Iowa caucuses

The Iowa Caucuses are quadrennial electoral events in which members of the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. state of Iowa meet to select delegates who will vote for their party's nominee in the United States presidential election at the party convention. Registered voters in all 1,681 precincts in 99 counties vote in the caucus for the party they are registered as a member.[1] About 1% of the nation's delegates are chosen by the Iowa State Convention.

The Iowa Caucuses are noteworthy as it is the first major contest of the United States presidential primary season.[2] Though the demographics of Iowa are not representative of the rest of the country, the Caucuses are still seen as a strong indicator for how a candidate will do in later contests. It can provide candidates with momentum going into the following contests. Candidates who do poorly in their caucus are likely to drop out in the following days.[3] Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have had a 43% success rate at predicting which Democrat, and a 50% success rate at predicting which Republican will go on to win the nomination of their political party for president at that party's national convention.[4][5][6]

In 2016, the Iowa Democratic and Republican Party precinct caucuses took place on Monday, February 1[7] with one hour of voting beginning at 7:00pm Central Standard Time. For the first time, results were electronically sent to both Democratic and Republican headquarters.[8]


After the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity, the Democratic Party decided to make changes to their presidential nominating process by spreading out the schedule in each state. Since Iowa had a complex process of precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions, and a state convention, they chose to start early. In 1972, Iowa was the first state to hold their Democratic caucus, and had the first Republican caucus four years later.[9]


The Iowa Caucuses operates very differently from the more common primary election used by most other states (see U.S. presidential primary). The caucuses are generally defined as "gatherings of neighbors." Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's 1,681 precincts. Typically, these meetings occur in schools, churches, public libraries and even individuals' houses. The caucuses are held every two years, but the ones that receive national attention are the presidential preference caucuses held every four years. In addition to the voting and the presidential preference choices, caucus-goers begin the process of writing their parties' platforms by introducing resolutions.[10]

Beginning with the 2012 Presidential election, Iowa switched from the old winner-take-all allocation to proportional allocation. The change was made to prolong the race, giving lesser known candidates a chance and making it harder for a frontrunner to secure the majority early. It was also hoped that this change in the election system would energize the base of the party.[11][12]

Democratic Party process

The process used by the Democrats is more complex than the Republican Party caucus process. Each precinct divides its delegate seats among the candidates in proportion to caucus goers' votes. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.

After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are viable. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold is 15% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.

When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform. The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses.

Republican Party process

For the Republicans, the Iowa caucus previously followed (but should not be confused with) the Iowa Straw Poll in August of the preceding year. The winner of the Straw Poll has failed to win the Iowa caucuses in 1986, 2006, and 2010. In June 2014, the party announced that the Straw Poll would no longer take place.

The process of selecting Iowa delegates to the Republican National Convention prior to the 2016 election cycle started with selection of delegates to the county conventions, which in turn affected the delegates elected to district conventions who also served as delegates to the state convention where delegates were chosen for the national convention.

This process rewarded candidate organizers who not only got supporters to the caucus sites but also got supporters willing to serve as delegates to county conventions and willing to vote for other delegates who supported a specific candidate. In 2012, this process resulted in Ron Paul supporters dominating the Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention, having 22 of the 28 Iowa delegates, with Mitt Romney getting the other six delegates.

Because the delegates elected at the caucuses did not need to declare a candidate preference, the media did not have an objective way to determine the success of individual candidates at the caucuses. The media focused on the secret ballot polling conducted at the caucus sites and have generally referred to this non-binding poll as the caucus. There were irregularities in the 2012 caucus site polling results, including the fact that eight precinct results went missing and were never counted.

Because of the irregularities in the process and the fact that the totals reported to the media were unrelated to the delegate selection process, there have been changes in both how the caucus site secret ballot polling is sent to state party headquarters and in how Iowa delegates to the national convention are required to vote.

In 2014, the Iowa Democratic Party announced changes to the caucus system that will allow members of the military to participate in a statewide caucus and establish satellite caucuses for the disabled and others who have trouble making it to the physical location of the caucuses. They will also work for the passage of a new law that requires employers to allow employees to take time off for the caucuses.[13]

Starting in 2016, caucus results have become binding when selecting delegates.[14] Acting in accordance with a mandate from the Republican National Committee, the delegates are bound on the first ballot to vote for candidates in proportion to the votes cast for each candidate at the caucus sites.[15]


2004 process

Since Republican President George W. Bush did not face any opposition in 2004, only Democratic caucuses were held. The meetings ran from 6:30 p.m. until approximately 7:00 p.m. on January 19, 2004, with a turnout of about 124,000 caucus-goers.[16] The county convention occurred on March 13, the district convention on April 24, and the state convention on June 26. Delegates could and did change their votes based on further developments in the race; for instance, in 2004 the delegates pledged to Dick Gephardt, who left the race after the precinct caucuses, chose a different candidate to support at the county, district, and state level.

