No Wasted Effort: How the Iowa Caucuses Work

Having just reviewed how the Iowa Caucuses work to prepare for this week’s Big Event, I bet there are few folks out there outside of Iowa (and maybe inside Iowa) who are not total elections nerds who understand the process. So before the press and pundits focus only on “Who Won,” I decided to share my work.

There are a lot of places to get good info, but I think a really good one is the NPR Briefing Book, guide to the primaries and caucuses. It is here: That’s what I relied on. A funnier version is here:, by Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune.  

In brief, this is what folks have to know:

(1) There are two separate caucuses going on: The Republican and the Democratic ones and they work differently. But in both cases, the caucuses ultimately will determine ONLY how many delegates from Iowa will be assigned to vote for which candidates on the first round at the national nominating convention.

(2) Caucuses are precinct meetings that begin at 8 p.m. EST/ 7 p.m. CST and they have a set process and order.  You have to be there on time to participate. There is no such thing as “absentee voting.”

(3) The Republican Caucuses. These are simpler in process, although they are dealing with more candidates. In about 700 locations throughout Iowa, the caucuses frame the process to decide who Iowa’s 30 delegates will be to the Republican National Convention on July 18-21.

  • After some preliminary activity, representatives of each candidate will speak and make their case, then caucus attenders will write the name of the candidate they choose on a ballot paper.
  • The votes are tallied and sent to party headquarters. When all that is tallied, we will know the outcome of  the Iowa Republican caucuses in terms of the amount of support for each candidate . What that means is on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention, which in modern times has been the only one, we will know what proportion of Iowa’s 30 votes goes to which candidates.  They are “bound and allocated proportionally.”
  • But the caucuses will also decide who will actually attend the convention. If there is a brokered convention, meaning they go to more than one ballot to determine the Republican nominee, whoever was chosen to go to the Iowa Republican National Convention can vote however they want.

(4) The Democratic Caucuses. (Or, “Hold onto your Hats).   This process begins now, but doesn’t end until for a long, long time. At about 1,000 locations throughout Iowa, the caucuses frame the process to decide who Iowa’s 52 delegates are to the Democratic National Convention on July 25-28. Actually, Monday’s caucuses only decide 44 of these seats, because 8 seats are occupied by “super-delegates,” who get to go because they hold important political or governmental positions.

  • After some preliminaries, the people at the caucus separate into different parts of the room according to which candidate they support — there’s even a group for “undecided.” (The Democratic caucuses work completely in the open — no secret ballots.)  Supporters for each candidate get to state their case.
  • Then they test for “viability.”  Each candidate’s group has to include at least 15% of the people participating in the caucus.  If that doesn’t happen (in this case that is likely to happen to O’Malley in quite a few precincts), the folks in that group get to redistribute themselves to another group — either another candidate or the “undecided” camp, or they get to leave. Those supporters can act individually or collectively — they could put their heads together and decide to throw all their support in the same direction or they can scatter in different directions.
  • During this time, advocates will try to convince people to come to their side.
  • Once all the sides are viable, the tally is done and we know the outcome of the Iowa Democratic caucuses in terms of the amount of support for each candidate. (But see below what that means!)
  • But the work of the caucuses is not done yet.  They do other party business of a variety of sorts, and decide which delegates the precinct will send to the county convention in March, which will winnow down the number of delegates to determine who will go to the congressional district convention in April, which will winnow down the number of delegates who get to go to the state convention in June, which will determine who goes to the National Democratic Convention.
  • And by the way, all of this was just a “beauty contest” as far as support for the actual candidates are concerned. Noone is bound on the way up out of the precinct caucuses.

If more than 17% of eligible voters take part in the Iowa caucuses, they will beat their previous record of participation.

Aren’t you glad they don’t do this later in the process when we’re all already tired?