How the Iowa Caucuses Work

A little bit of choice, a whole lot of chaos.

Comments: 62

  1. The Iowa caucus is an absurd way to choose a presidential candidate. For one, Iowans themselves have long complained that the caucus format makes it difficult, if not impossible, to participate if one has a job that won't grant the required large block of time off. For another, there are longstanding complaints that the process of moving about a large room to vote discriminates against the disabled. Finally, and most importantly, Iowa is wildly unrepresentative of the U.S. population--it is much whiter, older, more rural. Iowans absolutely deserve a voice in choosing candidates for national office. They do not deserve to impose, election after election, outsized influence via an arcane process.

  2. Mandatory, Ranked-choice voting is the standard this NYC teacher wants. When we have mandatory voting we will see an equilibrium of the values and attitudes of the US and we would have the candidates that are moderate

  3. @She Researchers have concluded that mandatory voting makes almost no difference.

  4. You have a state that is un-representative of the nation and a baroque process that must cut a lot of the electorate out of the process due to the time and hassles involved. We tried primary caucusing in Wisconsin once back in the 80's. That was quickly dropped. It's an interesting exercise, but not the best way to make such an important decision, IMO.

  5. @Tom Wanamaker I remember, 1984. It was square dancing without the music.

  6. All this of course makes perfect sense to the average Iowan along with their hot dish. Unless of course it falls on Wednesday or the second Tuesday of the third month on the lunar calendar unless a black cat happens to cross the path which then throws everything back to Monday and cancels the hot dish.

  7. I’m from Iowa. Yes we are a small state. It may seem like the caucus is outdated and we are just in all white state to outsiders. But if you would actually come here you would see that we are so much more. There is diversity in our state especially in the Des Moines area. English as a second language is taught in many of our rural schools. I agree that sometimes a caucus seems outdated. It can take at least two hours of your time or more depending on the size of the caucus rooms. Sometimes I’d rather just vote as a primary. However without the Iowa caucuses we would never have our voice heard by the politicians. The candidates work harder to understand what voters really want and it makes them actually take time to understand the Midwest voters. The caucus is an experience.

  8. @Julie Everyone understands that Iowa's voice wouldn't be heard by politicians as much without the caucus going first. The problem is that there is no reason why it should be first or why your voice should be more important than people from other states.

  9. “The caucus is an experience.” Well, yes. So is shaman healing. Neither particularly helpful.

  10. @Julie Why should the citizens in the small, white state where you live get a huge voice in national politics and people like me, from a different state with a small and mostly white state have no voice? We can have a system where the first vote rotates among states with small populations.

  11. I wish the Democratic Party would move to a rotating system for determining which state votes first in the presidential primary. Iowa is not demographically representative of the country or the party. It is time to break with this absurd tradition of always having Iowa vote first.

  12. Every four years we get explanations of the Iowa Caucus. That alone tells us how unrepresentative it is. Our election system is unfair in so many ways, I don’t know why we have to add Iowa to the pile.

  13. I don't understand what would be better if the first State rotated.

  14. Although unusual, the caucuses are a great way to choose a candidate. Sort of like having a big discussion about politics at the neighborhood pub, only by the end of the evening, a consensus has been reached and one candidate is selected. A fun method to select a candidate compared to straight voting, and one a method that encourages constructive interactions among neighbors.

  15. After struggling through this "explanation" of how the Iowa caucuses work, my only comment is why don't they just have a ballot and allow attendees to select their first and second choices - it would be simpler, easier to understand, and more in line with other primaries; indeed, I see no benefit to their current procedure.

  16. Oh, the primary caucus. How I love thee. Despite all the brouhaha last election about caucus reform, you need to understand caucuses are essentially ranked choice voting on an open ballot. You can change your mind depending on who stays and who goes. However, you have to do so in real time and in front of your community. There's no lying about your vote. You are your ballot. This does place an undue burden on certain constituencies. Standing around a gym for hours is difficult and tiresome. Some people can't do it. Republican caucuses, heavily reliant on elderly voters like all Republicans, are experimenting with digital caucusing. Online remote sessions. You can caucus from home. More generally though, the real debate about caucuses is whether we should have an open or a closed ballot. Closed ballot people maintain group pressure suppresses private opinions. Open ballot people maintain it should. What good is a scarlet letter if no one can see it. How many votes do you think Trump would have lost if the general election were an open ballot? See how many young men will vote for Trump when their grandmother is standing there watching them. Conversely, see how many grandparents will object to climate change when their grandchildren are standing there watching them. Private ballots are appropriate in some circumstances but not all circumstances. The Senate impeachment is a place where we could use private ballots. Primaries though? Maybe not so much.

