Everything You Need To Know About The Iowa Caucuses

02.02.20

In less than 48 hours, over three million Iowans will cast their votes in the first caucuses of the 2020 election. But what is a “caucus”? Why does it matter? And why does Iowa get to go first?

The first thing you need to know is that a caucus and an election are not the same thing. When you think about an election you think about yourself as an individual, visiting a polling station, and privately casting your vote. There’s little, if any, discussions among voters at those stations and it’s all about the individual person. A caucus is basically the opposite; instead of voting alone, you are voting as a community. Which means on caucus night, Iowans have to leave their homes and congregate in their local church or library or town hall and collectively decide, through conversations and debate, who their first and second choice are for the democratic nominee.

Here’s where it gets a little complicated: There are 1,681 precincts in Iowa, which means on caucus night there are technically 1,681 mini elections taking place. No matter how big or small a precinct is (whether there are 600 people or 60 people in your town hall), each precinct holds an equal amount of power. That’s why candidates will try and visit as many towns as possible in the lead up to caucus night because they want to be competitive everywhere. In order for a candidate to be “viable” on caucus night, they need to have the support of at least 15% of the room – this is where the “voting as a community” thing really takes shape because voters have to stay in those churches or libraries, for typically up to two hours, and barter with each other as to why their first-choice candidate should be yours too until they can reach some sort of consensus. It sounds aggressive but (apparently) it creates a sense of team work because you are each having to consider sacrifices to benefit the greater good.

So why is it important to do well in Iowa? Well, to win Iowa, or even just to do really well and poll as the second or third choice candidate, affords a campaign a huge amount of media coverage and momentum – two things that are really important because the New Hampshire primary is only one week later. Iowa is also a really strong indicator for how a presidential candidate will fair in later contests; historically, whoever wins in Iowa has a high probability of going on to be the nominee and ultimately be the person up against Trump. Candidates who do sh*t in these caucuses usually drop out of the race shortly thereafter. For context: Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and that win ultimately became really important for his campaign because he received a huge spike in donations which his team needed the following week when Hillary Clinton beat him in New Hampshire. Starting to make sense?

Fun fact: Obama considers his win in Iowa “my favourite night of my political career – even more than the night I was elected President.” And that’s because, up until that moment, his campaign had been plagued by cynics who said it could not be done. At that time there was a lot of scepticism as to whether a state like Iowa, which is made up predominantly of conservative white Midwesterners, would vote for an African American candidate. So winning Iowa proved Obama’s assertion that he was capable of getting people of every colour and creed to engage in politics again, to turn out and vote in a way that they had never done before in their entire lives. It proved that he was capable of empowering and inspiring a nation.

As for whether Iowa should go first, there’s arguments on both sides. On the one hand it feels weird that a state as white and rural as Iowa has so much power in a party as racially diverse and progressive as the Democratic Party, and the country at large. But on the other hand, the fact that Iowa is disproportionately rural might be exactly why they should go first; rural voters often get disregarded by Democrats and taken for granted by the Republicans, so to put a state like Iowa in a position of power ensures that rural voters, who make up 15% of the entire country, are part of the conversation for winning a presidency.


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