What the HELL are the Iowa Caucuses, and How Do They Work? An Angry Q&A

Politics Features
What the HELL are the Iowa Caucuses, and How Do They Work? An Angry Q&A

(Note: This is Part 1 of the Iowa Caucus dispatches, which will run Monday and Tuesday.)

Let’s get one thing straight before we begin: If you care about the American political system, even a little, what you’re about to learn will drive you up a f***ing wall. Do you believe in fair elections and sensible participatory democracy? Then be advised that I am issuing a big, fat trigger warning—the ear-splitting kind, with strobe lights and tornado sirens. Believe me, you’ll need it. We’ve found ourselves in the thick of two highly competitive presidential nomination races, with heavy implications for the future of our country, and it all hinges on what happens tonight at a handful of precinct caucuses.

In Iowa.


Nothing against Iowa, of course. I like the state. The people seem fine. This is not about hating Iowa. This is about hating their caucuses, which are emphatically not fine. Against all logic and sense, Iowa gets the first vote in the nation, and all the massive influence that comes with it. That fact alone is enough to make you want to punch a corn stalk or chug a gallon of ethanol, but what’s really aggravating is that they don’t even hold a normal primary. One person, one vote? That’d be great, but NOPE. Instead, they troll us by staging a weird, atavistic, political-theater throwback to a time when American politics looked a lot like Gangs of New York.

This isn’t just about Iowa making life difficult for democracy. This is about being unable to ignore Iowa. We’re a hostage audience, and it’s all because the results of this screwy caucus produced by a screwy system will have outsized importance in everything that happens over the next year. There’s no escape. If we give a shit about presidential politics—and we should—we have to pay attention.

But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. I intend to answer all your questions about the Iowa Caucus, but I intend to do with with a seriously bad attitude. Join me now in a spittin’ mad Q&A.

Q: Before we learn the basics, can you please put this bullshit in perspective for me?

A: Let’s start here: Iowa could easily determine the outcome of the primary races by virtue of being the first contest in the country. But Iowa is just the 30th most populous state in the country. Iowa has fewer people than Puerto Rico, which is not even a real state. With just over three million residents, Iowa has about a third of the population of New York City. Iowans seem like nice people, but they’re just a blip on the American radar.

Yet for some reason, they’re the ones that get to tip the presidential scales.

Q: Holy shit, that’s infuriating.

A: Oh, that makes you mad? How about this: NOBODY IN IOWA EVEN PARTICIPATES.

On average, about 20 percent of registered party voters actually bother to attend the caucuses, for a total of about 300,000 people. Twenty f#%$ing percent. That’s terrible even by terrible American political participation standards. Even in the most soul-killing mid-term election, we manage to turn out 40 percent. I could run for “neighborhood spirit guide” against that annoying dog from across the street, and 30 percent of people in a five-block radius would turn out to vote. But the Iowa caucuses, which could determine the goddam president of the United States? Twenty percent. And that’s for both parties combined!

Q: Could you illustrate your point with a list of minor American cities whose population eclipses expected turnout tonight?

A: Gladly: Stockton, CA. Lexington, KY. Aurora, CO. Wichita, KS. Anchorage, AK. Tulsa, OK.

Now imagine that the constitution was amended to mandate that one of those cities, at random, got to choose the president every four years. Would you be happy? Didn’t think so. But that’s roughly what’s happening in Iowa. And it’s partly because of the caucus format itself.

Q: Hold up for one damn second. Before we get into all that, are you sure the Iowa caucuses even matter that much?

A: The last three Democratic winners in Iowa have gone to be the presidential nominee, and one of them (Obama) was a pretty big underdog before he won. Losing Iowa absolutely killed Hillary Clinton in 2008, even when she went on to win New Hampshire in a surprising comeback. And that’s just one of many examples of how fortunes have shifted since 1972, when Iowa first moved to the front of the line. Jimmy Carter, for one, basically owed his entire presidency to the state.