The number of delegates each candidate receives eventually determines how many state delegates from Iowa that candidate will have at the Democratic National Convention. Iowa sends 56 delegates to the DNC out of a total 4,366.

Of the 45 delegates that were chosen through the caucus system, 29 were chosen at the district level. Ten delegates were at-large delegates, and six were "party leader and elected official" (PLEO) delegates; these were assigned at the state convention. There were also 11 other delegates, eight of whom were appointed from local Democratic National Committee members; two were PLEO delegates and one was elected at the state Democratic convention. John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 37.64% of the vote, John Edwards coming second.

2008 process

See also: Iowa Democratic caucuses, 2008 and Iowa Republican caucuses, 2008.

The 2008 Iowa caucuses took place January 3 at 7 p.m. CT.[17] Candidates spent tens of millions of dollars on local television advertisements[18] and hundreds of paid staff[19] in dozens of field offices.[20] Barack Obama (D) and Mike Huckabee (R) were the eventual winners.

2012 process

See also: Iowa Democratic caucuses, 2012 and Iowa Republican caucuses, 2012.

The 2012 Iowa caucuses took place on Tuesday, January 3, starting at 7 p.m. CST. Incumbent president Barack Obama only faced minor opposition in the Democratic caucus and received 98% of the vote,[21] but the Republican caucus was heavily contested between several challengers. Initial results reported that Mitt Romney beat out Rick Santorum by just 8 votes,[22] but when the final results came out two weeks later Rick Santorum secured the victory over Romney by a margin of 34 votes with Ron Paul in a strong 3rd. Results were certified by the Caucus, but not by the Republican party, who declared it a split decision due to missing reports from 8 precincts,[23] but who later certified the caucus as a win for Santorum.[24] The caucus winner changed yet again when the Iowa delegate totals were finally determined giving Ron Paul the win along with several other states that same weekend.[25]

2016 process

See also: Iowa Democratic caucuses, 2016 and Iowa Republican caucuses, 2016.

The 2016 Iowa caucuses took place on Monday, February 1. The counting started at 7 p.m. CST and lasted one hour, after the caucus discussions.

Past winners

Note: Candidates in bold eventually won their party's nomination. Candidates also in italics subsequently won the general election.




Democratic caucus participants (though not Republicans, whose caucuses vote by secret ballot) must publicly state their opinion and vote, leading to natural problems such as peer pressure from neighbors and embarrassment over who one's preferred candidate might be. Participants are often required to listen to speeches from local political leaders.

An Iowa caucus can last around two hours, preventing people who must work, who are sick, or who must take care of their children from casting their vote.

Each precinct's vote may be weighed differently due to its past voting record. Ties can be solved by picking a name out of a hat or a simple coin toss, leading to anger over the true democratic nature of these caucuses.[31][32] Additionally, the representation of the caucus has had a traditionally low turnout.[33] Others question the permanent feature of having caucuses in certain states, while perpetually ignoring the rest of the country.[34]

Arguments in favor of caucuses include the belief that they favor more motivated participants than simple ballots. Additionally, many caucus-goers consider them more interesting due to how much more interactive they are than a primary. One other argument in favor is that caucus-goers get more information before making their vote, so those voting will potentially be more educated about their candidate choices than primary-goers. In 2016, as part of the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) continuing effort to expand participation in the Iowa Democratic Precinct Caucuses, for the first time ever the party will hold a Tele-Caucus for military members serving out-of-state and Iowans living abroad. In addition, the IDP is instituting Satellite Caucuses in 2016 to improve accessibility and participation in the Iowa Caucuses. These caucus locations will be held in different places from the normal precinct caucus locations. The option to host a Satellite Caucus will be available to a group of Democrats who want to participate, but are unable to attend their precinct caucus due to hardship (limitations of mobility, distance, or time). Participation is open to individuals who live and/or work at the Satellite Caucus site who otherwise would not be able to participate in their regular precinct caucus due to hardship.

