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How Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

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Democratic and Republican parties are holding their caucuses on 3 January 2008. Presidential election primaries and caucuses are two different methods that political parties use to let party members (voters) select the presidential nominee. Voters do so by selecting delegates to the party's national convention. Only 13 states still use the caucus method for selecting convention delegates.

2008 Results

County Caucuses
Democrats
  • Obama - 37.58%, 16 delegates
  • Edwards - 29.75%, 14 delegates
  • Clinton- 29.47%, 15 delegates
  • Richardson - 2.12%
Republicans
  • Huckabee - 34.41% - 13 delegates
  • Romney - 25.23% - 10 delegates
  • Thompson- 13.40% - 5 delegates
  • McCain - 13.11% - 5 delegates
  • Paul - 9.96% - 5 delegates
  • Giuliani - 3.45%

What Are Caucuses?

A caucus is the lowest level meeting of members of a political party where members discuss issues and select precinct representatives. During President election years, members also select delegates to attend the party convention. Caucuses are considered grassroots events because they are held at the precinct level; venues may be school gymnasiums or someone's living room. Iowa has about 1,800 precincts.

This Google Map displays live news and events from across the state; both the Democratic and Republican parties are partnering with Google to present real-time caucus results.

Who Participates?

Any registered voter can participate in a caucus. Parties require that voters re-register as a party member; a voter can attend only one party's caucus.

What Happens At A Caucus Meeting?

Caucus meetings are personal -- no voting machines here. The precinct chair will convene the meeting; those attending discuss the various candidates who are seeking the nomination. They may also discuss party platform issues. After everyone has had their say, there's a vote, which is usually public (viva-voce). Republican and Democratic parties have different voting procedures.

How Do Democrats Select Delegates?

There are 1,784 precincts. The precinct caucuses begin at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday 3 January; attendees may register until 7 p.m. After everyone has had a say, attendees gather in like-minded groups, including undecideds. To be viable, a candidate must have a minimum level of support of 15-25% of the participants (varies based on number of delegates assigned to the precinct). After the first "round," supporters of candidates with less than the required percentage may join another group. Delegates pledge support to a specific candidate and are selected from the candidate supporters at the caucus. Iowa has 57 Democratic National Convention delegates.

Iowa Democratic Party; Caucus Results

How Do Republicans Select Delegates?

Republicans separate candidate preference from convention delegate selection. After everyone has had a say, attendees vote in a straw poll (paper ballot, counted by hand) to determine the winner. The attendees then select delegates, who do not have to declare which candidate they support. Iowa has 40 Republican National Convention delegates.

Iowa GOP; Caucus Results

What Happens Next?

The press reports a "winner" based upon the percentage of delegates won by each candidate. History suggests that how well candidates meet or exceed expectations may be as crucial as an actual "win."

Delegates selected at precinct caucuses move on to a county convention (99 counties; 1 March for Rs, 15 March for Ds), where a sub-set of delegates is selected to attend the district, then state convention. At the state convention (14 June), a sub-set of delegates is selected to attend the national convention.

For Democrats, the number of state delegates is proportional to the number of votes received at the state caucus. For Republicans, the winner gets all of party delegates at the national convention.

How Did This System Develop?

Even before Iowa became a state in 1846, the political system was based upon caucuses to nominate political leaders. In the early 1970s, the Democratic party changed the delegate selection process to make it more inclusive. In 1972, state leaders moved the caucuses to January, making it an early test for candidates. In 1976, Republicans moved their caucus date to match the Democrats. Since then, candidates and national media have observed the Iowa caucuses as the "First in the Nation" presidential event.

How Did Iowa Vote In Past Elections?

  • 2004 : Bush (R) 49.90% ; Kerry (D) 49.23%
  • 2000 : Bush (R) 48.22% ; Gore (D) 48.54%
  • 1996 : Clinton (D) 50.26% ; Dole (R) 39.92%
  • 1992 : Bush (R) 37.27% ; Clinton (D) 43.29%
  • 1988 : Bush (R) 44.50% ; Dukakis (D) 54.71%
  • 1984 : Mondale (D) 45.89% ; Reagan (R) 53.27%
  • 1980 : Carter (D) 38.60% ; Reagan (R) 51.31%
  • 1976 : Carter (D) 48.46% ; Ford (R) 49.47%
Source: US Election Atlas

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