  17. The brief description here seems to me like acting out face-to-face Ranked Choice Voting, which would be so much easier to administer than having people mill around corners of the room. Ranked Choice has much to recommend for these kinds of situations and allows each voter to have a sense that their vote matters and also that if they don't get their first choice, they have some decision making power to get a candidate which could be their second choice. If they don't agree 100% at least they can agree with some parts of the candidates' platform.

  18. Caucuses are often portrayed as arcane and archaic exercises that sabotage the democratic will of the people. The reality is a little more complicated. The caucus process IS time consuming and that is a real barrier to participation. Turnout in caucuses tends to be significantly lower than in primaries. On the other hand, states that use caucuses tend to have higher overall turnout rates in the General Election than those that use primaries. Three of the four states with the highest turnout rates in 2016 were caucus states. It is worth understanding why that is. While most of us think of the caucuses purely in terms of the process of picking the presidential nominees of their respective parties, they have other business. Caucuses are also places where issue resolutions may be voted on, and more importantly, where the precinct leaders who will in turn elect district and statewide leaders are elected. What this means is that the political parties in caucus states are MUCH more democratic and accountable to their rank and file memberships. They are much less effectively dominated by machines. Caucuses ask more of their participants than primaries do and this generally favors the people who have the means as well as the inclination to be politically engaged. This is a a real problem. But its one that could be addressed fairly easily by making election days holidays and/or making participation in them mandatory as is done in many other countries.

  19. @Christopher I generally agree--caucuses are more democratic, allow for more freedom of choice, and increase the level of civic engagement over a primary. Making the caucus day a holiday mixed with a tax credit/penalty for participation would be my ideal resolution.

  20. And after Iowans spend all day at this tedious process, some will be picked as delegates to the state convention and if they decide they don't want to a long drive then another long day standing in corners, they don't show up, wasting the votes of the people in their district. Yet, somehow, this is supposed to be a magic process for winnowing candidates.

  21. It all sounds like a *very* complicated game of a Red Rover, with shades of ranked/preferential voting.

  22. “Half of the people can be right half of the time.” I think Abraham Lincoln said that. The Iowa caucuses are proof of that. I said that. With apologies to Bob Dylan.

  23. Iowa? Never been there. Lots of corn, a few people who are mostly rural and agricultural who are somehow supposed to determine candidates for the coastal cities and massive suburbs . People in the grind of contemporary urban America, the majority, are ruled by the rules of corn, pig, and soy farmers who do not experience the financial, social, and cultural pressures of people compressed by the weight of the needs of each other in close proximity. 5am-8pm on the farm is a heck of lot different from a 2 hour commute each way on public transportation for a minimal wage or salary job that starts at a 4 am wake up and ends at whenever the train, bus, car share can get you home. It’s just extremely different, not better or worse, but really a different daily world dealt by birth, need, marriage, employment, education, or preferences. We are NOT untied though we are all part of a particular state in a trembling Union.

  24. Whoa, talk about biased reporting "are quickly forced" ??? People come prepared for the process; they know that if not viable they have the OPPORTUNITY to go to another candidate and generally know who that is in advance. I have participated in 3 caucuses since moving to Iowa ... while 'chaotic' (I would say energy filled and inspiring to see people in rooms together actually interacting), especially with recent adaptations to better accommodate those who can't be there in person, is easily one of the most participatory, hopeful political processes I have been to. We don't spend all day....we spend a couple of hours once every four years engaged in political activity. . .I wish someone would tell this story without walking in assuming it's a disaster and separating from the fact Iowa is first. The caucus and the timing are two separate issues. The primaries are a disaster, a waste of huge amounts of time and resources that our lawmakers and politicians should be spending elsewhere.