See also


  1. "Cedar Rapids Gazette, Wednesday, November 5, 2008, Page 1". November 5, 2008. Retrieved January 20, 2016.
  2. Malone, Clare (January 29, 2016). "Ann Selzer Is The Best Pollster In Politics". Retrieved February 5, 2016.
  3. "Why Iowa is so important in the presidential election". The Economist. 31 January 2016. Retrieved 30 December 2017.
  4. Monika McDermott, Iowa's bad track record for picking GOP winners, CBS News, January 5, 2012
  5. McDermott, Monika (January 5, 2012). "Iowa's bad track record for picking GOP winners". CBS News. Retrieved June 9, 2017.
  6. Story Hinckley, How the Iowa caucus predicts presidential losers, not winners, The Christian Science Monitor January 26, 2016
  7. Schultheis, Emily (August 25, 2014). "The Date of the 2016 Iowa Caucus Is Set. For Now". National Journal. Retrieved August 30, 2014.
  8. "Microsoft on the hot seat in Iowa". The Hill. January 31, 2016.
  9. Sanders, Sam (January 30, 2016). "Why Does Iowa Vote First, Anyway?". NPR. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
  10. "Iowa Caucus: Iowa Caucus History, Candidate Profiles, Campaign Events and Caucus News". Archived from the original on December 22, 2007.
  11. Goldberg, Jonah (March 5, 2012). "GOP, be careful what you wish for". USA Today.
  12. George, Cameron (February 24, 2012). "Long, damaging presidential..." The Hill.
  13. Wilson, Reid (August 1, 2014). "Iowa Democrats propose changes to caucus system". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 2, 2014.
  14. "Iowa GOP's tricky task: Set convention voting rules". Des Moines Register. Retrieved November 30, 2015.
  15. "The Green Papers Republican Detailed Delegate Allocation - 2016". Green Papers. February 1, 2016.
  16. "Iowa Caucuses a Challenge For Pollsters, Poll Positions: Low Turnout, Chance To Vote for Second Choice Make Contest Difficult To Forecast". CBS News. November 28, 2007. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  17. "Iowa Caucuses 101: Arcane Rules Have Huge Impact on Outcome". CNN. January 3, 2008. Retrieved May 5, 2010.
  18. Healy, Patrick (December 28, 2007). "Iowa Saturated by Political Ads". The New York Times.
  19. "Clinton, Obama, Edwards Wage Door-to-Door Fight for Iowa Voters". Bloomberg. December 26, 2007.
  20. "Where the Iowa Field Offices Are". MyDD. December 27, 2007. Archived from the original on March 6, 2009.
  21. 1 2
  22. "2012 Iowa Caucuses". Fox News Network. January 4, 2012. Archived from the original on January 8, 2012.
  23. 1 2 "Iowa GOP declares caucuses 'split decision'". Fox News Network. January 19, 2012.
  24. "Iowa GOP Now Says Santorum Won Iowa Caucuses". KCCI. January 22, 2012.
  25. Grace Wyler (June 16, 2012). "Ron Paul Wins The Iowa Caucuses At Last - Business Insider". Business Insider.
  26. "NPR: History May Not Help Figure Out Iowa". NPR. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  27. "Election Center 2008 Primaries and Caucuses". CNN. January 4, 2008. Retrieved January 4, 2008.
  28. "Democratic Iowa Caucus 2016 Results". Retrieved February 2, 2016.
  29. 1 2 2016 Election Central. "2016 Iowa Caucus Results – Open Thread". 2016 Election Central. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  30. Iowa Caucus Results, The New York Times. February 2, 2016.
  31. Kantor, Jodi (January 2, 2008). "Caucuses Empower Only Some Iowans". The New York Times. Retrieved October 27, 2008.
  32. Starrs, Jenny; Moyer, Justin (February 2, 2016). "Hillary Clinton won at least 6 Iowa precincts by coin flip". Business Insider. Retrieved February 2, 2016.
  33. "Some Basic Facts About the Iowa Caucuses". Associated Press (via Yahoo! News). February 1, 2008. Archived from the original on January 5, 2008. Retrieved November 30, 2008.
  34. Alexovich, Ariel (December 31, 2007). "Blog Talk: Why Iowa?". The Caucus (blog of The New York Times). Retrieved October 27, 2008.

Further reading

  • Hull, Christopher C. 2007. Grassroots Rules: How The Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press
  • Redlawsk, David P., Caroline J. Tolbert, and Todd Donovan, 2011. Why Iowa?: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
  • Skipper, John C., 2009. "The Iowa Caucuses: First Test of Presidential Aspirations, 1972-2008. McFarland Publishing, Jefferson, N.C.,
  • Squire, Peverill, ed. 1989. The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • Winebrenner, Hugh. 1998. The Iowa Precinct Caucuses: The Making of a Media Event. 2nd ed. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
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