How Do the Caucuses Work?

While most states have a different method to select presidential candidates Iowa goes by the caucus system, which, in a nutshell, means instead of going to a polling place on your own to vote in the primary, Iowans go to a precinct meeting where everyone is allowed to talk to their neighbors about their views and exchange ideas and opinions as they come together to decide how they want their precinct to vote. Then a few delegates from each precinct represent their precinct at the county convention, who sends a few delegates on to the district convention, who then sends delegates to the state convention. Delegates are elected at the state convention who go on to represent Iowa at the national convention where the party officially chooses the presidential candidate.

So things all start at a very local level where everyone is invited to share their opinions, and those opinions are passed up the chain to the national level. Basically.

In reality the process is a little more complicated. In my personal experience caucuses generally go thusly:

Map of Plymouth County, Iowa's voting precincts
Precincts 11, 12, and 13 are all in Le Mars.

The County Chair has the responsibility to find volunteer precinct captains and secretaries for each of the thirteen precincts in Plymouth County (there are three in LeMars that aren’t shown on the map) as well as locations in each precinct suitable for the caucuses. The precinct captains are generally drug into this kicking and screaming because there’s some paperwork and (horror of horrors) math involved.

Math. Gaaaaaahhhh…

On caucus night the Democrats go to their meetings, the Republicans go to their meetings, and the Independents stay home to watch reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” on Netflix and reflect on their life choices, probably weeping in despair as they don’t have any voice in the caucuses. A person must be registered as a Democrat by the time the caucus starts at 7 p.m. to participate in the Democratic Party’s primary caucus. (Fun fact: minors who are 17 years old but will be 18 by the date of the general election are eligible to caucus!) The caucuses are very local, which means they may be held in a restaurant or bar, an American Legion post perhaps, and occasionally even in someone’s home.

A photo of adults politely and attentively watching a speaker in a well-lit and quiet classroom, which is not at all how most Iowa caucus meetings look.
This is NOT how it ever looks. Ever.

At 7 p.m. the doors officially close, no one who comes late may participate, and the math begins. The (ahem) “volunteer” precinct captain (who likely owed the county chair a favor and couldn’t find any way to wiggle out of the job) will take a few minutes to count how many people are at the caucus as everyone else kinda mills around aimlessly looking for a seat and talking to neighbors whose names they can’t quite remember at the moment.

After the nose-count is finished the precinct captain will begin the meeting, usually by standing on a chair in a dimly-lit corner, waving their hands, and mumbling something. Caucus participants will respond by intoning the time-honored response in unison, “Speak Up,” at which point everyone is required to turn and give Meaningful Looks to the three people in the back who hadn’t noticed the opening ceremonies and are still loudly talking about how cold it is outside.

There are a couple of things that are discussed briefly before the voting procedure, and a few formalities that need done, but this only takes a few minutes.

There are a few other items of business that will happen that no one really understands because those three in the back started telling jokes again and a car with a muffler problem stopped outside for five minutes and did you hear what the guy said? I didn’t.

Then it’s time for The Main Event. And math. (Math. Gaaaaaaahhhh…)

Photo of confused man in front of a blackboard full of mathematical equations.
Gaaaaaaahhhhh!

To decide the presidential candidates everyone at the caucus will divide up into groups. Everyone who supports the Professor (for example) will gather in one corner, those who support Mary-Ann will congregate in another corner, the Skipper’s supporters will all find a place over yonder, etc., and the Gilligan supporter will stand awkwardly by himself over by the wall.

Each precinct is given a certain number of delegates that will represent that precinct at the county level a few months later. The number of delegates is decided ahead of time based on the district’s population (or magic, I can’t tell really), but it always seems fair enough. The precinct captain will use a formula (the number of supporters in the group times the number of precinct delegates, divided by the number of caucus participants) to determine how many people need to be in each group in order to get a delegate for their candidate.

As an example, if a precinct has four delegates, there are two hundred participants, and one hundred of those participants are standing in Ginger’s corner, you’d multiply one hundred by four to get four hundred, then divide that by two hundred to get a grand total of… Two. So of the four delegates the precinct has, two of them will will represent Ginger’s group. (Note: Most caucuses in Plymouth County are considerably smaller and generally have about twenty-five or thirty participants. I used the two hundred figure because that’s what the example I’m reading right now used and I haven’t had enough coffee yet this morning to think up my own example. Math. Gaaaaaaahhh…)

There is a minimum number of people in a group for that group to be considered viable. In our example, if there’s only one or two people in Mr. Howell’s corner, that group wouldn’t be considered viable as it doesn’t contain the minimum fifteen percent of participants. That doesn’t mean Mr. Howell is finished, though – part of the magic of the caucus is that people are given time to discuss the candidates they support, to try to cajole others to join their group. Mr. Howell’s group may very well be able to convince another non-viable group (Gilligan’s, maybe) that Mr. Howell would indeed be a better president due to his financial acumen and gain viability, therefore gaining a delegate. The debates can get lively and are usually fairly entertaining once things get rolling.

Picture of couple during an argument
I can’t believe after all these years you turned out to be a Mary-Ann supporter!

After a certain period of time and the dust settles, the (ahem) “volunteer” precinct captain – who by this time is wearing the haunted look of someone who’s being asked more questions than they have answers for and has undoubtedly sworn off any form of volunteerism for the foreseeable future – will call a halt to the proceedings and tally up the results.

After all of the delegates are assigned and people start to drift off, the die-hard political fans and those who feel strongly about a particular cause will begin to discuss platform proposals. If there’s something you’d like the Democratic Party to incorporate into their system, bring it in writing and find a way to get it to the precinct captain, who will, after discussion and a vote, pass the proposals up to the next level where they’ll be discussed, amended, and voted on again.

Once that’s done, the precinct captain will end the caucus, call the numbers in to the County (“Precinct 9 has two delegates for Ginger Grant, one for the Skipper, and one for Mr. Howell,”), and go have a stiff drink.

And that, in my experience, is how the caucuses work. It’s a little confusing, but the system is unique in that it’s fair, it’s VERY local, and you actually get to participate and be actively involved rather than simply dropping a ballot into a box. It’s very much worth your time!