Edited January 31, 2020
Post originally published in 2012
As the candidates make their last pitch for victory at the caucus campaign, many wonder why the nationwide attention on the caucuses and most especially, the state of Iowa. Some are asking whether the Iowa caucus is a constitutional demand. To answer these questions, it is important to point that while the U.S. constitution requires an election to choose the right candidate as President, the Iowa Caucuses is not a constitutional demand but, part of the election process adopted and recognized by the electorates.
The caucuses simply put, are an electoral event in which the residents of the state of Iowa meet in precinct caucuses to elect delegates to the county conventions. There are about 1,784 precincts in Iowa including 99 counties, meaning 99 conventions in all. The Iowa caucuses work differently than most State’s electoral process, the caucuses are generally known as a “gathering of neighbors” a process where neighbors choose to come together at a precise location to cast their ballots without going to the polls.
The “gathering of neighbors” as it is known usually take place in places like schools, churches, libraries and private homes. Normally, the caucuses take place every two years however, the one that generate most attention and media concern are the presidential caucuses which are held every four years.
Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the first major electoral process for nominating the President of the United States. Though, only about one percent of the nation’s delegates are picked by the Iowa state convention, the Iowa caucuses have represented an early sign of who is likely to win nomination of their party at the national convention.
The caucuses came to national attention in 1972, with series of articles in the New York Times on how non-primary states choose delegates for the national conventions. Norman S. Matthews, who was the State co-chair of the George McGovern campaign, helped organize the early January start in Iowa for the McGovern campaign. McGovern came second behind Edmund Muskie in the first Iowa caucuses. The momentum generated by the caucuses helped McGovern win Democratic nomination in 1972 and four years after, the Republican Party scheduled its first caucuses on the same date as the Democrats.
As the process goes, the Iowa caucus does not result directly in delegates for each participating candidate, the “Caucus-goers” as they are known, elect delegates to the county conventions who in-turn elect delegates to district and state conventions where Iowa’s national convention delegates are selected. Even though, Iowa is the first state to hold its caucuses, the state conventions are delayed until the end of the primary and caucus season making Iowa, one of the last states to choose its delegates.
Republicans and Democrats hold separate caucuses subject to party rules. Those participating in the caucuses must be registered with the party of choice and participant can change their registration at the caucus location. The age requirement for participation is 18 however, 17-year-olds can take part as long as they turn 18 by the date of the general election. Observers are allowed at the caucuses but they cannot be actively involved in the debate and the voting activities.
In the Republican caucuses, the voter casts his or her vote by secret ballots. Voters are given blank sheets of paper with no candidate names written on them. The voters are then allowed to listen to some campaigning for each candidate by caucus goers, they then write their choices down on the blank sheets of paper. The Republican party of Iowa tabulate the results at each precinct and then transmits them to the media. It is not uncommon for voters to signify their choices by show of hands or by preprinted ballots and not by writing their choices down on the given sheets of paper.
Delegates from the precinct caucuses then go on to the county conventions where delegates to the district convention are picked. The chosen delegates from the district conventions then go on to select delegates to the Iowa State Convention.
The Democratic Party has a more complex process at the caucuses. The precincts divide their delegate seats among the candidates in proportion to caucus goers’ votes. Participants signify their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site leading to the formation of what is known as a “preference group.”
There is also a special area for the undecided voters whom the participants try to convince for about 30 minutes to make up their minds for a particular candidate. Participants also appoint some of their members to visit the other group and recruit supporters from among undecided participants. The undecided in-turn might visit the preference group to ask its members about their candidate and if properly convinced, the undecided may choose to support the candidate.
At the end of 30 minutes, the process is temporarily brought to a halt and supporters for each candidate are counted. It is at this stage that caucus officials decide which candidate are viable. The viability threshold is 15% of attendees and to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, a candidate must have the support of at least the percentage required by the viability threshold. After deciding the viability of a candidate, participants are given another 30 minutes in which those in support of a non-viable candidate may realign and find a viable candidate to support.
Participants in support of a non-viable candidate, also have the choice to either join together with supporters of another non-viable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. At the closing of the voting, a final head count is made and each precinct chooses delegates to the party convention. These are sent to the State party, where the total number of delegates for each candidate is recorded and reported to the media.
The chosen delegates by the precincts then go to the county conventions to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates sent to the Democratic National Convention are chosen at the district convention, with others selected at the state convention. Although, delegates are bound to support their candidate of choice, they can switch if they later decide to do so. On completion of the process, the media then declares the candidate with the most delegates as the winner on caucus night.
Despite importance of the Iowa caucuses, it is noteworthy that the fact that a candidate wins in Iowa does not mean the candidate will eventually win his party’s nomination or win the presidency. One important meaning of the Iowa Caucuses is that it serves as a medium by which the delegates recommend and nominate a candidate they considered strong and perfect enough to be American President.
In 1988, for example, the candidates who eventually won the nominations of the Democratic and the Republican parties came in third in Iowa. In elections without a sitting President or vice President, the Iowa winner has taken the nomination only about half the time. However, the caucuses could be a strong indication and determinant of who remains in the race and who drops out. To make it simple, the caucuses help narrow down the candidates.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama were the only non-incumbent candidates to win their party caucuses and then the general election. Neither Reagan nor Bill Clinton won prior to their first terms in office as Presidents. The caucuses have not been without controversy. Many criticize it for giving too much power to a single state to decide who becomes American President but, there are other caucuses as well such as in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Also, Democratic caucus goers who vote by secret ballot, must publicly state their opinion and vote, leading to peer pressure from neighbors and other participants trying to make another delegate vote for their candidates. Another critique has been on the amount of time required for the events which some consider too much. Absentee ballot is also barred which makes it difficult for working moms and active-duty Iowan soldiers to take part in the process.
On the positive side, the Iowa caucuses, brings attention to the state and generate a huge economic boom for Iowa during the campaigns. The caucuses also allow debates and enable the participants to know the candidates personally and what they stand for, than just seeing their campaign ads on TV. It allows a flow of information about each candidate to the participants before they make their choices on the right candidate.
Adeyemi Oshunrinade is an expert in law, foreign relations and the United Nations. He is the author of ‘Murder of Diplomacy’ (2010) and “Wills Law and Contests’ (2011). Follow on twitter @san0670