The first thing you should know about the Iowa caucuses is that is has no actual bearing on who will be elected as the presidential candidate. This does not mean, however, that the caucuses are meaningless. The Iowa caucuses are the first electoral contest on the calendar. They provide candidates with much needed momentum, or take the wind out of the sails for some. A caucus technically means a local political party meeting. They are typically held in public buildings like high schools or libraries. In Iowa there are 1681 precincts-- each precinct holds its own Democratic and Republican caucus. Generally, caucus participation in Iowa has been around 20% of registered voters.
— The Hill (@thehill) February 1, 2016
Here are some basic things you should know about the caucuses:
Voters have to show up in person. There is no absentee ballot or participating earlier on in the day. If you can’t physically attend the event, you can’t participate. Only registered Democrats or Republicans can take part. Third party candidates are not included in the process and registered third party voters are also excluded. The rules for the Democratic and Republican caucuses are different. The caucuses begins at 7pm (8pm est.) and you can’t show up late. Once the doors are closed, there's no getting in!
Here’s how the rules differ between parties:
The Republican caucus is more straightforward.
Each Republican meeting begins with the Pledge of Allegiance. Then, representatives for each candidate give speeches trying to win over support. Once the speeches are over, everyone writes down their chosen candidate on a piece of paper. Some precincts print out a check list and some just ask voters to handwrite the name on a scrap of paper and drop it into a box. This process allows voters to anonymously choose their candidate, which is partly how the Republican caucus differs from the Democratic caucus.
The Democratic caucus is more complicated.
As soon as the meeting begins, attendees must declare a preferred candidate. There’s also a group called “uncommitted” which they may align with. Precinct captains take a headcount of the room. This is where voters raise their hands. Once they’ve been counted, they put their hand down. Then voters stand in separate sections according to candidates. They vote by standing in their candidate’s group.
The most complicated part of the Democratic caucus is something called the "viability threshold." This means that if your candidate does not have at least 15% of the room’s voters, the candidate is no longer viable. Voters from that group then need to choose a different group.
Here is a clip of voters moving preference groups during the 2008 Iowa caucus:
Once the final count is taken, delegates are distributed for candidates based on the percentage of support they received.
What to watch for this year:
Trump and Sanders have both said that they will draw large numbers of new supporters to the caucuses on Monday. It will also be interesting to watch where Martin O’Malley’s supporters go if he does not hit the viability threshold in some precincts.
The weather might also play a role in the caucuses. A storm is headed toward Iowa and since voters need to show up in person, it could affect voter turnout.
— PBS NewsHour (@NewsHour) February 1, 2016
Who would you caucus for? Do you think the caucus rules are fair? Let us know in the comments below!
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