Caucus Talk: An Introduction to Iowa


August 14th, 2019

Voters caucus in Iowa in 2016. (Photo: Phil Roeder/Wikimedia Commons)

The Iowa Caucuses are six months away. To kick off a series following the candidates as they try to win over voters in the state, KVNO Reporter Emily White speaks with a UNO political science professor on how the process works and what exactly makes Iowa’s nominating contests so noteworthy.

OMAHA, Neb. — You’ll hear a lot about Iowa in the coming months. Those living in Iowa will probably be inundated with advertising and campaigning. Those outside the state will notice candidates for the presidency visit Iowa with increasing frequency as February 3, 2020 approaches.

The Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential election cycle next year, the first in a series of contests that culminate in the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in the summer.

“The bottom line is that you go in a room and you try to convince everyone else that you’re a candidate is the best candidate, and at the end of the night, if you’ve done a good job of that you walk away with some votes and if you haven’t you don’t,” says Paul Landow, associate professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Landow explains why Iowa’s caucuses are significant: “They’re the first in the country in terms of choosing a new president. It’s sort of the first indicator of what’s going to happen over the course of the following year.”

On caucus night, voters gather in 1,681 precincts across Iowa to support their chosen candidate. They’re surrounded by family, friends, neighbors—it’s a lively evening. Once everyone is gathered, the deliberation begins.

“What the caucus is meant to do is to give everybody that supports any candidate the opportunity to present their candidate and try to sell their candidate to the rest of the caucus,” Landow says. “So what actually happens is supporters of Candidate A get in one corner, Candidate B in another corner, Candidate C in another corner, and their supporters try to attract the supporters or the undecideds of the other candidates.”

These coming caucuses will feature a lot more than just A, B, and C, at least when it comes to the Democrats vying to challenge President Trump next November. There are 24 of them currently running, according to the New York Times. This large field will likely taper down on Iowa caucus night and in the days following, if those who don’t gather much support choose to drop out of the race.

“It sort of sets the table for the rest of the contest and now you see who was supposed to do well and did they; who wasn’t expected to do well and how did they perform,” says Landow. “Did the front runners do well? Did the backbenchers do well? Who’s going forward? That’s kind of what it’s all about.

“It’s a brutal business, and without a boatload of money, you fade fast, so Iowa’s pretty darn important.”

Based on the final tally of support for each candidate, precincts allocate a certain number of delegates to support their chosen candidates at the county conventions, held several weeks later. There, delegates are selected proportionally to go to the district conventions. Delegates are then chosen for the state convention. 

Finally, a small number of people are sent to the two national conventions as delegates from the state of Iowa.

Candidates accumulate delegates state by state, based on how well they do in each primary or caucus. The process differs in certain ways between the two major parties, but basically, the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate with the most delegates at the end of the conventions wins their party’s nomination and goes on to the general election.

Compared to larger states, Iowa doesn’t offer that many delegates. Why, then, is it such a big deal to candidates?

“The primary benefit is momentum, which also leads to some more successful fundraising,” explains Landow. “Anybody and everybody wants to win, or do very well—at least beat expectations—because that keeps them alive. On the other hand, if the expectation is, you should do well in Iowa and you don’t, that can signal the death of your campaign.”

There is a downside to caucuses like Iowa’s, Landow says. It’s not a primary election, where people can show up and fill out a ballot in a matter of minutes, or even just vote by mail in advance. Because it’s a small window of time in which people can show up to support their candidate, not everyone will be able to attend. Work schedules, family obligations, and limited mobility are some of the factors that can be barriers to participation.

“From my perspective as a political scientist, I’ve always felt that caucuses limit participation. And what we’re going for in representative democracy is more participation, not less. So I’ve always been concerned that it limits the number of people that can show up and be involved.”

For now, though, the Iowa caucuses remain. In six months, voters will gather in those 1600-some precincts to help choose their party’s nominee. 

Between now and then, there’s a lot of campaigning to come in the Hawkeye State.

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