How The Iowa Presidential Caucuses Work

Every election cycle, the year-long circus that is the presidential election begins with the Iowa caucuses. Candidates descend on the state like buzzards to a garbage truck, stumping at rallies and flooding the TV and radio stations with ads, with press prostitutes in tow ready to report every gaffe they make. I’ve been criss-crossing the state for over a week now reporting on campaigns both Democratic and Republican, but one question still looms large: how do the caucuses themselves work?

Most states use a simple primary election for the presidential race: you walk in, yank the lever for your preferred candidate, and walk out. Iowa’s caucus structure is more complex, to the point where campaign volunteers have to explain the rules to potential voters. Since the tone of the election will be set by how Iowans vote this Monday, it behooved me to learn how the caucuses worked and how they affect the state’s political culture.

To answer my questions, I turned to Joseph Dobrian, an award-winning writer and novelist based in Iowa City. Dobrian writes on finance, management, real estate and other related topics for clients including the Wall Street Journal, PricewaterhouseCoopers, American Express and many others, and he’s the author of the novels Ambitions and Willie Wilden. Tonight, he will also be serving as a Republican caucus leader for his local precinct.

After meeting Dobrian for lunch on Tuesday, I asked him a few questions about the Iowa caucuses and how they worked. Here’s what he had to say.

How The Iowa Caucuses Work

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Matt Forney: Could you give an overview of how the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Iowa work and what differentiates them from the primary elections most states use?

Joseph Dobrian: The Republican caucus is pretty much the same as a primary election, except that you have to physically attend your caucus to participate. It’s simply a head count (voting by secret paper ballot), which the caucus chairman then reports to the county Republican headquarters. It’s basically a “beauty contest,” with the vote having little influence on how many delegates to the national convention each candidate ultimately wins.

The Democratic system is much more complicated and I’m not an expert on the rules, but each precinct sends a certain number of delegates to the county convention based on how much support each candidate has. A candidate must have at least 15 percent support in a precinct to be considered “viable” and thus qualified to send at least one delegate to the county convention. Therefore, there’s a lot of shuffling, bargaining, and re-arranging at the caucus, as, for example, the supporters of several minor candidates who wouldn’t be viable on their own might band together to send an “uncommitted” delegate to county.

MF: What effect (if any) do you believe that the caucus procedure has on Iowan politics/the presidential race, compared to primaries? Do you believe this effect is beneficial or detrimental?

JD: It has relatively little effect except to weed out the weakest candidates. I wish, though, that more states would use the caucus system rather than the primary system, since a caucus is less likely to attract voters who aren’t informed, and aren’t committed to their party.

How Will The Iowa Caucuses Affect The Presidential Race?

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MF: As Donald Trump pointed out, Iowa hasn’t picked a lot of winners. In all the elections going back to 1996 (excluding 2004, in which incumbent George W. Bush ran unopposed), only two Republican candidates—Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000—won the Iowa caucuses and then went on to win the nomination. Democrats have a better record: every candidate who has won the Iowa caucuses since 1996 has also won the nomination. Do you have any theories on why Iowans tend to buck the national trend when it comes to the presidential nomination (at least when it comes to the GOP)? Does the way the caucuses work play a role in this?

JD: I wouldn’t say Iowans buck the national trend. Our results are usually predictable enough, considering our demographics. The evangelical vote is much bigger here than in most other states, for example. The RINO type, like Bush or Christie, will never do well here, whereas the national convention often does nominate a RINO. The caucuses do tend to attract more serious, committed people, which means more conservatives and evangelicals. The fence-sitters don’t go to caucuses in large numbers—but they do vote in primaries, which is why I disapprove of primaries.

MF: Thank you for your time, Joseph.

With the caucuses tonight, all eyes will be on Iowa as the presidential election unfolds. Understanding how the caucuses work is key to predicting their results. Return of Kings will continue to provide reporting and analysis on the Iowa caucuses throughout the night.

