivalents. If those numbers differ, candidates could cherry-pick the number that suits them best. The Associated Press, the de facto arbiter of how election results are reported, will continue to use state delegate equivalents, as will the state and national parties.

5. What’s different this year?

In a bid to increase participation, Iowa’s Democratic Party is holding a number of “satellite caucuses” in nursing homes and union halls in hopes of including people who otherwise would have difficulty traveling to their precinct caucus site or getting time off from work at 7 p.m. Some of those caucuses will even take place out of state to accommodate snow birds and college students, and for Iowa expatriates in Paris, in Glasgow, Scotland and as far away as Tblisi, Georgia. Iowa Democrats abandoned plans for a “virtual” caucus held by telephone, because of concerns over security.

6. Why is Iowa so important?

Only because it’s the first state to vote. It’s not because Iowa is a representative cross-section of America; about 90% of the population is white. It’s not because of its voting strength; Iowa will send just 49 of the 4,746 delegates to the national convention. And it has a pretty poor record of picking winners. Since 1972, only three presidents have won both the Iowa caucuses and the presidency: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But even if Iowa doesn’t always pick winners, it does eliminate losers. The axiom is that there are “three tickets out of Iowa,” and it’s mostly true. John McCain is the exception that proves the rule — he finished a close fourth in Iowa and won the nomination in 2008. That track record has led to criticism that Iowa has too much influence and should give up or share its first-in-the-nation status with more diverse states.

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