FAQs: The Iowa Caucuses

The Iowa caucuses are just three weeks away, but I’m guessing some people need a refresher on what they are, why they’re important, and how they work. So please, let me refresh you.

You probably already know what a presidential primary is. It asks members of a party to vote for a nominee through a day of blind ballot voting at their local polling place, like any other election day. Most of us understand that. Many of us do that. It’s easy. It’s familiar. But a caucus — like the one that will be held across Iowa in just 21 days — is a totally different animal. To understand this strange beast, here are some Frequently Asked Questions:

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’m a weirdo, I’m going to caucus for John Delaney.”

Caucuses, like presidential primaries, determine how to apportion delegates to each party’s national convention, which will elect the nominee by a majority vote of its delegates this summer. U.S. states and territories each have a certain number of delegates (a number determined by the party’s national committee through convoluted calculations explained here) to send to the convention. There, delegates from across the United States cast votes for presidential candidates based on the (not quite proportional) distribution of their state’s votes.

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 falling asleep.

In a caucus, however, voters usually meet in one of a voting precinct’s biggest rooms (stereotypically a school gymnasium, but it could be a library, church, and so forth), and then the community talks about who to vote for.

Who holds caucuses?

Seven U.S. states and territories do, starting with Iowa on the night of February 3. The rest hold primaries, starting with New Hampshire, which will vote on February 11. For a complete schedule of the contests and how many delegates each state or territory gets, click here, and if you want to see who holds caucuses, Ctrl + F the word “caucus” in that post.

Why are the Iowa caucuses such a big deal?

Iowa only has 41 pledged delegates at a convention that’s expected to have 3,979, which is just one tenth of one percent of the total. However, as the first official voter input of a primary cycle, Iowa’s results have an outsized role in determining how the presidential primary is covered moving forward. Better-than-expected results translate to a bump in polling and fundraising, whereas worse-than-expected results often lead to a campaign collapsing and soon ending. Iowa winners win the overall primary nearly half the time.

Why does it go first?

The Iowa caucuses are a multi-step process that last months (see below), so that required Iowa to get a head start to the primary season back when the concept of a “primary season” first started manifesting in the 1970s. Once candidates saw benefits to getting an early win, they prioritized winning over Iowans. Since then, Iowans have fiercely defended their right to go first, and, because presidential candidates need Iowa to do well, they’re usually friends of Iowa before and after elections, which helps protect Iowa’s status.

Umm, what did you mean “see below”?

I must admit I buried the boring part of this post here at its halfway point. We now need to talk about the relationship between precincts, counties, and districts.

I just remembered I have something to do.

WAIT COME BACK! Bear with me.

Iowa caucus-goers aren’t actually voting for presidential candidates directly. Each voting precinct is actually tasked with voting for delegates to county conventions, delegates who will be chosen based on the results of the February 3 caucuses. Then, on March 21, there will be 99 county conventions, one for each county in Iowa:

Iowa has a county named after Pocahontas. [Insert Elizabeth Warren joke.]
So on February 3, nearly two thousand tiny precincts are actually just voting for who represents them at the county level. (This is why I keep calling them the “caucuses” plural. Some simply call it the Iowa Caucus, which I’ll allow.) For example, the disgustingly named Larchwood, a town of nearly 900, is Precinct 4 of 8 in Lyon County, found on the northwest part of that map. Larchwoodians will caucus for their presidential candidate of choice, but they’re in truth caucusing for delegates who will support that candidate at the county level.

When these precinct representatives meet at the county level in March, they repeat the process there in order to choose delegates to the district conventions. There are four district conventions, one for each of Iowa’s four congressional districts. The four district conventions are scheduled for April 25, and there they each pick 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 the national convention. At the national convention all 41 pledged Iowa delegates sit together, wear something funny, and, on the first ballot, vote for the candidate for whom they were entrusted to vote.

Wait, WHAT?

Yeah, I know, that read grosser than Larchwood sounds. Iowans make it work, though. The more precincts a candidate wins on February 3, 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 when it comes time to project total delegates for horse race coverage. The popular vote will not be clearly translated into delegate estimates. In the 2008 Democratic Iowa Caucuses, for example, John Edwards won 29.7% of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 29.4%, but it was thought that she came away with 15 delegates to his 14, leading to confusion over who was runner up to Barack Obama — who, by the way, dominated the popular vote with 37.6% but only came away with one more estimated delegate than Clinton, who finished third in the popular vote. (I’m telling you: it’s weird.) However, as we then rose through the caucus pyramid to country and district conventions, Edwards did worse each time when it became clear it was a two-horse race.

Take me in the room. How will the night play out in a caucus?

I’ll take you anywhere, dear reader. First, precinct leadership 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. Each group might send out recruiters, while undecided voters often tour the groups to see what they have to say. In the larger precincts, things can turn chaotic. Here’s a photo of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders voters from an evenly divided precinct competing over the one Martin O’Malley supporter:


At the end of the half hour, 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 then have another half hour to repeat the earlier process and go join their next most preferable group. Interestingly, that can include supporters of two or three nonviable candidates joining together to make one of them viable by hitting 15 percent.

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 distribution of delegates to the county convention. Precincts vary in size; the smallest send only one delegate to the county convention based on who won the caucus in their precinct, but many send more, which allows combinations of supporters. The delegates are allocated as proportionately as possible through equations you don’t even want me to list.

A Democratic caucus-goer is highly encouraged to join a group that will actually get some delegates. If proud supporters of an unpopular candidate sticks to their guns, their 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. To have their vote “matter,” they would need to be part of a group that can clear thresholds.

What are implications of this process on the 2020 Democratic Primary?

Ooh, good question. With so many candidates likely on the ballot (we’re down from 24 to 13 — oh, make that 12, because Marianne Williamson finally dropped out), there are lots of different combinations of supporters out there, which could make caucus night interesting.

Iowa appears to be a rare four-person race. Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden, and Warren are within four points of each other in the Real Clear Politics average of polls. The gold standard Iowa poll — the Des Moines Register survey conducted by Selzer % Co. — came out over the weekend and showed all four between 15 and 20 points. We also have Klobuchar, Yang, Steyer, Booker, and Gabbard combining for 15 percent of Iowa Democrats. How supporters of those latter five candidates break when their first choice is deemed nonviable can swing the overall Iowa winner. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine four candidates consistently hitting 15 percent in all the precincts, so there’s a chance, two or three strong candidates pull away in delegate count while the other one or two candidates keep falling painfully short of 15 percent in precincts and getting few or no county delegates from their districts as a result.

That’s weird.

Yes, it is.

And convoluted.


Are you excited?

You betcha. And it’s just three weeks away!


8 thoughts on “FAQs: The Iowa Caucuses”

  1. […] Whereas candidates in Tier 4 poll either 0 and 1 in just about every Iowa survey, Steyer and Yang have settled into the 3 to 5 point range. I like the #YangGang’s passion a lot more than the #SteyerStarers, a hashtag I may have just made up. Therefore, I like Yang to lead Steyer in the initial vote count despite Steyer’s millions of dollars on ads. However, I doubt either approach the top five, who poll significantly better, and therefore neither will earn any delegates. The most important role their supporters will play is when they head over to the Bernie Sanders group upon each caucus’s realignment. […]


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