The Fix

How do the Iowa caucuses work, and how are they different in 2020?


Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at his Newton field office on Sunday. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Iowa Democrats are expecting their largest turnout ever for Monday’s caucuses, as new rules for them go into place.

The caucus process is convoluted compared with straightforward primary votes, but the outcome has a big impact on the entire country’s political landscape: The victor and close runners-up get a significant boost heading into the rest of the primary season.

The party has also made some significant changes to the caucuses this year. Here’s what you need to know about the 2020 Iowa caucuses.

When are the Iowa caucuses, and how can I follow them?

This year’s caucuses will be held on Monday, Feb. 3, starting at 7 p.m. Central time at more than 1,600 precinct locations in Iowa, plus some out-of-state locations where there are a lot of Iowa residents.

Coverage on national news outlets will be abundant and easy to find. We’ll have full coverage and results here and a live show broadcasting from Iowa. You can sign up here for alerts on your phone.

What are the Iowa caucuses, and why do they matter so much?

Let’s tackle the second question first: They matter because they are first. About a year after candidates start campaigning, we finally get actual votes.

This means Iowans have a lot of influence on the rest of the presidential nomination process. It’s a position they cherish, and it garners them a ton of attention from candidates and national media. Winning Iowa doesn’t always translate to a candidate winning the party’s nomination, but the results typically provide a winnowing of the field. There is a saying that “there are only three tickets out of Iowa” for presidential candidates. That may not be precisely the case, especially this year, but it is true that a bad finish in Iowa has signified the end of many campaigns.

Instead of holding a straightforward primary vote like most states, Iowans hold caucuses to determine how many delegates to the national party conventions are allocated to each candidate. We’ll get into the weeds of how they work in a moment.

The February political calendar

Key dates for primary elections

State of the Union

February 2020

S

M

T

W

T

F

S

01

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

09

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

3rd

The Iowa caucuses.

4th

The State of the Union.

7th

Democratic primary debate in N.H.

11th

New Hampshire primaries.

19th

Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas.

22nd

Nev. Democratic presidential caucuses.

25th

Democratic primary debate in S.C.

29th

S.C. Democratic presidential primary.

DANIELA SANTAMARIÑA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Key dates for primary elections

State of the Union

Feb. 2020

February 2020

3rd

S

M

T

W

T

F

S

The Iowa caucuses.

01

4th

The State of the Union.

02

03

04

05

06

07

08

7th

Democratic primary debate in N.H.

09

10

11

12

13

14

15

11th

New Hampshire primaries.

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

19th

Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas.

22nd

Nev. Democratic presidential caucuses.

25th

Democratic primary debate in S.C.

29th

S.C. Democratic presidential primary.

DANIELA SANTAMARIÑA/THE WASHINGTON POST

Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, says the state has stuck with caucuses because they encourage more engagement and a tradition of grass-roots politicking. That tradition got Iowa moved to the front of the primary calendar when Democrats changed their nominating process after the chaotic 1968 Democratic convention.

Democratic hopefuls, noting its positioning, started putting an emphasis on the state in their campaigns. Underdog candidates such as Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008 used a victory in the Iowa caucuses to gain momentum that took them all the way to the Democratic nomination. But the caucuses aren’t always predictive. The 2016 Republican winner of the Iowa caucuses was Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.).

How do the Iowa caucuses work?

Iowans who are registered with their party and will be 18 by Election Day are eligible to caucus. The Democratic and Republican caucuses work a little differently. President Trump doesn’t face a serious primary challenge, so everyone’s going to focus on the Democrats this year.

Registered Democratic voters head to their designated precinct location, such as gymnasiums, school cafeterias, churches and union halls. There are 1,678 precincts in Iowa this year, plus more than 90 satellite precincts, 28 of which are outside the state.

The caucus chairs will open the proceedings, and voters are likely to get last-minute pitches from representatives from the campaigns. After that, voting for their preferred presidential candidate starts.

So begins the nation’s most consequential game of musical chairs.

Caucus-goers divide themselves into groups based on their preferred candidate, physically standing with their fellow supporters. At most precincts, a Democratic candidate needs to get the support of at least 15 percent of the votes at the caucus site to be considered “viable,” which means they get to hang on to their voters and get some delegates. The voters who chose viable candidates in the first round are locked in; they are not allowed to defect to other candidates in the second round of voting. They hand in a card with their choice, and they can go home. (Those cards will create a paper trail in case a recount is ordered.)

When the figurative music stops, no candidates want to be in a situation where their group consists of a couple of people standing in a corner by themselves, but they’re not totally done for if that’s the case. They move into the next round, known as realignment.

