Wait, What’s a Caucus? (FAQs)

You probably know what a presidential primary is. A primary asks members of a party to vote for a nominee through a day of blind ballot voting, like any other election day, at your local polling place. Most of us understand that. Most of us do that. It’s easy. It’s familiar. But caucuses — like the ones that will be held across Iowa on Monday to kick off the selection process in the 2016 primaries — is a totally different animal. To understand this strange beast, here are some FAQs:

What IS a caucus?

Caucus can be both a noun and a verb. The noun is the event where Iowans “vote” for presidential candidates. The verb means to go participate in the event, as in, “Because I need brain surgery, I’m going to caucus for Ben Carson.”

Caucuses, like primaries, decide how to apportion delegates to each party’s national convention, which elects the nominee by a majority vote of its delegates this summer. U.S. states and territories each have a certain amount of delegates (a number determined by the party’s national committee through convoluted calculations explained here and here) to send to the convention. There, delegates from across the United States cast votes for whom their state voted back in their caucus or primary.

The broadest difference between a primary and a caucus is that a primary resembles a general election; people wait in line, stare at their smart phones instead of making conversation, silently judge people around them, cast their ballot in a little booth, leave, and then follow the vote-counting at the end of the day while we fall asleep in bed.

In a caucus, however, voters usually meet in one of the biggest rooms of a voting precinct (stereotypically a high school gymnasium, but it could be a library, church, and so forth), and then — this is going to sound weird but it makes some sense — they talk about who to vote for.

Who holds caucuses?

Fifteen U.S. states and territories do, starting with Iowa this Monday at 7:00 PM Central Standard. The rest hold primaries, starting with New Hampshire, which will vote all day on February 9. For a complete schedule of the contests and how many delegates each state or territory gets, click here for the Democrats and here for the Republicans.

What happens when caucus-goers talk about who to vote for?

Supporters of candidates can promote their candidate, try to win over undecideds, change the minds of supporters of another candidate, and so on. After that, ballots might be cast.

Ballots MIGHT be cast at that point?

You heard me.


It really depends on the situation.

Oh, are all caucuses not the same?

They are not! Boy, you’re full of good questions. Caucus rules are not uniform from state to state, nor are they consistent from party to party within a state.

Will the two parties’ Iowa caucuses be the same on Monday?

They will not.

Go on.

Sure! But before we do, I first must admit that I buried the boring part of this post at its halfway point, at which we’ve now arrived. We now need to talk about the relationship between precincts, counties, and districts.

WAIT COME BACK! Bear with me. Monday’s Iowa caucus-goers aren’t actually voting for presidential candidates directly. Each voting precinct is instead tasked with voting for delegates from among themselves to county conventions. These delegates will be chosen from among the supporters of those who do well in the precinct caucuses. There will later be 99 county conventions, one for each county in Iowa:

Iowa has a county named after Pocahontas, and surely there’s a resident named John Smith there. Awkward.

So on Monday, nearly two thousand tiny precincts are actually just voting for who represents them at the county level. (For example, the disgustingly named Larchwood, a town of nearly 900, is Precinct 4 of 8 in Lyon County, the northwest county on that Iowa map.) Then, in March, these precinct representatives meet at the county level, where they repeat the process there in order to choose delegates to the district conventions. There are four district conventions, one for each of the four congressional districts of Iowa. The four district conventions are held in April, and there they each pick three delegates from their district for their party’s national convention. The district conventions also pick delegates for the state convention, which is held in May and will also select some Iowa delegates for their party’s national convention. At the national convention all the Iowa delegates sit together and vote for the candidate for whom they were entrusted to vote.

Wait, WHAT?

Yeah, I know, that was icky. Iowans make it work, though. The more precincts a candidate wins on Monday, the more representation his or her delegates will get at the county level, which then translates to more representation at the district and state levels, which means more votes at the national convention. However, the method does lead to competing estimates from news sources on caucus night and beyond when it comes time to project total delegates for horse race coverage. Still, the people of Iowa know what they’re doing.

