Iowa Caucuses: How Do They Work?

By Byron Tau – – – –

Iowa caucus goers will gather on Monday evening in schools, libraries and community centers across the state for gatherings run by the Democratic and Republican parties.

The caucuses involve “getting together with your neighbors and debating, talking and actually having civil conversations,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. “That doesn’t happen in New Hampshire and South Carolina,” he said, referring to the next two states holding primaries.

Attendees at these events, which have no set closing time, select their preferred presidential candidate, and the process of choosing delegates to represent the parties at their national conventions begins. Caucus participants must be registered members of the party, but both parties offer same-day registration for anyone eligible to vote and 18 years or older.

Though the two parties will host their caucuses on the same night, beginning at 7 p.m., and in many places at the same locations, they operate under different rules.

Each of the 1,700 GOP caucuses opens with the election of caucus officials, including a chairman or chairwoman. Representatives from the presidential campaigns will have an opportunity to deliver speeches. Then caucus goers cast ballots, usually on paper, which are reported to the state party.

On the Democratic side, the process is more intricate. Attendees at the almost 1,700 caucuses must stand in groups representing each candidate. If supporters of a candidate don’t meet a certain threshold of support set at the beginning of the evening, they would be forced to realign themselves with another candidate. A “viable” group has enough members to elect at least one delegate to the county convention. Only after candidates under the viability threshold are weeded out from each caucus do the totals get reported to the Iowa Democratic Party.

The caucuses are only the first step in selecting delegates to the national conventions, where the parties’ nominees are officially chosen. As a result, next week’s reported winners are only a rough estimate of the final number of delegates a candidate will receive from Iowa.

In both the GOP and Democratic nominating processes, the caucuses elect delegates to county conventions, who in turn elect delegates to both district conventions and state conventions. It is at those state and district conventions that delegates to the Republican and Democratic national conventions are chosen.

Precinct vote reporting for this year’s caucuses will be done by a new digital app—a joint project between the Republican and Democratic parties of Iowa and Microsoft Corp.

In part, the app for tablets and smartphones is designed to streamline and improve reporting after the state party prematurely declared former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney the GOP winner in 2012. A subsequent count showed that former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania actually won, beating Mr. Romney by 34 votes.

Democrats also have introduced satellite caucus locations and a tele-caucus. A satellite caucus allows a group of voters to create their own caucus locations. A nursing home or a workplace can be declared a caucus site, for example. The tele-caucus allows Iowans abroad, including those serving in the military and the Peace Corps, to participate in a telephone caucus.

“We’re looking at trying to improve access,” said Andy McGuire, chairwoman of the Iowa Democrats.

Slightly more people participated in the 2012 GOP presidential caucus than in 2008, but the ratio of registered voters to participants actually dropped slightly. Iowa Democrats didn’t hold a competitive caucus in 2012, but their turnout rate jumped significantly in 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama topped former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton, from the 2004 caucus, when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts won.

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