How Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

Monday, 1. February 2016
Carrie Weintraub
Fulbright Fellow - The Global Security Research Programme

While on the Republican side all candidates stand a chance in a simple straw poll election, for Democrats the procedure may mean low results for candidates with less supporters, such as O’Malley.

Tonight at 7:00 PM local time, Iowans will gather at their caucus locations to kick off the process of choosing Presidential nominees for the Democratic and Republican parties. Both Trump and Sanders have promised higher voter turnout than typical in Iowa, and unregistered voters that are eligible to vote on Election Day (November 8) may show up at their caucus locations to register with the Republican or Democratic party and participate in the caucus. The format for caucusing is different between both parties and is important to understand when viewing results. While on the Republican side all candidates stand a chance in a simple straw poll election, for Democrats the procedure may mean low results for candidates with less supporters, such as O'Malley.

For Republicans, the process of caucusing is quite simple. Registered voters hear from candidate supporters and then participate in a secret ballot straw poll. The ballots are then counted and the results are reported to the caucus, followed by the state party. When all votes are collected by the state party, the votes are tallied for each candidate and reported. It is important to note that the Republican results of the Iowa caucus are a raw number of tallied votes by Republicans voting in Iowa, unlike the Democrats results. Thus the result shows the number of caucus-goers who voted for each candidate and the percentage of the overall vote that each candidate won. After the presidential preference poll is concluded, other party business takes place, including the election of delegates to the county convention.

For both Republicans and Democrats, delegates to the county convention will be elected at the precinct caucuses. Those then in attendance at the county convention will elect the state and district convention delegates and these delegates will elect the national convention delegates. New to the process in 2016, the Republican delegates to the Republican National Convention must vote in accordance with the outcome of the Iowa caucuses; this rule does not apply to Democratic delegates to their National Convention, although typically delegates do vote accordingly.

The Democratic process of caucusing is more complicated and is based on the number of county convention delegates assigned to each caucus, with final votes reflecting delegates' support for candidates, instead of raw ballot results as done by the Republicans. Voters first separate into preference groups, depending on which candidate they support. The groups are then counted to ensure that they meet the viability threshold, the amount of supporters a group must have to gain at least one delegate. This threshold is often 15 percent if there are 4 or more delegates; however, the threshold varies if there are under 4 delegates assigned to the precinct. Those groups that do not meet the threshold are deemed unviable and preference groups must be realigned. The supporters in the unviable group must either attract more supporters from other groups, or must disband from their group and choose another candidate to support (or choose not to participate further). The other viable groups will attempt to sway those from unviable groups to caucus for their candidate.

Once all groups are deemed viable, the number of delegates are awarded to the groups and group members elect their delegates. The total number of delegates for each caucus is determined ahead of time, based on Democratic voter turnout from the past two elections. Therefore, it is important to note that even if a record number of voters participate in the Iowa Democratic Caucuses, the final delegate numbers for each caucus will not be affected. The number of delegates assigned to each preference group is based on a mathematical equation which takes into account the number of people in the preference group, the total number of delegates the caucus elects, and the total number of voters in the caucus. Once delegates are assigned, delegates for each preference group are tallied, ratified by the caucus, and reported to the Iowa Democratic Party. The "winner” of the Iowa Democratic caucuses is therefore the candidate with the most delegates as the results are reported in Delegate Strength, or the percentage of delegates a candidate received of the total county delegates across the state.

In the 2016 Iowa caucuses, the Democratic procedure may likely affect O'Malley supporters, and therefore the other Democratic candidates as well. O'Malley's low support may cause members of his preference group to be deemed non-viable. This will affect not only his campaign, but those of Clinton and Sanders. If deemed non-viable, and his supporters cannot attract others to join them, his supporters will need to join another group or not participate further. During the town hall, O'Malley asked his supporters to hold strong and attempt to attract others to ensure delegates. However, if they cannot, his supporters will likely either join the Clinton or Sanders groups, potentially allowing these groups more delegates. Additionally, only final results are tallied in the Iowa caucuses; therefore the number of original O'Malley supporters who may have switched to Sanders or Clinton after the first round of aligning with preference groups may not be known. This could hurt O'Malley's national polling as well, as the number of true O'Malley supporters in Iowa may not be known.

While some deem the democratic procedures to be archaic and almost anti-democratic in ways, this author cannot help but think about what the results of the Republican caucuses in Iowa would be if these same rules were applied. Polls show Trump, Cruz, and Rubio with clear leads. Where would the supporters of the other nine candidates go if they were deemed non-viable in their caucuses? If this policy was applied, would Cruz and Rubio be able to catch up to Trump? This procedure would never likely be applied by the Iowa Republican party, but it's worth thinking about where the supporters of these nine other candidates may eventually align themselves later in the race if their preferred candidates drop out.


The column is part of a series of FIIA columns on the US presidential elections.

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors