The Big Story Blog

Iowa: Caucuses FAQ

Posted at 2:30 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Politics

Iowa's been caucusing since statehood in 1846. But the caucuses didn't become a national force until 1972, when state Democrats moved theirs to January, ahead of New Hampshire's primary, traditionally the first key presidential political test.

In 1976, Iowa's Democratic caucuses gave strong support to a relatively unknown candidate, Jimmy Carter. Carter's presidential win cemented Iowa's role as a crucial early test of strength for Republican and Democratic candidates.

For presidential hopefuls short on name recognition or cash, the caucuses offer the promise, at least, that old-style retail politics -- handshaking at fairs, speeches in small towns and impromptu café discussions -- can level the competition.

There's been a lot of hand wringing over the years about Iowa's over sized role in picking presidential candidates and recent evidence the caucuses have lost some of their luster. But they continue to hold the attention of politicians and the public.

Here are some questions and answers about this evening's caucuses.

Q. What is a caucus and how does it differ from a primary?

A: Caucuses are meetings where citizens gather to talk politics and decide, in this case, whom to nominate for president. On caucus night, Jan. 3, starting at 7 p.m., Iowans in 1,774 precincts across the state will pick delegates for local conventions that lead, eventually, to delegates to the party national conventions.

Caucus states include Minnesota, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Nevada, Washington, Maine and Wyoming,

Primaries are more formal elections. Primary voting lasts all day and primaries allow for absentee voting. Caucuses are informal gatherings that last only a few hours -- and you have to be there to participate.

Q. Who gets to vote in an Iowa caucus?

A. Iowans who turn 18 by Election Day 2012 (Nov. 6) can vote in the Iowa caucus, according to the Republican Party of Iowa.

You have to be registered as a Democrat to participate in Democratic caucuses or as a Republican to be part of a Repubican gathering. Both parties, though, let people walk in and register at the caucus. The Iowa GOP requires a valid photo ID with a current address and a utility bill or other document proving residence.

If you can register, you can caucus, which is why it can be a challenge to get a serious read on a candidate's strength beyond Iowa. "Technically, only registered party members can attend each caucus, but any Iowan who can prove residence in a precinct can register in either party on caucus night," the MSNBC caucuses guide notes.

Q. Once delegates are in a caucus, how do they pick a candidate?

A: Republicans and Democrats do it differently. Republicans use a simple process, writing their candidate choice on slips of paper and counting votes. Before voting, one surrogate can speak on behalf of his/her candidate.

It's more complicated with Democrats. Here's the Des Moines Register description from the 2008 caucuses:

While Republicans have one-person, one-vote, Democrats vote for delegates for each candidate. Democrats will break into what are called "preference groups," where participants' preferences for a candidate become public.

All the supporters of Hillary Clinton will go to one corner, all the supporters of Barack Obama to another, etc. If a candidate doesn't have 15 percent of the total, his or her supporters must realign with another group. Once everyone is in a group with at least 15 percent, delegates to the county convention are apportioned based on the size of the preference group.

So, for example, if the precinct sends 10 delegates to the county convention, those 10 delegates are allocated based on the percentage of people in a preference group. So if Edwards has 60 percent and Clinton has 40 percent, Edwards would get six delegates and Clinton would get four

Obviously, it will be less complicated for Democrats in this cycle, since Obama is running as an incumbent, unopposed. Democrats in Iowa, though, say they want a strong turnout to show support for the president's re-election.

Q: When we will know the GOP winner?

A: The Iowa GOP says it will announce results by precinct as those results are received and verified. MSNBC says results should start coming in by 7:30 p.m. CT.

Q: Do the caucuses often pick the eventual president?

A: No. While they're pretty good at picking eventual party candidates, they are far from perfect in picking the president. Since the 1972 Democratic caucus, only two non-incumbent candidates -- George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- have won the presidency after winning the Iowa Caucuses. In 1976, Jimmy Carter finished second in Iowa behind "uncommitted."

Not counting incumbent presidents (since nearly all incumbents have run unopposed in Iowa during their re-election campaigns), that's two out of seven election cycles where Iowa picked the president.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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