Supporters of the nonviable candidates have a few options. They can go join a group supporting a viable candidate or a different candidate who is close to the viability threshold and needs help hitting 15 percent. Or, they could try to woo caucus-goers away from other nonviable candidates to help support their candidate. Or, they can just stick with their original pick, hand in their card and go home. In the realignment stage, well-organized campaigns will have representatives scurrying around trying to win over voters to their side.

In past years, candidates have agreed to support each other in subsequent alignment rounds to help eke out any advantage they can get. Ahead of the 2020 Democratic Iowa Caucus, allies of former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders reached out to tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign to express interest in such an arrangement. Representatives for former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg have reportedly reached out to billionaire Tom Steyer’s campaign to feel out their interest.

Once the voting is over, it’s time to translate those results into delegates.

Delegates, after all, are the point of presidential primaries and caucuses. It’s delegates, not the sheer number of votes, that political parties count to determine who will be their nominee.

After the alignments, the viable candidates will be allocated what’s called “State Delegate Equivalents,” according to their performance at that site.

These delegates, through a process involving Democratic Party math and the state convention, will eventually correlate to the number of national delegates a candidate gets at the national conventions.

The Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t declare a winner, but historically the person with the most SDEs has been considered the winner. However, with the first- and second-round results being reported out this year, it’s conceivable candidates could have more opportunities to spin the results in their favor.

Registered Republican voters show up at their caucus site, hear some speeches and vote for their preferred candidate. The votes are counted and the delegates are elected to the county convention based on the proportion of support a candidate receives.

Despite several state Republican parties canceling their 2020 primaries because an incumbent is running for reelection, Iowa Republicans will hold their caucus on Feb. 3.

What is different this year?

The Democrats have made some pretty significant changes to their caucus system this year in an attempt to make it more open, transparent and efficient, McClure said. They are also trying to clean up some things that have caused controversy in past caucuses.

Here are the main changes.

  • There are going to be only two “alignment” rounds this year, so, fewer rounds of musical chairs.
  • Once candidates hits the 15 percent viability threshold at a precinct caucus, their status as viable is locked in. The candidate can gain more voters in the second alignment round by trying to lure voters from nonviable candidates, but they don’t have to worry about losing any. In the past, people could defect in subsequent realignment rounds, which caused all kinds of chaos.
  • The party will be reporting out the results of both the first and second alignment, which Hagle said gives candidates more opportunities to spin results in their favor if they improve in the second round.
  • The Iowa Democratic Party has opened up more than 90 satellite caucus sites for registered Iowa voters in the state, around the country and internationally in an attempt to make their primary more accessible. Some of the satellite sites will serve residents who are most comfortable in a language other than English, while others will allow people to caucus in a location other than their home precinct in case they’re unable to get there in time. Out-of-state satellite caucuses will occur in places where enough full-time residents spend the winter to merit satellite caucuses, such as Florida and Arizona, and on some out-of-state college campuses. There are also three international locations: Paris; Glasgow, Scotland; and Tblisi, Georgia. The Iowa party had proposed virtual caucuses in an effort to make the process more accessible to all Iowa Democrats, but the Democratic National Committee declined the change, over security concerns.

Who is leading the polls for the Iowa caucuses (and who else is running)?

Heading into the caucuses, the top four Democratic contenders in Iowa are Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former vice president Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

A Washington Post average of polling in Iowa this January finds those four nearly even: Biden (22 percent), Sanders (19 percent), Buttigieg (18 percent) and Warren (17 percent). That’s tighter than the race is nationally between those four.

The final Des Moines Register poll, one of the most anticipated, was scrapped at the last minute Saturday.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is at 8 percent in Iowa according to The Post’s average. Several other Democratic candidates are running, but all their support in Iowa is at less than 3 percent, including Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, businessman Tom Steyer and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick.

A January Monmouth University poll took stock of voters’ second choices, because the voters supporting many of those candidates will get a chance to pick that second choice. You can read about how that games out here.

Despite the “three tickets out of Iowa” logic, Hagle said that with such a crowded field, and four top contenders jockeying at the top of the Democratic polls, there may be more leeway this time. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen on caucus night in terms of those four people,” he said.

Why are the caucuses controversial?

Iowa cherishes its status as the “first in the nation” to vote for president. But with that comes a great deal of influence on the primary process — and regular questions about why Iowa should have it.

Iowa’s population is 90 percent white, and critics of the current primary calendar, such as former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro, say the state does not reflect the changing demographics of the country nor the Democrats’ diverse coalition of voters.

“We’ve changed in the 50 years since order was established — and I believe it’s time our primaries reflect our nation’s diversity,” he tweeted in November. Castro has since dropped out of the presidential race after failing to garner the necessary support to qualify for the debates. Out of a historically diverse field of candidates, only white candidates qualified for the Jan. 14 debate, the final Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses.

Credits: Kayla Epstein

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us