Ten Things You Need to Know About Iowa Caucuses

Ten Things You Need to Know About Iowa Caucuses

January 27, 2020, 6:13 PM

The 2020 U.S. presidential campaign gets under way for real on Monday, Feb. 3, when voters in the Midwestern state of Iowa gather in schools, libraries and private homes to participate in the Iowa caucuses.

Iowa does not always determine the eventual party nominees, but the caucus vote does play a key role in shaping the primary races and weeding out contenders with little support.

Here are 10 things people should know about the Iowa caucuses.

What are the Iowa caucuses?

Once every four years, Iowa seizes the national political spotlight with its caucus vote. Party activists head out to local schools and other locations to express their preference for the various Democratic and Republican candidates running for president. The process can take hours, and the results are eventually used to award convention delegates to candidates who do well.

How do the caucuses work?

Upon arrival at the caucus site, Democrats taking part elect a local chairperson and form groups supporting the various candidates. After an initial round of voting, candidates who do not have at least 15% support among those at the caucus site are considered no longer viable. Their supporters are free to go to another candidate, and caucus-goers who support other candidates are free to try and persuade them. After this “realignment” process is complete, a final vote tally is taken and reported to the state party. The caucus results ultimately are used to allocate delegates to the national nominating convention in July committed to those candidates who draw the most support.

Iowa caucuses

Why are the caucuses so important?

Iowa only sends 41 delegates to the Democratic National Convention this summer, so its real significance has to do with the fact it is the first voting test in the presidential primaries and can make or break presidential campaigns. The top finishers usually go on to be competitive in the New Hampshire primary the following week and other contests in the coming weeks. Those who finish poorly often see their funding dry up and are forced to leave the race.

Volunteers call potential caucus-goers at a campaign field office for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President…
Volunteers call potential caucus-goers at a campaign field office for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, Jan. 13, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Do caucus winners always win their party's nomination?

Since 1972, the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses has gone on to win the party’s presidential nomination seven out of 10 times. Jimmy Carter got a big boost by finishing second to “uncommitted” in the 1976 caucus voting, and Barack Obama used his victory in 2008 to demonstrate he was a serious threat to favorite Hillary Clinton. But winning in Iowa does not guarantee success in the primary race. Past Democratic winners have included local favorite Sen. Tom Harkin in 1992, Congressman Dick Gephardt in 1988 and Ed Muskie in 1972, none of whom won the nomination. On the Republican side, Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000 got a huge boost in momentum from winning the caucuses, and eventually went on to win the party nomination.

Who are some of the recent winners, and how did they fare in later primaries?

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the caucuses in 2016 over Donald Trump, while Democrat Hillary Clinton narrowly prevailed over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders is one of the top Democratic contenders again this year. In 2012, former Republican Sen. Rick Santorum won a razor-thin victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, only to see Romney eventually claim the Republican nomination. Romney was defeated by Obama in the general election.

Why doesn't Iowa hold a presidential primary like most other states?

Iowa is one of only a handful of states that still prefers to hold time-consuming caucus meetings to begin the process of selecting national convention delegates. Nevada, Kansas, North Dakota and Wyoming are the others. Iowa has traditionally preferred the caucus model since it became a state in 1846. But several states in recent years have moved away from caucus votes to primaries, where voters simply show up at a polling place and cast a ballot. Primary elections draw a wider cross section of voters compared to caucuses, which are usually attended by the more motivated and committed voters. Caucuses also last hours, compared to the more traditional act of voting at the polls or submitting an early vote by mail.

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld steps off stage after speaking at a the Faith, Politics…
Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld steps off stage after speaking at a the Faith, Politics and the Common Good Forum at Franklin Jr. High School, Jan. 9, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Are Republicans holding caucuses in Iowa, as well?

They are, even though Trump is a heavy favorite. The Republican caucuses function more simply than the Democratic ones. Voters simply show up at their local caucus locations and cast a vote and leave.

Iowa Democrats have announced changes to the caucuses this year. What are they?

In the past, Democrats would only announce the total number of delegates each candidate has won at the end of voting. This year, after pressure from Sanders supporters to be more transparent, Democrats have decided to also announce the raw vote totals from the first round of voting in the various caucuses, and from the final round of voting after caucus-goers are permitted to realign behind other candidates

IOWA CAUCUSES button logo, on texture, partial graphic
Iowa caucuses button

Who decided Iowa should go first?

Iowa began this tradition of holding the first caucuses for Democrats in 1972 and for Republicans in 1976. It has become a point of pride for Iowa to host the first caucuses and for New Hampshire to hold the first presidential primary. New Hampshire’s tradition goes back to 1916 and took on added significance beginning in 1952. Both states have a long-standing pact that they will remain the first contests to the exclusion of all other states, and for the most part, political leaders in both parties have supported them over the years.

Who is going to win in Iowa this year?

Recent state and national polls show Sanders is surging. He is hoping for a breakthrough in a top tier of candidates that includes former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. In addition, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is hoping for a strong showing to break into the top tier. But in the final run-up to the vote, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet have been limited in their ability to campaign in Iowa because as sitting U.S. senators, they are required to attend Trump's impeachment trial.

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