Article Feb 1, 2016

Understanding the Iowa caucus

As the 2016 presidential election enters primary season, voters across the country will participate in selecting a candidate to represent their party in November for the general election. The first electoral event in the nomination process occurs in the mid-western state of Iowa.

What is a “caucus”?

Unlike other states, Iowa voters use a “caucus” (which simply means a meeting or gathering) format to select representatives who will eventually pick the electoral delegates who will travel to the party’s nomination convention to cast votes for the nominee. The earliest stage of the caucus involves voters across 1,682 precincts selecting delegates who will convene at 99 separate county conventions. At these county conventions, the representatives chosen from the first caucus will pick delegates in the same manner. Those representatives who are chosen at the county stage then meet at the state convention to pick the final group of delegates to travel to the party’s national primary convention in November. The “winner” of the caucus is the candidate who garners the most electoral delegates.

Does the Republican Party “caucus” the same way as the Democratic Party?

There is a slight variation between the parties when it comes to the caucus system at the precinct level. Prior to the 2016 election, the Republican Party followed the caucus method explained above, but with one exception: the delegates selected at the caucus were not forced to declare a candidate preference based on the votes that are cast at the specific caucus site. For the upcoming Iowa Caucus, The Republican National Committee has mandated that the delegates selected must declare a candidate preference, meaning that the delegates must proportionally vote in accordance with the votes cast for each candidate at the respective caucus site.

For the Democratic Party, the process is more complicated. The 1,682 precincts divide their seats proportionally dependent on the votes cast by those attending the caucus. The delegates organize themselves in groups to support a certain candidate, while trying to convince other delegates to join their group. The purpose of this method is to give a visual (and numerical) representation of which candidates have garnered significant support to be viable, as determined by the caucus participants. Following this initial period, the count is tallied, and a candidate is deemed viable if they amass at least 15 percent of the delegates. The delegates then have another 30 minute opportunity to realign if they wish. This is important for those delegates who supported an “un-viable” candidate that did not meet the 15 percent threshold in the first period. After this second period of voting is closed, the final tally is taken and the precinct caucus nominates the representatives who will travel to the county caucus. The apportionment of the delegates to each candidate is then reported to the respective state party organization, which in turn passes the results on to the media for reporting.

What is the significance of the Iowa caucus?

February 1st marks the beginning of this multi-step primary process. Despite the complicated nature of the caucus format, Iowa is a significant primary state and a critical first test for the candidates running for both parties. The Iowa caucus reveals which candidate the Iowa voters stand behind. This can dramatically affect the political momentum or perceived advantage that a candidate may have in a national or local poll. The Iowa caucus also serves as a signal to the other voters in both parties as to which candidate the party base believes to best represent their values.

Nevertheless, the Iowa caucus is not always determinative of the final candidate a party will choose in November at the general election. In 2008, for instance, the democratic caucus in Iowa selected Barack Obama (with 37 percent of the vote), who eventually became the party’s nominee. That same year however, the republican caucus selected Mike Huckabee, who did not become the Republican Party nominee in the general election. In 2012, Senator Rick Santorum from Pennsylvania received the greatest percentage of delegates in the Iowa caucus overall but did not win the nomination of the party in the general election.

In short, the Iowa caucus is the first stop on the journey toward an eventual nominee for each party. The overall political effect that the Iowa caucus may have remains to be seen. The 2016 presidential election is different than any of its predecessors, understandably. Over 30 candidates entered the presidential race on the Republican side alone. Less than half of those made it to the top-tier debates. In addition to former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, six other candidates have entered the presidential race on the Democratic side. Who the Iowa voters will choose is still anyone’s guess.

In a political season rapidly approaching its climax, Iowa will be the first of many states to select a candidate who may represent the party in November. Traditionally more conservative and evangelical than the other early primary states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Iowa caucus will provide insight on which candidate most voters from that region identify with. Whether or not the Iowa caucus winner will break precedent and become the party’s nominee, which in the Republican Party has not happened in over a decade, is also a question yet to be answered.

While there is a great deal of unanswered questions surrounding this year’s election, one thing is clear: the Iowa caucus will finally give voters their first opportunity to respond to the months of political campaigning and debate that has energized an entire nation.

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