I’ll take your word for it. Back to the parties. How will their Iowa caucuses be different?

Let’s start with the one that’s surprisingly less fun — the Republican process. This is somewhere in between a primary and the controlled chaos of the Democratic caucuses. The voters at their precinct can talk about it a bit, but then they each cast a vote, which can include a show of hands, paper ballots, or whatever other method the people in the room prefer.

If a precinct’s tiny size means they only get one delegate at the district level, then the candidate’s group with the most votes gets to choose the delegate to the country convention. Some precincts are larger, and those might proportionally allocate their delegates. (For example, a precinct that gets five delegates might send to the county convention two for Cruz, two for Trump, and one for Rubio.)

Pretty straight-forward stuff. Once caucus-goers have voters, its precinct leaders will, for the first time ever, use an app to automatically transmit these results to Iowa GOP HQ. After the caucuses get going, we can expect to start hearing Republican results pretty quickly.

What about the Democrats?

I’m not a Democrat, but attending one of these things is on my bucket list.

First, each precinct will ask for a show of support for each candidate. Each group of supporters then claims a certain part of the floor-space, urinates on it, and then for 30 minutes the group tries to convince undecided voters and voters from other groups to join their own. (I may have made up one part of that procedure.) Each group might send out recruiters, while undecided voters often tour the groups to see what they have to say. Shouting can happen, as can (surely respectful) appeals to people’s logic and humanity. I envision it going something like this:

Okay, who let the Brit in?

I might be wrong, though.

Each group’s numbers are then counted. Groups that don’t account for a certain percentage of caucus-goers — 15 percent is a popular minimum — are considered “nonviable.” (That number may be higher for small precincts that can only send one or two delegates.) Those groups of supporters must “disband,” and its members have another half hour to repeat the earlier process and go join their next most preferable group. Interestingly, that can include groups of two nonviable candidates joining together to make one of them viable.

After that second Red Rover session, the proceedings are over and a headcount is done of each group. Based on the results, the precinct sends a proportional amount of delegates to the county convention. Precincts vary in size; some send only one delegate to the county convention, some send a handful. The delegates are allocated as proportionate as possible through equations you don’t even want me to list. A Democratic caucus-goer is therefore highly encouraged to join a group that will actually get some delegates. If a proud supporter of an unpopular candidate sticks to his guns, his vote won’t be counted at the county level, to say nothing of the district level where delegates for the Democratic National Convention are actually chosen. He needs to be part of a group that can clear the threshold.

The Democratic Party will use the same app to get us the information efficiently, but the process leading up to it takes much longer.

With only three candidates in the Democratic field this year, this process will have a slightly different flavor. Consider that in 2008, there were eight Democratic candidates, three of which (Obama, Clinton, Edwards) were considered contenders. That’s a lot of combinations, hollering, and roving for the other five groups.

This year, however, it’s just three candidates, two of which are contenders. We can assume that Clinton and Sanders supporters will have some pretty deep heel marks in their pee-soaked floorboards, while O’Malley groups are unlikely to meet that 15 percent in most precincts. As a result, each tiny O’Malley group across the state will resemble a sort of wish-bone and might decide the fate of the Iowa caucuses.

Weird? Yes. Convoluted? Absolutely?

It’s democracy in action.

Wait, so what’s a caucus?



11 thoughts on “Wait, What’s a Caucus? (FAQs)”

  1. Complicated indeed. Are these processes under electoral laws, or not at all because they are internal to a party? In other words, if in four years Iowa decided to choose their delegates to the GOP convention based on a three-on-three pickup game, they could?
    And, why hate on Larchwood?


    1. Each state legislature gets to choose its style, although the national committee has considerably authority over when they vote and exclusive authority over how many delegates each state gets.

      My apologies if you live in Larchwood.


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