  25. This is 2020! Caucuses, along with the electoral college, are archaic and do not belong in the modern world. They do not represent the majority of people. In the beginning of this country, because of distances and the time it took to travel, it made sense to pick a representative. Choices can now be made electronically in a matter of seconds. We need to make our election process truly representative of our population. It is past time to throw out the old 18th century rituals of elitism and move into an egalitarian 21st century.

  26. Things may have changes since I lived in Iowa, but my caucus was held in the house of a neighbor I didn't know (I was renting a room down the block), who happened to have a large living room.

  27. @DC Where I grew up ballot elections were always in the basement of a neighbor. We didn't have caucuses. I liked the neighborly aspect of it. Our here my caucus in 2016 was an urban elementary school. I was a precinct captain. I liked the part where I visited all of the households in the precinct. The caucuses themselves were a mixed bag. Whole demographic categories were significantly underrepresented, e.g., folks over the age of 65. Meaning our caucuses were, when all is said and done, unacceptably undemocratic. We've just changed to mail-in ballots now. With mail-in ballots the number of participants is now five to ten times higher than in the caucuses. That's all for the better. But I would love it if we could also put in place some new traditions and institutions that could keep the neighborliness and community alive.

  28. How Iowa caucuses work; They don't period. It's a disgusting display of our lying politicians who have to go around saying how important and how much they care about "the heartland" and how much they "love" Iowa. It's a complete sham and nothing more than another old rerun of rotten broken corrupt election system if you can call it that. Why is Iowa still the place for this nonsense anyway?

  29. How absurd is it that a state that is 90% white, isolated in the center of the country, with a congressman who says incredibly racist things about Latinos and others, and a caucus system that sounds like something out of Monty Python, has such outsized impact on who may be the next president of the United States? This is unjust and comically wrong. Iowans, themselves, should take the lead in doing something about this if they cared about the greater good of America. They all wave the patriotic flag out there...but to get rid of this foolish event would mean the state would lose the ONLY thing that makes people ever think about it.

  30. @History Guy IMHO it is the national news media that has blown its importance out of proportion. And to put it in perspective, I am the furthest thing from the right wing anti-press POV. Journalism was my minor in college.

  31. Why is the country focused on this nonsense in Iowa and not regional primaries? It sounds like mandatory Tupperware parties. Six regional primaries over two months and an open convention would get much more voters involved.Different region goes first every four years.

  32. this process is absurd and should change, but don't expect the DNC to do anything about it anytime soon.

  33. The caucuses are a disgrace to democracy, and should all be eliminated. A national popular vote, using ranked choice voting and paper ballots, needs to be implemented in both the primaries and the general election. It should be as easy as possible for all citizens to have their votes counted, caucuses do the exact opposite.

  34. So tired of Iowa, so, so tired. How a state with an eventual 6 electoral votes that usually swings red gets so much say in our Democratic primary is beyond me. I watched an NPR documentary this morning on the lead-up to the Iowa caucus and there is a feeling by many residents there that if they haven't actually met a candidate multiple times - or the candidate hasn't stopped by their house! - they won't vote for him/her. In a country with over 300 million people that anyone should feel that have that much import is just, well, ridiculous.

  35. Every 4 years we hear complaining about the process and the system and, "Why is Iowa first?". They are so white and old and they don't represent us. What about the candidates? Do they represent us? Historically you have been given the privilege of choosing from one old rich white man or the other. They both promise to make your lives better and they do, if you are an old rich white man. Keep voting for these people and you see what you get! Iowa holding caucuses first is not the part that needs to change. We would love to have the chance to make things better but you cant turn apples and blueberries into a steak dinner.

  36. I do not understand why caucuses and primary voting in all states, at least for Presidential candidates, does not take place on the same day.

  37. What an absolutely horrible way to pick a candidate. I would rather have a root canal than have to endure this totally bananas process.

  38. How fair is it that 4 Senators are locked in Senate chambers for many valuable campaign days fighting to remove corrupt Trump while the other Democratic candidates like Biden and Buttigieg are taking advantage of this with non-stop campaigning in Iowa and elsewhere?