On the Republican side, there are a ton of conservative evangelical Christians in Iowa, so the winner there isn’t quite so inevitable—as we learned from victories by Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee in 2012 and 2008, respectively. (Although in 2012, Romney was declared the winner long enough to benefit from the momentum, and it was only a month later that a closer count determined that Santorum had won.) But consider these stats, from Nate Silver:

1. No candidate (Democrat or Republican) has lost the nomination after winning both Iowa and New Hampshire since Ed Muskie in 1972.

2. No candidate has won the the nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Q: Okay, but there are times when succeeding in Iowa is less critical, right?

A: Not really. Even when an eventual nominee doesn’t win the caucus, the way his opponents finish tends to change the whole race. In ‘72, George McGovern came in second to Ed Muskie, but since it was a close race, at a time when the rest of the country thought Muskie would annihilate the field, McGovern gained momentum and eventually won. In 2008, Mike Huckabee beat heavy favorite Mitt Romney on a wave of evangelical fervor, and even though John McCain finished fourth, the weakness of Romney’s campaign was exposed. That opened the door for McCain’s charge to the nomination.

In short: Iowa always matters.

Q: Why do these patterns play out? Couldn’t we just ignore the results? Is it possible that Iowans are just really adept at identifying the eventual winner?

A: Maybe. But there’s no denying that the build-up to Iowa has become almost hysterical—the explosive growth of the corporate media in the age of horse race journalism has guaranteed that—and the coverage that follows an Iowa win, positive and negative, has an enormous impact on how the rest of the race shapes up. And the hype starts early—based on the breathless media accounts leading up to the day, you’d think the Iowa voters were actually the hand of God anointing the next president.

To go back to Obama, his Iowa win transformed his campaign. He went from trailing by 20 points in national polls to trailing by five, and it all happened within a week. He had a new legitimacy in the eyes of the country, it earned him tons of coverage, and it painted the Clinton campaign as a sideways cyclone of panic and in-fighting. All because a few thousand Iowans liked him a little more than Clinton.

Q: Basically, you’re saying Iowa matters because…people say it matters?

A: Yup! It’s a freakish self-fulfilling prophecy. And one which poured about $51 million in campaign dollars in 2008.

Q: I am officially terrified by Iowa’s power. What’s at stake this year?

A: An Iowa loss could be the thing that finally knocks the wind out of Trump’s sails, for one—a loss is a loss, even for a group of people who become experts at ignoring the truth. On the Democrats’ side, teplace “Obama” with “Bernie Sanders,” and you’re looking at a potential carbon copy of ‘08. With a win tonight, Sanders stands to gain the kind of legitimacy that could propel his campaign through the rest of the primaries on a wave of momentum, at which point Clinton would probably be so infuriated that she’d beg Obama to order drone strikes on Des Moines.

As a Sanders supporter, I’m thrilled at this possibility. I love Iowa! And you could probably make an argument that by giving underdogs a chance, the Iowa caucuses actually serve a positive role in the nomination process. Which still doesn’t mean it’s fair, exactly.

Q: But what’s wrong with Iowa, compared to any other state?

Let’s be real—Iowa is a very white state, and the low percentage of minorities means that it’s not representative of the rest of the country. There’s probably no state in the untion that’s truly “representative,” but Iowa benefits some candidates more than others. In 2016, it’s not perfect for Bernie Sanders (that would be New Hampshire), but it’s a hell of a lot better than it could be.

If everybody in the country voted tomorrow, as they would in a normal presidential election, Clinton would win easily. If the first primary took place in South Carolina, where Clinton holds a significant lead because of her advantage among black voters (which is puzzling, but that’s another story), she’d coast, and Sanders would have a tough time recovering.

Q: Can you recover from a disappointment in Iowa?

Rarely. For the most part, it’s where losing campaigns go to die. Take Howard Dean in 2004. Everybody remembers the infamous scream, but what people often forget is that he had finished a disappointing third in Iowa. His goose was cooked before his awkward war whoop, and Iowa was the one that cooked it.

