The Iowa Caucuses Tonight – What to Know

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After months of campaigning, debating, polling, fundraising and eating fried food, Democratic presidential candidates face their first real-world test on Feb. 3, when Iowa voters have their say in the state’s caucuses. Here’s a rundown of important things to know about Iowa and its first-in-the-nation vote.

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What is a caucus, and how is it different from a primary?

While primaries are run much like general elections – lots of polling places, a secret ballot, many hours to vote – Iowa’s caucuses are more like neighborhood meetings. Starting at 7 p.m. in each of the state’s 1,678 voting precincts (and, new this year, 99 satellite locations in Iowa, around the country and overseas), Democratic voters will gather, debate issues and candidates with each other, and eventually cluster in “preference groups” to elect delegates to their county conventions. The precinct caucuses kick off a process which, several months from now, will result in 41 delegates being chosen to represent Iowa at the Democratic National Convention. The whole caucus process, which can take more than an hour, is nicely illustrated here.

Iowa’s Democratic caucuses are open only to registered party members, not unaffiliated voters or those registered as Republicans or with other parties. However, people can register or change their party affiliation on caucus night if they want to participate.

How many people turn out for the caucuses?

For a long time, that was a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Until recently, the parties didn’t report attendance figures, only “state delegate equivalents,” using complex formulas to translate the caucus-night results into state convention delegates. Individual precincts didn’t always keep close counts of how many people caucused, or if anyone left early. Add in that 17-year-olds can caucus if they’ll turn 18 by Election Day, and the difficulties in reliably calculating turnout become clear.

Notwithstanding all that, the Iowa Caucus Project of Drake University estimated that in the 2004 Democratic caucuses and the 2008 and 2012 Republican caucuses, roughly 20% of registered party members participated. In the 2008 Democratic caucus, nearly 40% of eligible Democrats took part.

Who participated in Iowa’s 2016 caucuses?In 2016, 186,874 Iowans participated in the Republican caucus and 171,109 participated in the Democratic caucus, both held on Feb. 1. On that date, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office, there were 586,835 active registered Democratic voters and 615,763 active Republican registered voters. That works out to 30.3% of eligible Republicans and 29.2% of eligible Democrats participating in the caucuses, or 18.5% of the state’s total 1,937,317 active registered voters. (By comparison, in 2016, turnout averaged 29.3% across all the Democratic and Republican primaries.)

As of Jan. 2, 2020, according to the secretary of state’s office, there were 2,017,205 active registered voters in Iowa. 614,519 (30.5%) were registered Democrats, 639,969 (31.7%) were registered Republicans, and the rest were independents or members of other parties.

How will we know who wins?

That can also be confusing. Consider the Republican caucuses, which historically have combined a nonbinding secret preference vote along with the delegate-selection process. In 2012, state GOP officials first declared Mitt Romney the winner of the preference vote by eight votes, then two weeks later said Rick Santorum had won by 34 votes. In the end, though, Ron Paul won a majority of Iowa’s national convention delegates, despite finishing third in the preference vote.

This year, the Iowa Democratic Party will report three sets of caucus results: the initial count of candidate support (called the “first alignment”), the final alignment (after backers of “nonviable” candidates have had a chance to shift their support to someone else), and state delegate equivalents. That means that theoretically, three different candidates may be able to plausibly claim to have “won” the caucus.

How reliably do the Iowa caucuses predict the ultimate nominee?

Five decades of Iowa caucus winnersLike so much else with the caucuses, that depends on how you look at it. Since 1972, there have been 10 contested Democratic caucuses; in six of them, including the four most recent, the declared caucus winner ultimately was nominated. On the Republican side, there have been eight contested caucuses in that span, but in only three cases was the caucus winner ultimately the nominee.

For many years, there’s been a saying among caucus-watchers that “there are only three tickets out of Iowa.” That refers to the fact that since 1972 (and excluding years when incumbent presidents ran unopposed for renomination), the eventual nominee has nearly always been one of the top three finishers in the caucuses. The exceptions were Bill Clinton, who placed fourth in 1992, and John McCain, who came in fourth in 2008. Both of those were special cases, though: In 1992 Iowa’s own Sen. Tom Harkin was the overwhelming caucus favorite, so the other Democratic contenders mostly ignored the state. And McCain was just 424 votes behind third-place finisher Fred Thompson. Read more at Pew Research

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