  39. According to the US Census Bureau, July 2019, 90.7% of Iowans are white. The median household income is $58,580 per year. Iowans with college degrees number 28%. The average commute in Iowa is 19 minutes. These data do not reflect the diversity of American voters and our differences among rural/urban living. How can the average Iowan with a HS degree and a rural commute understand anything at all about what we city-dwellers need from our government? I can already forecast what will happen: Biden will get the Iowa vote, the D establishment will cave to Iowa, and the rest of us who might vote D for Warren or Sanders will be left without an actual choice, just like 2016. We will be told, yet again, to "hold our noses and vote for the lesser of the two evils". Many of us will take offence and refuse to vote. And thus Cheetolini will remain in power. Ya know, the definition of insanity is repeating the same failed process over and over again and hoping for a different outcome.

  40. @Beanie Well that's all fine except for the fact that Sanders and to a lesser extent Warren are precisely the kinds of candidates that caucuses are notoriously biased in favor of. Beanie wrote: "I can already forecast what will happen: Biden will get the Iowa vote, the D establishment will cave to Iowa, and the rest of us who might vote D for Warren or Sanders will be left without an actual choice, ..."

  41. @Beanie And in 2008 all those white Iowans gave you black Barack Obama as the United States first African-American President - pretty racist, huh? Explain that. Maybe Iowans just know a great candidate.

  42. @JohnBarleycorn I don't want or need for predominantly white and rural Iowans to "give" me anything. I expect to be part of the process, and I expect for candidates to reflect the potential progressive voter pool. If the D party can't do that, then we need a new, more adaptable and equitable party. Except for Obama, I've been told to vote for the lesser of the two evils ever since I cast my first vote over 30 years ago. Oh, and I'm white, so think what you will. Warren/Yang is the golden ticket for me, but I bet that ain't gonna happen.

  43. Entire demographic categories are significantly underrepresented: older people, un-white people, disabled people, people with small children, people who must work on Saturdays, people with more than one job, introverts. The process is open to bullying, inappropriate coercion, and other abuse. The number of participants is only a small fraction of what the number would be with a conventional primary or a mail-in ballot. When the caucuses are done, you send on delegates to the next level who might or might not be obligated to vote for the candidates they have promised to represent. Other than that, caucuses are a wonderful example of American free and fair elections.

  44. You have got to be kidding. Out of this chaos comes candidates with meaningful "momentum"? Literally billions of dollars go into the coffers of Iowa businesses because it refuses to get real regarding its process. No wonder it wants to go first. Moreover, the ethnic mix of the Iowa population does not come close to matching that of the country as a whole, much less that of any other state with a population of more than 1 million. And if it snows on caucus day, those who live within walking distance of their assigned caucus site or have access to an operating snowmobile get to decide who the Iowa candidate will be. The constitutional compromises designed to protect small slaveholding states intentionally is silent on how voters for the President are chosen, leaving it to the decision of rich, white men. Perhaps it is time for the major political parties to adopt a de facto amendment through selection methods that make sense in today's world.

  45. @dlthorpe Me thinx it is the media that makes it more of a big deal than it is, or should be. I crunched numbers on both Iowa and New Hampshire a couple of years ago and found that both states represent from 4% of 6% of the numbers of delegates needed to get the party nod and or the Electoral Votes needed to win the Presidency.

  46. It doesn't snow here that much anymore, which I don't mind, but is a serious problem. Life here is polite (too polite) and boring. The perfect place to wade through the muck. We all want enough money to be safe, content, and happy, what else? Iowa will do its best. Me? I read the New York Times, which is costing me a bundle, by the way. Others in Iowa hang out with the candidates. In fact, Bernie Sanders is up the street at the community college right now (2:14 pm, CST). His interview in this paper is all I need, though. I hope to read a few more before I visit the grammar school up the hill to caucus. It is not much fun, but believe it or not, in my world all are welcomed. I will do my best to find the right candidate that will help move the country and the world forward.

  47. @cdsdeforest Frankly, I don't want you making my choice for me. Iowa shouldn't get special treatment, and I'm tired of Iowans acting like it's some undue burden getting a disproportionate amount of power.