Read More: Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign Is The Biggest Political Uprising In Decades

50 thoughts on “How The Iowa Presidential Caucuses Work”

  1. For good election analysis, I recommend FiveThirtyEight.com. Statistician Nate Silver has an excellent method of predicting election results. His track record (starting in 2008) has been almost perfect for all presidential and midterm elections.

  2. Microsoft donated a very expensive voting program that will tally votes to the Iowa caucus. Silicon valley and microsoft are Rubio’s biggest supporters. Do not be surprised at ‘surprise’ results, if you know what I mean.

    1. I have friends, good friends, who live in Cleveland. According to them, their voting machines voted for Obama in the 2012 election, even though they personally tried to vote for Romney. Turns out their entire district’s voting machines all decided to vote 100% Obama, which they find odd since so many of their friends and neighbors in the area voted for Romney.
      Those wacky electronic voting machines!

      1. HBO did a good documentary on voting a few years back (Black Box Voting?). I think Bev Harris features prominently in it, she is a woman who cares passionately about voting issues. It turns out even if you live in states that use the “scantron” type ballots, not the “hanging chad” debacle, where your vote is *recorded* property, that it’s easy as pie to change the vote tallies on the server that complies and sums up the votes, and there is no evidence that votes were altered. They demonstrate this in the doc.
        Presumably, no matter what system of voting one uses, if they are tallying (adding) your votes using this system, the vote can be manipulated.

        1. As Stalin stated (I believe?), it doesn’t matter how people vote, what matters is who counts the vote.

        2. And Microsoft built the software for this voting system eh…great advertisement for the quality of the enterprise software. So someone can edit database records and leave no trace. sheesh. That news story should have caused a big stink and been a major embarrassment for MS.
          The system shroud be set up then, so that electronic votes are immediately fired off to multiple servers under the control of different groups. One master one can be used for the tallying and the other ones can be used for checks on random electoral districts to make sure they reconcile. The US is supposed to have the best & brightest there to come up with a fool proof system

        3. To be clear, the voting system in the HBO documentary was from Diebold (google their name for plenty of other shenanigans), not Microsoft. Diebold handles the official voting (not primary) for many if not most states.

      2. What a farce. This is what happens when requirements for voting are abolished, not even ID checks and hand counting are permitted anymore.

        1. What’s weird is that we have voter id here in Ohio. Doesn’t matter. e-voting machines have a mind of their own, it seems. It’s odd that it seems to be a mind which uniformly votes to increase government, but that’s probably just a coincidence.

      3. ” Turns out their entire district’s voting machines all decided to vote 100% Obama”
        A statistical impossibility no less unlikely than the earth suddenly deciding it no longer wants to enforce the law of gravity.
        It’s what they’ll do again this coming election if no one pays attention.

        1. I really don’t think they care if we’re paying attention or not any longer. It’s like everybody is just going through the motions out of habit alone at this point.

      4. Where I live its paper in a ballot box, after your name is crossed off the electoral roll, and everyone votes else you get a fine. That sucks if you don’t care about voting but at least everyone is crossed off and blocks of votes cant be added later on behalf of those who didn’t show up..
        If this really did happen to your friends wouldn’t of your friends have kicked up a stink when they walked out of the booth. Yelling how that machine is rigged/fucked, and demanded another machine? I would imagine there would be lots of hardcore rep voters who would not just walk out of the polling booth and shrug their shoulders at something like that but would make a huge scene so lots of others could see. The 100% Obama vote for the district is too extreme and i thought if there were quite a few rep voters that they would have made a fuss with their local media or even some hyped news tv show or with the electoral commission.

        1. They had no idea that they’d “voted” for Obama until the results came in showing their district as “100% Obama!” on the television.

        2. I meant kick up a stink at the polling booth when they selected their candidate but another came up…unless that does not display to the voter at the time…which is what I suspect from your comment. The machine appears to be fine but its later in the night when they see the results of 100% that they suspect the machine is rigged or else some other sham has gone down behind the scenes. I still would have tried to complain to their local candidate or radio station for what it was worth. It would be extremely rare for a candidate to score 100.0% of the vote.

