Iowa Caucuses & How They work

Map of Iowa

How it works – The Iowa Caucuses

Federal law doesn’t dictate how states choose their delegates, so individual states decide what system to use – a primary system or the caucus system. Most states use the primary system — where voters statewide simply cast a vote for the candidate they support — but some states, such as Iowa, use the older caucus system.

The term caucus comes from an Algonquin word meaning “gathering of tribal chiefs” and the main crux of the caucus system is indeed a series of meetings.

Actually, the Iowa caucuses occur every two years. In non-presidential election years, participants generally discuss party platform issues.

The Republican caucus voting system in Iowa is relatively straightforward – you come in, you vote, typically through secret ballot, and the percentages of the group supporting each candidate decides what delegates will go on to the county convention.

The Democrats utilize a more complex system. Registered democrats gather at the precinct meeting places (approximately 2,500 precincts statewide), supporters for each candidate have a chance to make their case, and then the participants gather into groups supporting particular candidates (undecided voters also cluster into a group). For a particular group to be viable, they must have a certain percentage of the all the caucus participants. If they don’t have enough people, the group disbands and its members go to another group. The percentage cut-off is determined by the number of delegates assigned to the precinct. It breaks down like this:

  • If the precinct has only one delegate, the group with the most people wins the delegate vote, and that’s it.
  • If the precinct has only two delegates, each group needs 25 percent to be viable.
  • If the precinct has only three delegates, each group needs one-sixth of the caucus participants.
  • If the precinct has four or more delegates, each group needs at least 15 percent of the caucus participants.

Once the groups are settled, the next order of business is to figure out how many of that precinct’s delegates each group (and by extension, each candidate) should win. Here’s the formula: (Number of people in the group * number of delegates)/ number of caucus participants.

For example, say a precinct has four delegates, 200 caucus participants, and 100 people support John Doe. To figure out how many delegates you assign to John Doe, you would multiply 100 by four, to get 400. You divide 400 by 200 and get 2. So John Doe gets two of the four delegates.

The media reports the “winner,” based on the percentage of delegates going to each candidate. This isn’t exactly accurate, since it’s actually the state convention that decides what delegates go to the national convention, but more often than not, there’s a clear statewide winner after the caucuses.

Iowans take their role in the presidential nominating process seriously. Many caucus participants will have met the candidates in person to cast their vote for a nominee.

A brief history of the Iowa caucuses

1800s: Iowa political leaders adopted a caucus system even before the region became a state in 1846. The state’s first caucuses were held in mid-spring, in the middle of the national presidential nominating schedule.

1916: Iowa held its first and only primary election. Only 25 percent of registered voters showed up. Iowa reverted back to its caucus system.

1972: Iowa’s Democratic Party moved its caucus date forward, positioning the caucus ahead of the New Hampshire primary and making it the first nominating event in the nation. Sen. Edward Muskie of Maine, the front-runner, beat Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota by less of a margin than expected. McGovern went on to become the Democratic presidential nominee.

1976: A little-known Democratic governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, campaigned heavily in the state and wound up coming in second to “uncommitted.” That almost-win positioned Carter to later take the Democratic nomination. Republicans moved up their primary to make the Iowa caucuses a bipartisan national event. President Gerald Ford narrowly beat Gov. Ronald Reagan of California. Ford later won the Republican nomination, but lost the presidency to Carter.

1980: Carter was the incumbent president, and he beat Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, did not focus heavily on Iowa. But his GOP competition, George H.W. Bush, did, and won the GOP contest. Reagan ultimately beat Carter. By this time, the media began relying on results in Iowa as an indicator of how the race would turn out.

1984: Reagan, the incumbent president, was unopposed. On the Democratic side, it was a wide open race, with Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, former Vice President Walter Mondale, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Sen. John Glenn of Ohio facing off. Mondale, who won the Iowa caucuses, was ultimately the Democratic nominee. Reagan defeated him in the general election.

1988: An open race in Iowa and one that ultimately had no bearing on who both parties’ nominees would be. On the Republican side, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas beat televangelist Pat Robertson and then-Vice President George Bush in the caucuses, but Bush ultimately became the nominee. He also ultimately beat Democratic nominee Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, who came in third to Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri in the caucuses.

1992: Incumbent President George Bush was unopposed among Republicans, and any competitiveness in Iowa was rendered moot by the candidacy of Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, a beloved figure in the state. With him running, few other Democrats even bothered to compete. Bill Clinton went on to win the presidency.

1996: Democrat Clinton was the incumbent, and unopposed. Among Republicans, Bob Dole beat Pat Buchanan. Clinton beat Dole later that year in the general election.

2000: Iowa winners Al Gore and George W. Bush went on to win their party’s nomination. Bush, the Republican, won the general election.

2004: Despite a surge in popularity from Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Democrat John Kerry, who’d previously lagged in polls, won the caucuses. John Edwards came in second. Kerry went on to win the nomination. On the Republican end, Bush was unopposed, and went on to win a second term.

2008: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama made history in 2008 by being the first African-American candidate to win such a vital primary or caucus. Obama rocked the political world with the decisive victory in Iowa’s Democratic caucus where John Edwards finished in second place and Hillary Rodham Clinton took the third spot. Obama went on to become President of the United States. Barack Obama’s first words after winning the Iowa caucus were intended for history, he said: “They said this day would never come.”

On the GOP side of the 2008 election, Mike Huckabee captured 34.36 percent of the votes and 17 delegates; Mitt Romney 25.19 percent of the votes and 12 delegates; John McCain received 15,536 votes and three delegates; Ron Paul 11,841 votes and two delegates.

Today: The Iowa caucuses remain an important part of the presidential nominating process. Party officials in Iowa have asserted that Iowa is a good place to begin the presidential campaign because it is a two-party state whose politics are competitive, clean and open. Moreover, Iowans are hardworking and fair, and take their duties as citizens very seriously. Finally, the state is small enough that less well-known and less well-financed presidential hopefuls have a chance, through hard work and good organization, to establish themselves as viable candidates.

The results from the Iowa caucus tell a candidate whether his or her platform is desirable. It is the first chance for a campaign to find out if its message is affecting voters — should the campaign stay the course or change tactics? And the Iowa caucus is so important that some candidates bow out of the race if they do poorly in Iowa.

A strong showing in Iowa also sends a message to the national party leaders. Each party seeks a strong contender for the White House, and a good response from Iowans helps cement a candidate’s chances to win the national nomination.

Being first in the nation certainly is important. In the history of these caucuses, no candidate who has ever finished worse than third among the candidates has gone on to win the nomination.

Iowa’s status as the first presidential test in the nation is constantly under attack by other states. In the 2008 election, states shuffled their primary schedules, all in order to attract more attention to their state. The issue was again a prominent matter of discussion in 2010 when the 2012 election process was discussed by the Republican and Democratic parties. Although the date of the caucuses has been moved from January to February, Iowa will retain its first-in-the-nation status for the 2012 presidential election.

Some of the material for this page was drawn from Winebrenner’s “The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event,” 2nd edition, Iowa State University Press, 1997. The book is a comprehensive political history and analysis of the evolution of the Iowa Precinct Caucuses from 1972-1996. The 3rd edition of the book is set to be released in December 2010. It is available from: The University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, Iowa. Call: 800-621-2736 or e-mail.


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