  48. I'm with blueberries; er, I mean Elizabeth Warren. How could anyone be a pineapple?

  49. O.K. thanks. I'm still confused and don't see the logic in the caucus' anyway. At any rate, Iowa should not go first and the outcome is suspect.

  50. I found in my caucus that it reflected the mood of the nation. I supported Clinton and stood in a group looking at the Bernie crowd in disbelief. The groups actually reflected the reported results. We won by one or two people. Was it worth it? I don't know; it sure was a lot of work.

  51. Any of these quirks should cause concern but the combination--must be in line by 7, have to stay 3 hours, the public pressure/shaming, the 15 percent threshold, etc.--raises major red flags. I've never understood why 15 percent is the threshold anyway. In a small field perhaps that's fine but in a field like this one, or in 2004, with at least five solid candidates, that is nothing. Of course, the media could handle this by deemphasizing the result but that would be bad for business so they won't. Four regional primaries--in the Atlantic/NE, South, Midwest and West and held on the first Tuesday in February, March, April and May--makes the most sense and would give plenty of time on the front end for campaigning and on the back end for the general election. It will never happen of course.

  52. Bizarre, confusing and unfair. The National Popular Vote is an alternative that makes lots of sense. “2019 was a banner year for National Popular Vote. With support from both Republican and Democratic legislators, New Mexico, Delaware, Oregon, and Colorado joined up. The compact now includes 16 jurisdictions totaling 196 electoral votes, just 74 short of the 270 necessary to become effective. Grassroots supporters – Democrats and Republicans alike – are already working hard in several other states to boost those numbers in 2020.”

  53. Hard to believe that something so un-democratic as this is happening in the United States. The pressure of all these different people bullying you to stand in one part of the room. Ugly! Horrible. Distasteful. I am sure a lot of people wouldn't put themselves through that. More undemocratic is that by going first, an individual caucus goer in Iowa have so much more influence in choosing a candidate than another citizen living in later primary states. I just want to mention that Hilary got more individual votes across the nation in the primary against Obama, But Obama won these lightly attended caucuses.

  54. I have always wondered who the genius from the Iowa Chamber Of Commerce was that came up with this scheme to bring great numbers of people and lots of money to a state that should probably be closed down in the middle of winter. This sounds like an elaborate game of Twister and gives the Iowans a false sense of importance and an escape from the “winter blues”

  55. It is both a disgrace and deeply undemocratic that a state as unrepresentative as Iowa always gets to have such a disproportionate influence on choosing our President. This needs to stop before the next Presidential election. That Iowa uses the absurd and exclusionary process of a caucus only adds insult to injury. We simply need to do better.

  56. It's no way to pick a candidate. Just like the electoral college is no way to choose a president. We've got to change what we're doing, and evolve our representational government. Disruption is coming, and it would be best if we're at the front of it, no chasing behind picking up the pieces.

  57. The fact that any states should go before another in the primary is absurd. My name says, MO but I recently moved to Kansas. I will not be voting until May. More likely than not we will know who the nominee will already be by then, what will my vote matter? It would be like voting for Clinton after knowing Trump already won the electoral college. Sure I'm one more number added to the popular vote for that candidate, what gives if they have the delegates they need? It's past time we have a ranked choice national primary on what is normally Super Tuesday, March 3rd.

  58. Why Iowa? Why New Hampshire? Why not someplace that looks like America in the 21st century?

  59. If this article was intended to convince me that the Iowa Democratic party caucus is the most unfair, inexplicable, discriminatory, anti-democratic way to decide ANYTHING, it was extremely effective. And because of this beloved, exclusionary practice, Iowa retains its first-in-the-country privilege? A three-hour process and nobody knows if anyone can even go to the bathroom? Really?

  60. I kinda fell asleep reading this....but thanks..

  61. Thank you for clarifying the process, the unbelievably stupid process for such an influential state. Pathetic. Add the electoral college, and you get: insane.

  62. I feel like this process excludes those with disabilities, particularly those with mental disorders like anxiety, PTSD, etc. A traditional primary has absentee ballots or you can vote throughout the day, at slow times with fewer people. Imagine someone with a mild learning disability getting verbally attacked by people trying to get them to change their vote. This is why voting should be anonymous.