Here’s what you need to know about Iowa’s caucus system.
Caucuses encourage citizens to get involved — which some do better than others
Iowa holds caucuses in each of its more than 1,678 precincts. Regardless of whether they receive a majority of votes, candidates who receive a qualifying threshold of votes in each precinct send their delegates to Iowa’s county conventions, based on a formula laid out in the Iowa Delegate Selection Plan. Votes are aggregated by the Iowa Democratic Party, based on congressional districts, to determine the national convention delegates for each candidate in the Democratic convention in July.
On caucus day, once voters have arrived at their caucus site, doors close and the voting begins. Attendees literally vote with their feet, physically sorting and re-sorting themselves to stand with a particular candidate. They can change allegiances before any tally is taken. Unlike an anonymous vote in a primary, caucus voting involves a lot of discussion and persuasion. Voters coax and cajole each other to switch camps. Effective caucus-goers are vocal and active, throwing what social weight they can muster behind their chosen candidate.
Although the equation varies somewhat by precinct, candidates need the support of at least 15 percent of those at a site to be considered as “viable.” The voting itself occurs in two rounds. Voters for candidates who don’t reach the threshold in the first round can shift to support another candidate in the second round, which is referred to as “realignment” or “the final expression of preference.” Then the caucus captain, who also oversees the site and manages volunteers, reports the final numbers.
Caucuses are supposed to make voting for the nomination more participatory and inclusive. However, critics contend that Iowa does not meet those goals because caucuses present subtle inequities.
For instance, as my research finds, the wealthier, more educated and more able-bodied and -minded residents of Iowa are more likely to persuade their fellow caucus-goers. Furthermore, participating in caucuses requires time and resources. Even getting to the caucus — especially on a cold, snowy February night — can be challenging, skewing who shows up. Particularly excluded are those with disabilities, non-traditional work schedules and child-care responsibilities.
Moreover, the Iowa caucuses have not always appeared to be transparent. In 2016, the party couldn’t produce the vote count underlying the final reported outcome. For these reasons and more, the Iowa Democratic Party has introduced reforms.
Change comes to the 2020 caucuses
The Iowa Democratic Party has introduced changes this year. At first it suggested “virtual caucuses” in which voters could participate via telephone. However, the DNC nixed those because of concerns about cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
The substitute will be “satellite caucuses,” live events at 87 sites, including 60 in Iowa, 24 in other states and one apiece in France, Scotland and the Republic of Georgia. According to the state Democratic Party, the satellite caucuses allow “participants to participate from locations where they are required to physically be on caucus night, as well as from locations where they may feel more familiar and comfortable.”
Other changes aim at including minorities, like offering caucus information in Spanish and running public education campaigns in African American newspapers. Still other changes are designed to bolster participation among the disabled, such as accommodations for wheelchair access and service animals.
But the big splash will come from publishing popular vote totals from the two rounds of caucusing. This change stems from 2016, when Sanders supporters were angry that the state party couldn’t produce the raw vote count behind the count of “State Delegate Equivalents,” or SDEs, the number used by the media to call the race. This was especially irksome to Sanders supporters because the margins were very close: Clinton won 49.9 percent of the SDEs to Sanders’s 49.6.
Another substantive change is that people may not change their initial preference if they’ve picked viable candidates; those caucus-goers are locked in and unable to switch to another group. And for the first time, voters will write down their choices in the case of a recount.
In all, the Iowa Democratic Party will release four numbers in 2020: the results of the first round of voting, the results from realignment, the SDEs and an estimated number of national delegates. The results from the first two rounds could show different winners. Some candidates could ignore the final delegate count and emphasize the results that favor them, thereby declaring success — be it an outright victory or a stronger showing than the final reveals.
Should Iowa go first?
Two weeks ago, a Monmouth University poll found that 58 percent of Iowans support keeping the caucuses, while 30 percent support a switch to a primary system. Those who support the caucuses say it offers a unique form of hands-on education and helps non-traditional candidates with a strong grass-roots base, as happened with Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Barack Obama in 2008.
Every four years, observers question whether Iowa should remain first in the nominating calendar. For instance, Joe Biden, who performs well with African American voters, objects that because the state is over 90 percent white, it doesn’t represent the wider Democratic electorate — but enjoys an outsized influence nonetheless. However, Democratic Party luminaries like Donna Brazile argue that Iowa’s history of going first has resulted in a well-informed electorate that takes its responsibility seriously.
Iowans argue that they’re not provincial, pointing to the victories of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama as evidence that they can identify candidates who perform well in more diverse states.
Hollie Russon Gilman (@hrgilman) is a fellow at in New America’s Political Reform program and Georgetown’s Beeck Center, teaches at Columbia University and is co-author of “Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Inequality” (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Read more of TMC’s analysis about the 2020 presidential election: