The word “caucus” goes back to the very beginning of American political history, appearing in John Adams’s diary before the Declaration of Independence was signed. But the longevity of the term—and the system—doesn’t make it any better understood. With the Iowa caucuses just a day away, here’s a guide to how they work and why they matter.
What is a caucus?
Caucuses are much more communal than an ordinary primary where you wait in line to cast a ballot in an individual booth. They serve as both an unofficial election and a selection process for the delegates who will represent the caucus-goers at the precinct and county levels. The two parties have slightly different caucus formats, with one of the key differences being that the Democrats vote publicly and Republicans vote by secret ballot. Each of Iowa’s 1,774 districts will have a meeting place, usually a school, church, or other public building. Only registered party members may caucus, but Iowa voters can change their party affiliation at the door if they like.
What happens at a caucus meeting?
At 7 p.m., caucus-goers will recite the Pledge of Allegiance and elect officers to run the meeting. Representatives from each campaign—usually campaign staffers—will give a brief speech urging those present to vote for their candidate. After the speeches, caucus-goers will write the name of their preferred candidate on a piece of paper, and campaign representatives will watch while they are counted. The caucus will then report the results to the room, and then by phone to the Iowa Republican Party. Caucus-goers will finish the night by picking delegates and writing platform resolutions—building blocks of a party manifesto—for the county GOP convention. The Iowa GOP will announce the statewide results to the media and on its website.
What’s the point of an “unofficial” election?
It’s true that the delegates chosen at the caucuses—and other delegates Iowa will send to the Republican National Convention—don’t have to go by the preference of caucus-goers. So that makes the Iowa caucuses more like a glorified poll. But in a way, Iowans get the best of both worlds: they are the first Republican voters to express their opinion about the presidential field, and their choice is treated by the media as significant (whether it is or not is debatable). But because they vote early and their preferred candidate may be out of the race within a few months, their delegates are able to work together to decide among the alternatives. And in the meantime, the communal nature of the meetings helps Iowans get to know and be known by other people in their party who may be representing them as delegates in the future.
Who does the caucus format favor?
Two groups benefit from Iowa’s unique format, at least on the GOP side: very conservative voters and very engaged voters. Because Iowa is often miserably cold in January, and because of the substantial time commitment required, caucus-goers tend to be the most hard-core Republicans in the state. That means they’re probably to the right of most Iowa Republicans. Because they’re only a fraction of Iowa’s population, those two groups get a disproportionate say over the GOP platform, and even over the national party’s nomination process.
Iowa is a small state—does its opinion really matter?
It depends who you ask. Candidates who don’t have a chance of doing well in Iowa—usually less socially conservative candidates like Jon Huntsman—always dismiss the Iowa caucuses as irrelevant. The caucuses have other critics, who see them as a load of media hype, unrepresentative of most of America’s views, or a really inefficient way of determining party consensus. But because Iowa comes first and is at least perceived to be a bellwether, candidates pour staggering resources into winning votes there, giving Iowans a unique opportunity to see them up close. And the race often changes quickly based on the results. A dismal showing in Iowa can spell imminent doom for a social conservative like Michele Bachmann. As The Washington Post’s Carter Eskew points out, Iowa can wake up complacent frontrunners like Al Gore and John McCain, whose ascent to the GOP nomination began in Iowa.