Let’s look at Hillary this year. If she does lose Iowa, her hope is that a “firewall” of states on Super Tuesday (later in March) will secure her nomination, but everyone knows that’s a faint hope at best. The nature of momentum in these things gives Iowa so much sway, and if she fails here, the whole firewall could crumble just like it did against Obama. That’s why she—and Sanders, and O’Malley, and all the Republican candidates—are spending so much time and money in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Ignore the blustery shows of confidence candidates make about life after Iowa; deep down, they know this could be everything.

Q: Why the hell does Iowa get to go first?

A: This is really going to make you mad. I’m warning you.

Q: Just tell me. This nightmare can’t get much worse.

A: Challenge accepted.

The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was disastrous for a few reasons, but mostly because party bosses chose the nominee (Hubert Humphrey) almost unilaterally, and people were really pissed off about Vietnam. The tensions from that corrupt process led to riots in Chicago, and the optics weren’t great. Recognizing the need for a change, the DNC made the whole process more transparent, including a weird rule that mandated 30 days between state and local nomination events.

It gets sort of foggy here, but the gist is that each part of Iowa’s four-step caucus process now had to be separated by a month, and since there weren’t enough hotel rooms available in Des Moines for the scheduled date of the state convention in June, they pushed it ahead, which meant they had to push the distinct and county and precinct caucuses ahead too. By the time they were done, the precinct caucuses had moved all the way up to January, making them the first in the country.


A: Welcome to Iowa, baby!

It didn’t take long before candidates started to realize how they could take advantage of the anomaly. In ‘76, Jimmy Carter “essentially camped out in Iowa for a year,” won the state,* got lots of press, won the nomination, and became president. From that point on, Iowa became a juggernaut.

*“Uncommitted” actually won the state with 37 percent of the vote—not a joke—but Carter was first among actual candidates.

Q: I’m going to rip my hair out.

A: That’s not technically a question.

Q: Wait…why doesn’t some other state just jump the line and schedule their primary ahead of Iowa?

A: Good idea. And Florida tried, in both 2008 and 2012! In what was described as a “rogue quest to be first,” they jumped the line, prompting states like New Hampshire to re-schedule its own primaries to continue the absurd leapfrog. Eventually, Republicans responded by slashing the state’s delegates in half, and the penalties on both sides made Florida basically irrelevant. (On the Democrats’ side, Michigan got nailed too.) It was a big statement from the national parties, who essentially broadcast the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire had their protection. This time around, Florida and Michigan have both been slapped back to March, which means there’s no leapfrog, which means that there are no caucuses or primaries in January.

One weird side effect: Because Iowa’s caucuses fell over the winter break period for universities in 2008 (Jan. 3), it helped Obama by spreading out his young, college-going constituency back to their homes in rural counties. The same won’t be true for Sanders—his college supporters will be in school, and his campaign is actually encouraging those students from rural areas to go home to vote. They’re even offering to provide transportation.

Q: I hate the caucuses. And I hate that I have to ask you how they actually work. But, since we’re here, how do they work?

A: Don’t ask that. Please don’t ask that.

Huh? But I want to know. You said I had to know. Just tell me.




Republican voters go to a precinct, hear two-minute speeches from representatives of every candidate, and then write their vote on slips of paper. Based on those vote totals, delegates are allocated to each candidate by county, sort of like the electoral college on a smaller scale.

Good? We good here?

That seems simple. Same deal for the Democrats?

A: ….


A: Fine. But don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.

Here’s what happens: In 1,681 precincts across the state, people show up at 7 p.m. to caucus. There are various discussions and speeches and politicking within the caucus site—community centers, senior centers, gyms, libraries, etc.—and then everyone in the room gathers into “preference groups.” There will be a Sanders group, a Clinton group, and, in some cases, an “undecided” group. At that point, the precinct chair will determine if each group is “viable.” Viability is determined by how many people are in the preference group as a percentage of the whole. In most larger caucus sites, a group needs 15 percent to be viable. At smaller sites, this percentage can be higher.

If some preference groups are not viable (cough Martin O’Malley cough), there will be more speeches, and representatives from those groups will have the opportunity to join a larger, viable group, form new groups, or whatever. This is the “realignment” process.

