DES MOINES, Iowa -- For many Americans across the country, the Iowa caucuses, happening in less than a month, will signal the kickoff to the 2016 campaign. Yet for Iowans, caucus night will be the official conclusion of over a year of candidate visits, weekend forums, fundraising phone calls and intense media attention.
Iowa’s presidential nominating contest is unlike anything else in the nation. Where else will you find the kind of grassroots democracy that requires friends, neighbors and co-workers to turn out on a cold winter night and spend multiple hours arguing politics?
I’ll admit it: I personally have yet to witness this unique -- and bizarre -- political spectacle. But since moving to Iowa over a year and a half ago, I’ve had a front row seat to the 2016 campaign, well before most other national reporters descended on the Hawkeye State.
Anyone that has relocated to the state in the heart of the Corn Belt quickly realizes Iowans take their role in the presidential process very seriously. They are well-read, follow the news and famously refuse to make up their minds before meeting candidates multiple times. Daylong candidate forums are family friendly, and at the end of the event, you're guaranteed to find parents engaging in conversation with their kids, reassuring them that they've just witnessed history, as they exit a crowded auditorium.
It's not uncommon to see Secret Service agents scurrying around the farmers market in downtown Des Moines on Saturday mornings in the summer months, navigating in between stands of sweet corn and hundreds of shoppers. Even the sight of the men clad in suits and equipped with earpieces doesn't seem to faze Iowans. “Wonder which presidential candidate is here," one woman responded casually to her child pointing at the agents and bomb-sniffing dogs.
As the seasons changed, so did the state of the race, and now the Iowa campaign is entering its final weeks. At this point in the election cycle, there's rarely a day where there isn't a presidential hopeful roaming the state, popping up at local coffee shops, public libraries, courthouse squares and even family farms across Iowa’s 99 counties.
I’ve traveled to about 55 of those counties on the campaign trail, covered hundreds of town halls and spoken with voters from the Missouri River to the Mississippi. Watching this political contest unfold on the ground of this small Midwestern state from the very beginning has given me a distinct understanding of the Iowa process. What happens here every four years is hard to fathom if you haven’t seen it firsthand, even with all the media attention.
As the nation turns its attention to Iowa in the coming weeks, here are 16 things about the Iowa caucus process and culture that I’ve learned along the way.
1. Caucuses Are Not Elections
Unlike primary elections, which are administered by the state of Iowa, political parties set up the caucus. They operate without state oversight or resources and are run entirely by volunteer activists. Voters have to arrive at a specific time at a specific precinct location in order to caucus, which is unlike other primaries and general elections where voting can take place all day.
2. The Iowa Caucuses Got Their Place On The Political Calendar By Complete Accident
The Democratic Party moved its Iowa caucus earlier than the New Hampshire primary in 1972 due to scheduling issues. Iowa got its “first-in-the-nation” status because the delegate selection rules forced Iowa’s Democratic Party to change the timing of that year's caucus, not because anyone thought it was the right place to begin the presidential nominating process. In the end, this change did not have much significance in the 1972 nomination.
3. The Caucus Process Looks Completely Different For Republicans And Democrats, And They Yield Entirely Different Results
The Republican process is relatively straightforward. Once the precinct meeting has been called to order on caucus night, the chair of the caucus will invite attendees to speak briefly on behalf of each candidate. At the end of all the speeches, voters scribble their candidate’s name on a piece of paper and drop it in a box. After all voters have filled out their secret ballot, the votes are counted and announced to the room. These results are then reported to the Republican Party of Iowa to tabulate the state results.
The Democratic process is a lot more complicated. After voters are given a chance to speak on behalf of their candidate, attendees will move into different parts of the room, physically indicating which candidate they support. The participants are then counted, and depending on the size of the precinct and the delegates allocated, candidates who don’t have enough support are deemed non-viable (this threshold is determined by calculating 15 percent of the participants in the room). Voters associated with non-viable groups will have the opportunity to disperse and join other groups; try again and attract others to their group; or remain “uncommitted” during a realignment period. The number of votes each candidate receives is then calculated and will determine what percentage of that precinct’s delegates will represent each candidate at the county convention.
4. Voters Dissatisfied With Their Options Can Still Participate In The Process
These voters will caucus “uncommitted.” This option has some historical precedent, with the uncommitted vote winning both the 1972 and 1976 Democratic caucuses. The process of caucusing “uncommitted” is different between Republican and Democratic caucuses. In the Democratic caucus, voters organize into preference groups and are allowed the option to vote uncommitted. If there are enough uncommitted votes, uncommitted delegates will be elected to participate in the nominating convention. In the Republican process, attendees have the option to vote “undecided.” Undecided votes will be counted up and reported, although they won’t nominate delegates.
5. Some People Say Iowa’s Significance In The Presidential Nominating Process Is All Jimmy Carter’s Fault
The unknown Southern governor’s campaign looked at Iowa as an opportunity to make a splash and to gain media attention. Carter invested time and resources campaigning in Iowa and did better than expected, coming in second to “uncommitted.” His finish in the caucus propelled him into the national spotlight and paved his path to the presidency. In 1976, leaders of both parties recognized it would be beneficial for Iowa to remain first in the nation.
