How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

2:37pm Jan 30, 2016
Here's the official caucus math worksheet on the Democratic side that has been used in years past.
Here's the official caucus math worksheet on the Democratic side that has been used in years past.
Domenico Montanaro / NPR

Iowa's process of picking their choice for president is complicated. We try to demystify it in this space.

Here are the basics:

What is a caucus and how does it work?

The short answer:

It's essentially a neighborhood meeting of sorts — for politically active, like-minded people. Unlike the kind of voting most people are used to — which only takes a few minutes and involves pushing a button or pulling a lever in the secrecy of a voting book — Iowans have to devote an hour or so of their evenings to the process. The caucuses on the Democratic side are also much more out in the open — everyone knows who you voted for and possibly why. This is why ardency of support is important. That's because in Democratic caucuses, you don't vote with your fingers, you vote with your feet. (More on that in our long answer below.) For Republicans in Iowa, the process is much simpler and more orderly. Someone from the campaigns might speak for their candidate, but then voting happens by an informal secret ballot. Think: Folded over pieces of paper passed in and collected.

The long answer:

Democrats: 1,683 Democratic caucuses will be held at more than 1,000 locations. They start at 8 p.m. EST and can last an hour or more. There are 44 delegates to the national convention that can be won through this process, which takes months. None are assigned on caucus night. Note: Eight more unpledged party leaders and elected officials get to go straight to the national convention from Iowa. They don't have to go through the state's complicated delegate selection process — and they can vote for whichever candidate they want at the convention. Because of that power, they're colloquially referred to as "superdelegates."

Here's what happens on caucus night:

  1. There's a call to order.
  2. A caucus chair and secretary are elected.
  3. Supporters make the case for their candidates.
  4. Caucusgoers separate into groups in corners or parts of the room for their candidates of choice. (It's kind of like a junior-high dance, if the kids weren't so petrified of each other.)
  5. When the groups are formed, the elected chair, adds up how many supporters are in each cluster.
  6. Each candidate has to meet a viability threshold of 15 percent. That means the number of people in the cluster has to be at least 15 percent of all the participants in the room. (This has the most relevance this year to former Gov. O'Malley, D-Md., who hasn't polled above single digits in the state. If there are 100 people caucusing and, of them, 14 or fewer say they're voting for O'Malley, then O'Malley would get ZERO delegates out of that precinct.)
  7. If a candidate is determined not to be viable, that candidate's supporters have to choose another candidate. In the example above, O'Malley's 14 people have to "re-caucus" and can choose Sanders, Clinton (or someone else unknown who clears the threshold).
  8. During the re-caucusing process, supporters from the viable candidates try to sway the non-viable candidate to their side.
  9. Once the re-caucusing is settled and all remaining candidates are deemed viable, the numbers are tallied. (This year, those results will be sent in using an app built by Microsoft.)
  10. Delegates and alternates are selected to attend county conventions.
  11. Party business is conducted, including elections to committees and platform resolutions are introduced.
  12. The 1,683 precinct caucuses produce 11,065 delegates. They are eventually filtered to 44 national convention delegates after county (March 12), congressional district (April 30) and state (June 18) conventions. They are not related to the caucus night vote in any way except to nominate that first round of 11,065.

For a quick explainer of what happens on the Democratic side (using Legos), check out this video from our friends at Vermont Public Radio:

Iowa's 52 total delegates to the national convention represent just a tiny fraction (about 2 percent) of the 2,382 delegates needed to become the Democratic nominee.

If it's such a small percentage, then why all the attention? This is all about momentum. For perspective on how vital these early contests can be, just one person in the last 40 years — on either side — has lost both Iowa and New Hampshire and gone on to be president — Bill Clinton.

You won't see actual raw vote totals or raw-vote percentages on election night. To make matters even more confusing, when you see the reported percentages of who won and lost, what you're actually looking at are what's known as "state delegate equivalents." That's a complicated phrase for the number of delegates sent to the next round (to those county conventions) and tallied up with those worksheets/Microsoft app.

What does this mean in practice? It can give candidates, whose vote share isn't concentrated in population centers, an advantage. That's a potential problem for Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is drawing big crowds from college towns. It's why the Sanders campaign has encouraged those college kids to go back home and caucus to spread out the vote.

Republicans: GOP caucuses will be held at about 700 locations. They also start at 8 p.m. EST and last about an hour — 30 delegates are at stake of the 1,236 needed to be the GOP nominee.