Finally, the new groups are counted, and delegates are awarded proportionally. In simplified terms, let’s say that 100 people show up at a caucus site that has 10 delegates to award. Sixty jump in Bernie Sanders’ group, and the other 40 are with Clinton. In that case, six delegates would go to Sanders, and four to Clinton.

Q: That’s insanely complicated. Why don’t they just vote?

A: Great question.

Q: …

A: Really great question.

Q: Uhh…Do you plan to answer it?

I have no answer. What I can tell you is this: Most of America recognized that caucuses were a shitty way to do business a long, long time ago. Since they require an individual to vote publicly, outside influences—powerful party bosses, unions disapproving spouses, or whatever—can force someone to vote against their political beliefs.

That’s why, in most sane places today, we vote in private, and nobody has to tell anyone else how they voted. You can even lie! But in a caucus, there’s no hiding, and since everything happens locally, a voter’s place in his community might be affected if he votes the “wrong” way. This explains, at least partly, why turnout is so low—you have to be pretty passionate about politics to want to expose yourself that way. (In fact, studies show that primaries with secret ballots inspire far higher turnout, while caucuses tend to attract a more hyper-partisan kind of voter. The moderates stay at home.)

Eleven states still hold caucuses, including Nevada, another early state. The rest hold regular primaries with secret ballots.

Q: Any other terrible facts I should know?

A: Glad you asked. It’s also way, way harder to vote absentee, especially for military service members. And if you work at night? Caucuses take place at 7 pm, no exceptions, so you’re shit outta luck.

Q: A lot of what you’re saying here is actually kind of tragic, in the greater context of our democracy.

A: I totally agree.

Q: That’s because you’re writing these questions

A: Another solid point.

While we’re here, I’ll let you in on one more enraging tidbit: The number of delegates allotted to each precinct is set beforehand, based on population, and doesn’t change based on turnout. So let’s say that in the Johnson County—Iowa City 16th precinct, which awards ten delegates, a ton of Bernie Sanders supporters show up, dominate, and win eight of ten delegates for their candidate. Conversely, imagine Hillary Clinton wins ten small, rural precincts, each with one delegate, by a 55-45 percent majority. If you tally up the total votes, Sanders may have three hundred more individual supporters than Clinton. Doesn’t matter—each will end up with ten delegates.

Q: Dear God. Let me get this straight….these caucuses squash turnout, misrepresent popular support, and disenfranchise voters.

You got it!

Q: So you’re telling me it’s somehow worse than the electoral college?

A: Impressive, right?

Q: I have to move on before I get violent. Tell me this…what happens with all these delegates?

A: I asked Josh Levitt, a very helpful person from the Iowa Democratic Party, and here’s how he put it:

The precinct caucuses award delegates to the county convention. The total number is 11,065. After county conventions come District Convention and then State Convention (then of course the National Convention). What the media will be reporting on caucus night is actually percentage of state delegate equivalents won by each candidate.

In other words, while Johnson County has 353 “precinct” delegates in the Democratic race, it will send only 92 delegates to the state convention, so what the media is reporting, essentially, is how many of those 92 will be supporters of each candidate, based on how many of the 353 they win tonight. But on a state-wide level, so that in the end, the figure viewers will see is expressed as a percentage, which is easier to understand.


A: Can I come with you?

Q: I’LL ASK THE QUESTIONS HERE. And no, you can’t come…you have the taint of Iowa on you.

A: Tough, but fair.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Yeah. Remember how I told you that turnout is typically super low in Iowa?

Q: Yeah…

A: There will probably be a snowstorm tonight.

Q: …

A: Which will depress turnout even mo—


A: I’m sorry. This must be quite a shock.

Q: It’s fine. It helped clear things up for me. Adjö, dumma Amerika.

A: Huh?

Q: That’s Swedish for “goodbye, stupid America.” And let me add: Ta dig i röven!

A: Sounds nasty. Enjoy the caucuses!

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