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Everything you need to know about the Iowa Caucuses

By Dan Cooney
 
All of the analysis, opinions and debates over the past few months will finally culminate Monday in Iowa. Every election, we hear about the importance of the Iowa Caucuses to every presidential candidate. But what actually happens during a caucus? As you’ll read, the process in Iowa is unique. 
 
 
Why are the Iowa Caucuses so important? 
 
But first, why is Iowa so important to those who want the highest office in the land? The first presidential contests in the nation — Iowa and New Hampshire — are seen as bell-weathers for all of the candidates. As Vox notes, "every winner of a competitive major party presidential nomination contest since 1980, except one, started off by winning the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary or both." (The lone exception was the Democratic race in 1992, when Tom Harkin won Iowa and Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire. Yet, Bill Clinton won the nomination.) 
 
Yet for all the attention Iowa receives, the caucuses are not an election, according to Dennis Goldford, a political science professor and fellow at the Harkin Institute at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. The caucuses "are just the private business meanings of each of the parties," he said, noting that the caucuses also convene in midterm election years. "[The caucus] is informal. It’s an expression of a preference." 
 
But Iowa’s first-in-the-nation contest takes the temperature of the "body politic" of both Democrats and Republicans. "Iowa vets these candidates," Goldford said. "The caucuses force candidates to treat voters as real-life human beings."
 
How do the Iowa Caucuses work?
 
How you caucus depends on your party affiliation, but the basics are the same. Voters will gather at their precinct's caucus location on the evening of Feb. 1. The results of each caucus will be delivered to the state party offices, not state election officials. In addition to choosing their preferred presidential candidate, caucus goers will elect delegates to represent them at county party conventions and discuss resolutions and issue positions to include in the party platform.
 
The similarities end there. 
 
Republicans choose their preferred candidate using a straw poll method, which means participants either raise their hands to be counted or write their choice on a piece of paper. Before voting commences, some participants deliver short speeches on behalf of certain candidates. Candidates can also visit caucus locations to whip support for themselves. (As The Washington Post's Dave Weigel notes, this is "one of the most intimate examples of democracy in all of politics.") The tallies are then communicated to the state party. 
 
Democrats split into groups — depending on the candidate they support — within the same room at the precinct caucus location. A group must have a certain number of people to be considered "viable." If a group is disbanded due to its lack of viability, members of other groups lobby them to join with their candidate. 
 
"The merry-go-round stops when you’ve got nothing but viable preference groups," said Drake University’s Goldford. 
 
The results reported to the press from the Democratic caucuses are percentages called "delegate equivalents." The Des Moines Register defines delegate equivalents as the percentage of Iowa “state convention delegates supporting a particular candidate. In 2008, for example, Barack Obama won 37.6 percent of delegate equivalents, followed by John Edwards at 29.8 percent, Hillary Clinton at 29.5 percent and several other candidates.” 
 

Who has won past Iowa Caucuses?

Source: The Des Moines Register

 

How have eventual presidential nominees fared in the Iowa Caucuses?

Source: The Des Moines Register

 

How did the Iowa Caucuses begin?

Iowa has been using the caucus system to determine its presidential preferences since its statehood, but they only began to matter nationally towards the end of the 20th century. After the debacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Iowa Democrats reformed their presidential nomination process to give everyday voters a voice in the election process. Party leaders also moved their precinct caucuses — what we colloquially refer to as “the Iowa Caucus” — earlier due to technology.
 
"Prior to the reforms by the Iowa Democratic Party in 1972, you simply did not know who won on caucus night, due to the fact that thousands of county convention delegates were elected but they were not identified as supporters of a specific candidate," Richard Bender wrote for Drake University’s Iowa Caucus Project blog. Bender was part of the Iowa Democratic Party staff that developed the state’s modern caucus system. "National delegates were decided by a slate proposed by a Democratic governor or by the party chairman and were simply ratified by the state delegates."
 

Find out more about the history of the caucuses via Iowa Public Television here.

Want to see a caucus in action? C-SPAN went inside an Iowa Democratic caucus in 2008. Watch it here

Check out this Wall Street Journal graphic on how delegates are chosen after the precinct caucuses on Monday, Feb. 1.