Here's what happens on caucus night:

  1. There's a call to order.
  2. A caucus chair and secretary are elected.
  3. Presidential candidate representatives speak and make their case.
  4. Caucusgoers pick a candidate through paper ballot. In past years, depending on the size of the caucus, this could have been done through a show of hands. Unlike Democrats, there is no 15 percent threshold.
  5. Votes are tallied and reported to party headquarters. After problems in 2012, this will be done through a Microsoft-developed app, which Democrats are using, too.
  6. Delegates are elected to attend county conventions. This year, in a change from past years, delegates will be affixed to candidates based on the proportion of votes respective candidates receive statewide. This, like the new reporting process, was also the result of problems in 2012. The national party mandated that all states that hold contests before March 15th have to bind their delegates to candidates.
  7. Alternates and junior delegates are elected. (Junior delegates are under 18. Consider them apprentice caucusgoers.)
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.



The Iowa caucus is a communal affair. People don't cast ballots alone in voting booths. They go to caucuses where people speak out and eventually cast a vote. Opinion polls don't matter in caucuses, only the number of supporters who come to a caucus and vote for a candidate. And if you're wondering, no alcohol is served, though I do remember an extraordinary strawberry pie in Indianola, Iowa. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The Democrats and Republicans do it differently, don't they?

MONTANARO: They certainly do. Republicans, very simple, can get that out of the way pretty easily. People start to make speeches. They try to win over people to vote. But then people just fold over their papers, turn them in. It's a very informal secret ballot. Democrats on the other hand...

SIMON: They're always more complicated, can't we say?

MONTANARO: (Laughter) They're very egalitarian. They want to win over each other. They have clusters in corners of libraries and gymnasiums. And you have to make a 15 percent threshold. So if you don't get 15 percent of the vote as a candidate, then your supporters have to go to someone else, and that's when it gets hairy in there where people are, you know, trying to make the case for someone to come to their side.

SIMON: And how does this wind up translating itself to delegates?

MONTANARO: It's a very complicated, long and winding process that actually takes months. And none of the results on election night actually translate to the delegates that go to the national convention. They're not bound in any way. In fact, most of this is just for momentum. It's a very small slice of delegates that wind up going to the nominating process. So really, we're talking about Sen. Sanders, Hillary Clinton trying to gain momentum heading into the next contests.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the specific party races. According to opinion polls, Mr. Trump has extended his lead on the Republican side. Does he have an organization to deliver, or is it all (unintelligible)?

MONTANARO: Well, one of the big questions is going to be whether or not Donald Trump is able to turn out all of these new voters that he says he's going to be able to turn out. So if you look at the numbers on caucus night, if the numbers are about 150,000 or higher on the Republican side, people think that's a good day for Donald Trump. If there are 125,000 to 150,000, that's the number of people are saying could be good for Ted Cruz.

SIMON: Democratic side, both Sen. Sanders and Hillary Clinton seem to be getting good crowds.

MONTANARO: For the Democrats, the thing to watch here is that Hillary Clinton has been in this state for two years organizing. They feel like they have their strong core base of support. They have Barack Obama's field operation there. Remember, he won this state in 2008. Bernie Sanders has a interesting complication because he's getting huge crowds. A lot of his supporters are young. They're college-age. The problem with them is that they're all concentrated in a few different places. He's winning more than a quarter of his vote right now in three counties. They're actually encouraging a lot of these kids to go back home so that they can filter out the vote in the rest of the state because the way delegates are picked, they need a little bit more of these kids to go back to other places. Otherwise, Hillary Clinton could wind up winning in rural counties and wind up beating Bernie Sanders, even though he might have a lot of vote concentrated in those cities.

SIMON: All this concentration on Iowa - and I don't regret a moment on it...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...But is it a little bit like trying to judge a baseball game by the bottom of the first inning?

MONTANARO: Yeah, maybe even before that, right? I mean, it's more like the scorecard at the beginning of the game and filling out the lineups or something because, like I said, there's a very small slice of delegates here at stake. This is not going to be determinative if you're just looking at the numbers. But what often happens is the people who don't perform well in Iowa or New Hampshire wind up having a very difficult time later on. In fact, we've only had one person win who hasn't won either Iowa or New Hampshire in the last 40 years on the Republican or Democratic side, and that was Bill Clinton.

SIMON: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, thanks very much for being with us.

MONTANARO: Oh, thank you so much, always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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