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The Iowa caucuses are an electoral event in which residents of the U.S. state of Iowa meet in precinct caucuses in all of Iowa's 1784 precincts and elect delegates to the corresponding county conventions. There are 99 counties in Iowa and thus 99 conventions. These county conventions then select delegates for both Iowa's Congressional District Convention and the State Convention, which eventually choose the delegates for the presidential nominating conventions (the national conventions).

The Iowa caucuses are noteworthy for the amount of media attention they receive during U.S. presidential election years: Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral event of the nominating process for President of the United States. Although only about one percent of the nation's delegates are chosen by the Iowa State Convention, the Iowa caucuses have served as an early indication of which candidates for president might win the nomination of their political party at that party's national convention.



The Iowa caucuses are commonly recognized as the first step in the U.S. presidential nomination process for both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. They came to national attention in 1972, with a series of articles in the New York Times on how non-primary states choose their delegates for the national conventions. Democratic operative Norma S. Matthews, state co-chair of the George McGovern campaign, helped engineer the early January start for Iowa. McGovern finished second to Edmund Muskie in the first early Iowa caucuses, but the momentum was palpable for an ultimate Democratic nomination in 1972 for McGovern in Miami. Four years later, the Iowa Republican Party scheduled its party caucuses on the same date as the Democrats.

In 1976, an uncommitted slate received the most support, followed by former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who came in a distant second, but won the most votes of any actual candidate. With no dominant front runner at the time, Carter was able to use the publicity of his "win" to achieve victory in the New Hampshire primary, and then to win his party's nomination and eventually the Presidency. Since then, Presidential candidates have increased their focus on winning the Iowa caucus.

In 1980, Republicans began the tradition of holding a straw poll at their caucuses, giving the appearance of a primary election. George H. W. Bush campaigned extensively in Iowa, defeating Ronald Reagan, but ultimately failed to win the nomination.

While they have been a financial boon to the state, the political value of the Iowa caucuses has gone up and down over the years. In 1988, for example, the candidates who eventually won the nominations of both parties came in third in Iowa. In elections without a sitting president or vice president, the Iowa winner has gone on to the nomination only about half the time (see below).

When Iowa senator Tom Harkin ran for the Democratic nomination in 1992, none of the other Democratic candidates chose to compete in Iowa, which minimized its importance in the nomination process. President George H. W. Bush was unopposed on the Republican side.

While the Democrats have tried to preserve the position of Iowa and New Hampshire in their nominating schedules, the Republicans have not. Alaska and Hawaii generally have their caucuses before Iowa, and in 1988 the Hawaii victory of Pat Robertson and the 1996 Louisiana victory of Pat Buchanan over Senator Phil Gramm had a significant impact on the results in Iowa.

The caucuses are closely followed by the media and can be an important factor in determining who remains in the race and who drops out. However, the only non-incumbent candidates to win their party's caucus and go on to win the general election were George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008. Neither Reagan nor Bill Clinton won prior to their first terms. No incumbent President has run opposed in his own party's caucus since Jimmy Carter in 1980.

In the months leading up to the 2004 caucus, predictions showed candidates Dick Gephardt and Howard Dean neck-and-neck for first place, with John Kerry and John Edwards far behind them. Negative campaign ads attacking each other by the two front runners soured the voters on them, and a last minute decision by Kerry to put all his remaining money in Iowa swung voters towards him. Gephardt's presidential hopes were dashed and Dean's badly battered, as Kerry went on to become the third non-incumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since Edmund Muskie in 1972 and Al Gore in 2000.


The Iowa caucuses operate very differently from the more common primary election used by most other states (see U.S. presidential primary). The caucuses are generally defined as "gatherings of neighbors." Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's 1784 precincts. Typically, these meetings occur in schools, churches, public libraries and even individuals' houses. The caucuses are held every two years, but the ones that receive national attention are the presidential preference caucuses held every four years. In addition to the voting and the presidential preference choices, caucus-goers begin the process of writing their parties’ platforms by introducing resolutions.[1]

Unlike the first-in-the-nation primary in New Hampshire, the Iowa caucus does not result directly in national delegates for each candidate. Instead, caucus-goers elect delegates to county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to district and state conventions where Iowa's national convention delegates are selected. Ironically, the state conventions do not take place until the end of the primary and caucus season: Iowa is in fact one of the very last states to choose its delegates.[2][3]

The Republicans and Democrats each hold their own set of caucuses subject to their own particular rules that change from time to time. Participants in each party's caucuses must be registered with that party. Participants can change their registration at the caucus location. Additionally, 17-year-olds can participate, as long as they will be 18 years old by the date of the general election. Observers are allowed to attend, as long as they do not become actively involved in the debate and voting process. For example, members of the media and campaign staff and volunteers attend many of the precinct caucuses. Youth who will not be eligible to vote by the date of the general election may also attend as observers and may volunteer to attend the county convention as youth delegates.[4]


Republican Party process

For the Republicans, the Iowa caucuses follow (and should not be confused with) the Ames Straw Poll in August of the preceding year. Out of the five Ames Straw Poll iterations, 1987 and 2007 are the only years in which the winner of the Ames Straw Poll has not gone on to win the Iowa caucuses.

