What's a Caucus? How Iowans Nominate U.S. Presidents

Republicans and Democrats hold their caucuses simultaneously, but they operate differently.

More than 40 years ago, a scheduling quirk vaulted Iowa to the front of the presidential nominating process, and ever since most White House hopefuls have devoted enormous time and money to a state that otherwise would get little attention.

For most of Iowa's history, activists have gathered in the winter to deal with politics, but no one outside the state paid attention until 1972, when Democrats established their caucuses in January. That made the party's presidential preference vote the first in the nation, and candidate George McGovern, encouraged by his campaign manager Gary Hart, took advantage by campaigning in Iowa and finishing a stronger-than-expected second place. McGovern's showing helped propel him to the Democratic nomination, and four years later it did the same for a little-known governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

The Republicans joined Democrats with the early caucus date in 1976. Since then Iowa has drawn more candidate visits and media attention with each campaign.

The Democratic and Republican parties hold their caucuses at the same time — this year starting at 7 p.m. CST on Feb. 1 — at spots in all of Iowa's 99 counties. Caucuses are held in each of the state's 1,681 precincts, but the number of meeting sites is smaller because some precincts share buildings. Democrats will meet at about 1,100 spots and Republicans will gather at nearly 900. Voters from some small precincts meet in homes, but most join in schools, veterans' halls and other large venues.

The parties hold their caucuses simultaneously, but they operate differently.

When Democrats attend a caucus, they break into groups that publicly declare their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is fewer than 15 percent of the total, they can either choose not to participate or can join another candidate group. That leads to some intense wooing and sometimes confusion as candidate representatives try to persuade others to join them and prevent their supporters from switching to another top candidate.

The results are the first step in determining delegates who are expected to support candidates at the national convention. A total of 44 delegates to the national convention are at stake. They will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote as well as on the vote in individual congressional districts, to candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote.

For Republicans, it's a much simpler matter of giving supporters of each candidate a chance to give a brief speech, then privately marking ballots. The ballots are counted, then communicated by a local caucus organizer to the state party using a new smartphone app developed for both parties. A total of 30 delegates to the party's national convention are at stake. They will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote.

All the candidates hope to win the caucuses, giving them a boost of attention as they shift focus to the New Hampshire primary eight days later. But more than a win, the goal is to exceed expectations. Even if a candidate finishes second or third, he or she can claim a victory by noting they finished near the top and received more support than expected.

It's worth noting that a win in Iowa doesn't necessarily translate into a party nomination. In fact, the last time the ultimate Republican nominee won a contested caucus was 2000, when George W. Bush finished first. The winner of the Democratic caucus has fared better. In the last three contested Democratic nomination races, the Iowa winner became the nominee.

The Iowa Republican Party chairman, Jeff Kaufmann, said he expects GOP turnout to top the previous record of 120,000 people, set in 2012. Andy McGuire, the Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, said she also expects a strong turnout, though not as large as the 2008 caucuses, when Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and other candidates drew 240,000 to the party's caucuses.

Even if turnout meets the party's expectations, it's worth noting that only a sliver of Iowa voters will participate in the caucuses. About 1.2 million residents are registered in either the Democratic or Republican party, and another 727,000 voters don't declare a political party. So, even if there is a strong turnout of 300,000 voters, that would mean a turnout of about 15 percent of registered voters. In the 2012 general election, Iowa's 73 percent turnout was among the nation's highest.

According to the 2014 Census figures, Iowa has a population of 3.107 million, including 2.7 million whites, 173,594 Hispanics and 101,236 African Americans. 

According to the Secretary of State’s Office in Iowa, there are 2.096 million registered voters as of February 1, of whom 1.937 million are active.

Among the active voters, 586,835 are Democrats, 615,763 are Republicans and another 727,112 have no party affiliation.

Iowa permits residents to register to vote or to change parties on caucus night.

One factor in turnout is always the weather, which can be awful in February. This year it looks like the parties could catch a break with temperatures expected to remain above freezing for most of the state until the event is over. Look out, though. A snowstorm is forecast to hit the next day, and if the wintry weather arrives earlier than expected, at least some caucus-goers could opt to stay home rather than brave slick roads.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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