6. The Iowa Caucus Does Not Result Directly In National Delegates For Each Candidate, Unlike The New Hampshire Primary
Iowa caucusgoers elect delegates to county conventions, who then elect delegates to state and district conventions, and this is where the state’s national convention delegates are selected. These conventions do not occur until the end of the primary season and, ironically, Iowa is one of the last states to select its delegates, despite its first-in-the-nation status. The results of the caucus are not binding on Democrats' elected delegates, although they usually feel obligated to vote the way expressed by caucusgoers. As of July, Republican delegates are required to vote as indicated by caucusgoers.
7. It’s Extremely Rare, But Caucusgoers Could Resort To A Coin Toss In The Democratic Caucus Process
There are a number of specific instances in which this would happen, which is very dependent on the size of the county and the preferences of the group. If two candidates are tied for a single delegate, a coin toss will determine who gets him or her. If two preference groups are tied for last place, they have to flip a coin to decide which group has to realign.
8. Voters Must Be Registered Members Of The Party’s Caucus That They Are Attending
People who are not registered with either the Democratic or Republican Parties are able to change their registration to one party or the other the night of the caucus.
9. You Can Participate If You Are 17 Years Old
Attendees who are 17 can participate at their local caucus as long as they will be 18 years old by the date of the next election, which will be on Nov. 8 this year.
10. Iowans Take Their Sweet Time In Deciding Which Candidate To Support In The Caucuses, And They Take Their Role In The Presidential Process Very Seriously
Exit polls like this ABC News survey asked voters in Iowa when they made their final decisions before the last month of the campaign. A FiveThirtyEight analysis of exit poll data found that an average of only 35 percent of voters had made their final decision before the month leading to the Iowa caucus.
“Iowans are tire kickers,” said Bud Hockenberg, a prominent Des Moines lawyer and longtime GOP activist. “It takes more than one speech, one hand shake, one meeting to convince Iowa voters.”
Experts like Will Rogers, Polk County GOP chairman, say Iowans are known to make their final choices at the last minute.
“I’ve seen people arrive on caucus night supporting one candidate, and then change their minds right then and there,” he explained. “It happens more than you’d think.”
11. Campaigning At The Iowa State Fair Is A Must For Presidential Candidates
Every four years, the Iowa State Fair turns into a political circus, becoming one of the first vetting grounds for candidates hoping to win their party’s nomination for the presidency. Candidates attend to showcase their authenticity by embracing Iowa traditions. They shuck corn, flip pork chops and meet thousands of voters face to face. This summer, roughly 100,000 people a day showed up at the fair, and naturally 20 of the candidates running for president attended as well.
The scene was absolute chaos. Among the rides, games, animals and deep-fried foods, presidential hopefuls roamed the main concourse, with hordes of media in tow, holding boom microphones overhead, capturing every moment as they made speeches, met voters, posed with the famous Butter Cow and snacked on fried food. Donald Trump even gave children rides in his helicopter over the fairgrounds.
12. Celebrities Have A History Of Courting Voters In The Hawkeye State, Especially In The Last Decade
Television show host Oprah Winfrey drew large crowds in Iowa while campaigning for Barack Obama in 2007. Grammy award-winning singer John Legend performed for Obama supporters at a rally before the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner.
This cycle, Hillary Clinton has deployed a number of celebrity surrogates to campaign in Iowa. Singer Katy Perry performed for Clinton supporters at a rally before the Iowa Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. Actor Tony Goldwyn, who plays President Fitzgerald Grant in the ABC drama series "Scandal," participated in a series of grassroots organizing events. Actress and author Lena Dunham will campaign for the Democratic front-runner in Iowa on Jan. 9. Author and activist Cornel West stumped for Democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this November.
13. This Year’s Caucus Results Will Be Delivered Through A Mobile-Enabled, Cloud-Based Platform Created By Microsoft
The new mobile application, available on iOS, Android and Windows devices, will help precinct chairs enter the results from their areas. Previously, the results were calculated by telephone surveys and paper forms as a backup. Microsoft’s new system allows party administrators to view results as they come in and will automatically identify potential problem areas.
14. It Is Rare For The Winner Of The Iowa Caucus To Go On To Win In New Hampshire, Especially For Republicans
Dating back to the 1980s, there has been no Republican candidate other than a sitting president that has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Even after George H.W. Bush won Iowa in 1980, Ronald Reagan won New Hampshire and the nomination. In 1988, Robert Dole won Iowa, but Bush won New Hampshire and the nomination. Dissecting results over the last three decades shows what has proven to work in Iowa hasn’t necessarily worked in New Hampshire.
15. Caucuses Typically Occur In Schools, Churches, Community Centers And Public Libraries
While it’s easy to picture a caucus being held in someone’s home in a rural community, it is rare and has become somewhat of an Iowa caucus myth. There are a few precincts around the state where caucusing in a neighbor’s home is a reality, but it is not commonplace. Iowa Starting Line, an online news outlet specializing in Iowa caucus coverage, has compiled a list of other caucus myths.
16. The Role Of The Iowa Caucuses Is To Winnow The Field Of Candidates
So what impact do the caucuses have and what role do they play in the larger nomination process? As former Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen explains in “Three Tickets,” the Register’s podcast of Iowa caucus history, the role of the caucuses is to winnow the field. With so many candidates running in 2016, especially Republicans, it’s unlikely that the nominee of either party will be clear the morning after the Iowa caucuses. However, it will be more clear which candidates aren't organized enough to continue on in the presidential nomination process, and that holds a lot of value and insight.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that no elected delegates are bound to vote as expressed by caucusgoers. This is only true of the Democratic delegates.
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