        3. They selected Romney and Romney came up.
          They tried to complain, both to the MSM and to people involved in the legalities of elections. They were told to sit down and be quiet.
          This is the new “American Democracy”.

    2. Which is why I’m 100% that Hillary will be your next president. Trump is just a distraction, a false hope for the people that the system of democracy actually works.

    1. This is great! I was watching some videos yesterday of Trump and Bush going back and forth in debates. It’s priceless to watch Bush’s expression when Trump totally dismantles him. Bush has this look like, “But Daddy … You promised I’d be President!”

  3. Watching Trump throw chum into the mouths of his idiot masses reminds me of what it must have been like to live in Germany circa the mid thirties early forties.
    All we need is for Trump to start the “Donald Youth” and to grow a blonde toothbrush mustache for my spider sense to really kick in 😀

    1. Blah blah reminds me of what it must have been like to live in Germany circa the mid thirties early fourties. more giberish
      Your effing right

    2. It’s amazing to me watch the Right throw away all common sense. This man makes deals all the time, and the way he does it is by playing long on promises while keeping everything close to the vest regarding his real motives, in order to profit himself. And that’s fine in business, but it’s clear that he’s doing nothing but “The art of the deal” on the voters. Tell them that though and they get that same fanatical glaze in their eyes, the way a teen aged boy does when he’s being sold a gorgeous, yet flawed, sports car by a used car dealer. You can point out that he’s buying a lemon but he’ll hear none of it, he’s too enamored with ‘the prize’.

      1. The guy reverses himself on almost every position and in the same sentence. It’s really a sight to behold.
        He even arrogantly said he could shoot someone and his supporters would still vote for him. That’s the kind of insanity that helped propel Hitler to power.

        1. What got me about that wasn’t that he said it, I mean ok whatever. What got me is that his followers *backed him up on it*. That is just scary level type shit right there.
          All to back a Leftist trying to pander to right wing populism. The mind boggles at how easily human beings are led by the nose.

        2. It goes back to my Hitler reference. This is exactly how he rose to power: playing to the pride and prejudices of the ignorant masses because of their anger, frustration and hatred of Obama and his own racial pandering to his masses.

  4. The primary system we have in the USA is an embarrassing mess, most notably because it gives little, nebbishy states way too much power. If you’re going to have staggered primaries at least go in order by population (CA, TX, FL etc). The best idea would be one NATIONAL primary day in July, followed by the useless convention in August

  5. whats really fucked up is the electoral college votes are based off the population of a state.
    so even illegal aliens living in a state will give it more voting weight in the election

  6. It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people
    who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide
    everything.
    Joseph Stalin.

  7. That’s not entirely correct. The GOP caucuses also elect delegates to their county/legislative district conventions, but this is a separate process from the “beauty contest”. The results of the delegate elections do not necessarily reflect the outcome of the beauty contest because many attendees simply show up, cast a ballot, and leave. The real business of electing precinct delegates is then left to the most tenacious attendees ready to stay to the end.

    1. It was close contest for both parties. Whoever gets up at election time, its going to leave a bit of a divided and un-happy voting public.

  8. After taking the caucuses, Cruz had the audacity to claim it’s a “victory for the grassroots over the media”. What a fucking cuck.

  9. Didn’t realize there were so many holy rollers attending the Iowa caucuses. That has to be the reason for Cruz winning there.

    1. Or, people see through Trump’s sudden 180 turnaround on every single one of his beliefs that he’s financed for decades, all in the span of around 18 months.
      The man has the immigration thing dead on right, but it’s very clear to anybody who has dealt with a used car salesman more than once that he’s selling people a bill of goods. He’s as “conservative” as Hillary Clinton, which explains why he’s spent so much time and money supporting her until just very recently.

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