Iowa, Caucuses, and Why They Matter

By Thomas Chen

With the Iowa Caucuses fast approaching, many Americans find themselves surrounded by a wave of confusing political jargon. As the media scrambles to cover a very real materialization of the 2016 Presidential campaign, citizens and students are bombarded by the media with words such as “Caucus”, “Primary”, and “Precincts” with the underlying assumption that their viewers understand the meaning behind them. For those who do not, this article provides some insight into the matter.

A caucus, in its simplest form, is a localized “gathering of neighbors” with the express purpose of electing local delegates who support each citizen’s respective candidates. These pockets of gatherings each represent a geographical portion of the state called a precinct. In the case of Iowa, there are 1,681 precincts. These precinct delegates then attend one of 99 county-level conventions to elect delegates on behalf of their chosen candidates to the congressional-district level convention. At that convention, delegates are elected to finally represent candidates at the national convention. Throughout this process, chosen delegates are sometimes allowed to change positions and support a different candidate – but this rarely occurs. And this is the crux of the issue. Because of the stability of support that most delegates have, in most cases the winner of a state caucus can be roughly determined early on by the number of delegates won at the precinct level.

The specific democratic process for the Republican and Democratic caucuses differs with the latter having a more complex system, but the general idea is the same: choose delegates and have them represent citizens as they climb through the various conventions concluding with each party’s national convention. The Republican caucuses employ a secret ballot where attendees vote for the candidate they support and these votes are aggregated and tabulated such that Iowa’s eventual delegation reflects these results. In contrast, the Democratic caucus functions more like a microcosm of the electoral college. The total number of delegates per precinct is based off of turnout from the two prior election cycles. Additionally, any candidate with under 15% of the support of total attendees will not be properly represented as their supporters must disband and support another delegate.

In truth, however, the caucus system is rather uncommon. In America, the majority of states have adopted primaries instead. A primary is simply a general statewide vote to decide which candidate should be their respective party’s nominees. There are various kinds of primaries ranging from closed and open to mixed as well as others, but on the whole, the primary system is far simpler. In fact, only thirteen states hold caucuses or forms of caucuses to decide their presidential nominations. Yet, despite this, Iowa still remains one of the most covered and discussed States in the presidential nomination process.

Iowa’s prominence in the media, however, has very little to do with the state itself as it does with the timing of their caucuses. Iowa holds an interesting position as the first state to hold a caucus or primary in the election cycle. As a result, on February 1st, potential presidential candidates have the chance to gain momentum. Iowans as a whole provide a good representation of how rural Americans will vote as opposed to the more polarized populations on the coasts of the nation. Perhaps more importantly, if middle-class Iowans strongly support a candidate, it is a reasonable litmus test for support from the rest of the nation. Therefore, a victory in the Iowa caucuses would prove invaluable to any candidate and show that they have a strong chance of performing well across the nation. Furthermore, after months of debates, media coverage, and polls, the Iowa caucuses finally present a tangible result from every-day voters in regards to public support. In fact, according to David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, “no candidate who has ever finished worse than third among the candidates has even gone on to win the nomination”. Such is the value of being the first State to engage in the nomination cycle.