What is a Caucus?
For anyone who’s never attended a caucus, it may seem an odd idea – people coming together at a party meeting. That’s all it is.
In most states, voters have a chance to participate in primaries to select their party’s candidates. In a primary, voters take some time out of their day, go to a polling place, sign in and pick up a ballot, and go check boxes or click a screen to indicate who they support. Or they may request a ballot and complete a mail-in ballot at home and send it in to state officials who will count up all the votes and announce the results. Iowans do that for most nominations.
But for the presidential nomination – the selection of the party’s nominee for president – Iowans use a caucus. Actually, Iowans use more than 1,600 local (precinct) caucuses across the entire state. And a caucus really is just a party meeting.
Here’s how it works. On the evening of the Iowa caucuses, at the designated time, party members come together at locations all across the state – high school gyms and auditoriums, classrooms, church basements, or someone’s living room. Only registered voters who belong to a political party can participate in that party’s caucuses.
Once the chair (who is a party volunteer) calls the caucus to order, they’ll have a chance to hear from individuals who stand up to give a short speech summarizing their reasons for supporting a specific candidate. Then they’ll vote.
Democrats and Republicans use different processes for voting. Republicans use a much faster and more efficient form of voting, where each caucus participant writes the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper. Those little pieces of paper will be passed to the front of the room, where the chair and other party volunteers tally up the vote totals and report results to caucus participants and then call in vote totals to the state party organization.
Democrats use a complex system of proportional representation. The party has proposed significant changes to their process for 2024, but we don’t quite know what those changes will be, so we’ll just stick to the way it’s been done in the past.
Proportional representation requires that Democrats must first establish the number of people who are voting in a particular caucus location. Based on that count, the caucus chair (again, a party volunteer) establishes the “viability threshold,” which is generally 15% of the total number of people. The chair then indicates that it’s time to divide into preference groups, and participants move to a designated space to join others supporting that candidate. People physically move to their preference group. Once they have formed preference groups, the chair will oversee counting of each group. Any candidate’s preference group that has enough people to meet the viability threshold will be declared “viable.” If you’re part of a viable preference group, you’re locked in.
If you’re not part of a viable preference group, then there’s a second round of voting, called “realignment.” And there are options for what to do next. Anyone in a non-viable preference group can:
Stay put and keep voting for the same candidate, even though the group is not viable OR
Leave the caucus entirely OR
Move to another group that is viable OR
Declare themselves “uncommitted” (and possibly join with others to form a larger “uncommitted” group)
After realignment, a final vote is taken. Each precinct caucus location (the local unit of organization) will elect a number of delegates to the county convention, divided up to reflect the division of support among the candidates. If a precinct has 10 delegates, for example, and a candidate received 40% support among caucus participants, they would get 4 of the 10 delegates. Each preference group chooses delegates from among their group. The chair will report both the vote totals and the number of delegates awarded to each candidate.
Republicans also select delegates to the county conventions, but the selection of delegates happens after the voting and does not reflect the levels of support for various candidates.
After voting and delegate selection, both Democratic and Republican caucuses will consider proposed planks to the party platform. Any participant can propose language to be added to the party platform on any issue. Once a proposal has been introduced, there is discussion and a vote. If the language is supported by caucus participants, it is forwarded on to the county convention.
If you’re wondering about these county conventions, they are a vital part of the process. On caucus night, delegates are selected for the county conventions and proposed platform planks are adopted. County conventions elect delegates to the (congressional) district conventions and district conventions elect delegates to the state convention and the state conventions elect delegates to the national convention. We call it the caucus to convention system.
We hear it all the time – “Why Iowa? Of all places, why does Iowa get to go first?”
The short answer is easy – sometimes history can be weird. It wasn’t planned, it’s a quirk of historical circumstances. And it stuck.
The longer answer is that the Democrats had a tumultuous national convention in 1968. President Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for reelection. His Vice President, Hubert Humphrey was a presidential contender favored by the party establishment. Senator Eugene McCarthy was a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War and gained support among young anti-war activists within the party while antagonizing the Johnson-Humphrey establishment. Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race with a strategy to unite the party. After winning the California primary – a significant statement of support indicating that his strategy was succeeding – Kennedy was shot and killed at the Ambassador Hotel. This left the party deeply divided between two very different candidates as it headed into the National Convention in Chicago.
With Humphrey’s establishment support, the convention seemed destined to hand him the nomination, but McCarthy’s supporters showed up in the streets of Chicago to protest. Those protests were countered by a strong police presence and viewers across the country, tuned in to see the convention proceedings, witnessed violent clashes. Inside the convention, Humphrey got the nomination. Outside the convention, protests raged.
Humphrey went on to a devastating loss in the 1968 general election. Richard Nixon won 32 states and 301 Electoral College votes.
The Democratic party, responding to the chaos of the convention, sought to reform its nominating process to create more opportunities for young voters, women, and people of color to participate in the selection of the party’s nominee. Among the many changes they proposed was a demand that states using caucuses would hold local caucus meetings, allowing voters a greater opportunity to express their wishes.
Enter Iowa. Iowa had already created a caucus to convention system, a four stage process where local caucuses would elect delegates to county conventions, county conventions would elect delegates to district conventions, district conventions would elect delegates to the state convention, and the state convention would elect delegates to the national convention. Looking at a calendar, state party leaders worked backward to ensure that relevant materials could be distributed (via snail mail – no email in 1972!) and delegates could have adequate time to plan for each stage.
In order to accommodate all the steps in the process, Iowa ended up holding its caucuses really early! And while New Hampshire state law required that it would hold the first in the nation primary, the national party permitted Iowa to go first because it was a caucus.
The change didn’t garner much attention in 1972. But in 1976, an unknown Georgia governor (and peanut farmer) saw the potential. Jimmy Carter invested some time in Iowa and gained traction among Iowa Democrats. That paid off big when he was elected president of the United States. And the tradition of Iowa’s first in the nation caucuses was born – every candidate since 1976 has sought to emulate Jimmy Carter.