In the Republican caucuses, each voter officially casts his or her vote by secret ballot. Voters are presented blank sheets of paper with no candidate names on them.[5] After listening to some campaigning for each candidate by caucus participants, they write their choices down and the Republican Party of Iowa tabulates the results at each precinct and transmits them to the media.[6] In 2008, some precincts used a show of hands [7] or preprinted ballots.[8] The non-binding results are tabulated and reported to the state party, which releases the results to the media. Delegates from the precinct caucuses go on to the county conventions, which choose delegates to the district conventions, which in turn selects delegates to the Iowa State Convention. Thus it is the Republican Iowa State Convention, not the precinct caucuses, which select the ultimate delegates from Iowa to the Republican National Convention. All delegates are officially unbound from the results of the precinct caucus, although media organizations either estimate delegate numbers by estimating county convention results or simply divide them proportionally.

Democratic Party process

The process used by the Democrats is more complex than the Republican Party caucus process. Each precinct divides its delegate seats among the candidates in proportion to caucus goers' votes.

Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.

After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are viable. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold is 15% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.

When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform.

The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses.

2004 Democratic process

In 2004, the meetings ran from 6:30 p.m. until approximately 8:00 p.m. on January 19, 2004, with a turnout of about 124,000 caucus-goers.[9] The county convention occurred on March 13, the district convention on April 24, and the state convention on June 26. Delegates could and did change their votes based on further developments in the race; for instance, in 2004 the delegates pledged to Dick Gephardt, who left the race after the precinct caucuses, chose a different candidate to support at the county, district, and state level.

The number of delegates each candidate receives eventually determines how many state delegates from Iowa that candidate will have at the Democratic National Convention. Iowa sends 56 delegates to the DNC out of a total 4,366.

Of the 45 delegates that were chosen through the caucus system, 29 were chosen at the district level. Ten delegates were at-large delegates, and six were "party leader and elected official" (PLEO) delegates; these were assigned at the state convention. There were also 11 other delegates, eight of whom were appointed from local Democratic National Committee members - two were PLEO delegates and one was elected at the state Democratic convention.

2008 process

The 2008 Iowa caucuses took place January 3 at 7 p.m. CT.[10] Candidates spent tens of millions of dollars on local television advertisements[11] and hundreds of paid staff[12] in dozens of field offices.[13]

Past winners

Candidates in bold eventually won their party's nomination. Candidates in italics subsequently won the general election.




There is a debate over the effectiveness and usefulness of caucuses in Iowa. One criticism is that the caucuses, especially the Democratic caucus, are a step backwards from the right to a secret ballot.

Democratic caucus participants (though not Republicans, whose caucuses vote by secret ballot) must publicly state their opinion and vote, leading to natural problems such as peer pressure from fellow neighbors and embarrassment over who his/her real pick might be. Another criticism involves the sheer amount of participants' time these events consume.

An Iowa caucus can last up around two hours, preventing people who must work, who are sick, or must take care of their children from casting their vote. Absentee voting is also barred, so soldiers who come from Iowa, but must serve in the military, lose their vote. The final criticism is the complexity of the rules in terms of how one's vote counts, as it is not a simple popular vote.

Arguments in favor of caucuses include the belief that they favor more motivated participants than simple ballots, and that supporters of non-viable candidates are able to realign with a more popular candidate and still make their vote "count".

Each precinct's vote may be weighed differently due to its past voting record. Ties can be solved by picking a name out of a hat or a simple coin toss, leading to anger over the true democratic nature of these caucuses.[16] Additionally, the representation of the caucus has had a traditionally low turnout.[17] Others question the permanent feature of having caucuses in certain states, while perpetually ignoring the rest of the country.[18]


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Republican Party of IOWA - Caucuses". Archived from the original on 2007-08-17.  
  3. ^
  4. ^ Iowa Democratic Party. "2008 Precinct Caucus Guide" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-01-03.  
  5. ^ "WANE-TV Coverage You Can Count On: Our Apologies". Archived from the original on 2008-01-06. Retrieved 2008-10-27.  
  6. ^ Roger Simon Dec 5, 2007 09:01 PM EST. "Inside the fight for Iowa - Roger Simon -". Retrieved 2008-10-27.  
  7. ^ The Albert Lea Tribune
  8. ^ "Caucus in Maquoketa: Officials 'pleasantly overwhelmed' /". Retrieved 2008-10-27.  
  9. ^ "Iowa Caucuses A Challenge For Pollsters, Poll Positions: Low Turnout, Chance To Vote For Second Choice Make Contest Difficult To Forecast - CBS News". Retrieved 2008-10-27.  
  10. ^ "Iowa caucuses 101: Arcane rules have huge impact on outcome".  
  11. ^ Patrick Healy (December 28, 2007). "Iowa Saturated by Political Ads". New York Times.  
  12. ^ "Clinton, Obama, Edwards Wage Door-to-Door Fight for Iowa Voters". Bloomberg. December 26, 2007.  
  13. ^ "Where the Iowa field offices are". MyDD. December 27, 2007.  
  14. ^ "Election Center 2008 Primaries and Caucuses". Election Center 2008. CNN. 2008-01-04. Retrieved 2008-01-04.
  15. ^ "NPR: History May Not Help Figure Out Iowa".  
  16. ^ Jodi Kantor (Published: January 2, 2008). "Caucuses Empower Only Some Iowans - New York Times". Retrieved 2008-10-27.  
  17. ^ "Some basic facts about the Iowa Caucuses". Associated Press. 2008-02-01. Archived from the original on 2008-12-02. Retrieved 2008-11-30.  
  18. ^ Ariel Alexovich. "Blog Talk: Why Iowa? - The Caucus - Politics - New York Times Blog". Retrieved 2008-10-27.  

Further reading

  • Hull, Christopher C. 2007. Grassroots Rules: How The Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press
  • Squire, Peverill, ed. 1989. The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Winebrenner, Hugh. 1998. The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event. 2nd ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

External links


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