A crash course in the Iowa caucuses

The South Ballroom of the Memorial Union was packed to the brim with caucus members from the Ames precinct 4-1 on Feb. 1, 2016. By the end of the night, the precinct had 382 constituents show up to caucus.

Jake Webster

Just 17 days remain until the Iowa caucuses, when Iowans will trudge to school gyms, church basements, community centers and other pre-selected caucus sites where they will be the first voters in the nation to show their preference for who should be the country’s next president.

Democrats and Republicans scheduled their presidential nominating caucuses for Feb. 3. Voters need to be registered with either the Republican or Democratic parties to caucus and must turn 18 before the general election in November, though registration can be changed at caucus sites.

On the Democratic side, 12 major candidates remain in the presidential race: Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Mike Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Deval Patrick, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang.

For the Republicans, there are only two major challengers to the incumbent Donald Trump: Bill Weld and Joe Walsh. Trump maintains an overwhelming polling advantage against his two rivals. There has not been a single poll of likely Iowa Republican caucusgoers conducted since Oct. 16, though the Emerson College survey that finished its fieldwork that day found Trump with 93 percent support.

The picture on the Democratic side is far more muddled.

The latest “Iowa Poll” conducted by Selzer & Company of likely Iowa Democratic caucusgoers for the Des Moines Register, CNN and Mediacom found Sanders with 20 percent support, followed by Warren with 17 percent, Buttigieg with 16 percent, Biden with 15 percent, Klobuchar with 6 percent and Yang with 5 percent. All other candidates had 3 percent or fewer support. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3.7 percent, leaving the top four candidates all within the margin of error of leading in the state, and 45 percent of respondents saying they could change their mind of which candidate they support before caucus night.

Dave Peterson, professor of political science at Iowa State who also organizes a monthly poll of Iowa caucusgoers, said the number of undecided caucusgoers may remain that high on caucus night.

“I mean there are a lot of folks still trying to make up their mind,” Peterson said. “Even if folks are trying to [select a candidate] in a survey, as candidates continue to drop out, that’s going to cause some shifting.”

Mack Shelley, Iowa State professor and chair of the political science department, said with the race so close, youth voters could swing the election.

“[Young voters] can punch above their weight,” Shelley said.

Despite the potential for the youth vote to swing a close race, the average age of Iowa caucusgoers skews older.

“The key thing to understand when it comes to the caucuses or pretty much any kind of voting situation is the people who are most likely to come and participate in these events are not young […] they’re typically around my age, 69, or a few years younger,” Shelley said.

For the first time in the history of Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, the raw vote total candidates receives in each round of the caucuses will be recorded. The number of votes each candidate receives factors in the number of delegates they are allocated.

In order to receive delegates from a precinct location in the Democratic caucuses, a candidate must reach a viability threshold. This is typically 15 percent of the votes from the caucus site, though it can vary at smaller caucus sites. If a candidate is below the viability threshold in the first round of the caucus, their supporters may either realign to a candidate whose support passed the threshold or leave the caucus site. Caucusgoers could previously switch to another candidate even if their first preference was viable, though that rule has changed in 2020 according to state Democratic Party documents.

Younger voters could affect delegate allocation in certain areas of the state.

“It would depend a lot on the youth vote,” Shelley said. “If younger people are showing up in disproportionately larger numbers than usual in precincts that have a lot of delegates at stake such as urban areas: Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City, Cedar Falls and some smaller towns like Grinnell, then they’re likely to have an outsize impact.” 

The realignment process also adds a layer of difficulty to polling likely caucusgoers.

“It’s tricky, we’re trying to [account for realignment] by asking things like second choice, but I don’t think those questions do a great job,” Peterson said. “The choice that people have to make if their first choice isn’t viable is more complicated than just answering a survey question […] what’s in front of them, who’s in front of them may actually sway them.”

The Iowa Democratic Party is not limiting caucuses to the state of Iowa this year. People who are registered as Democrats in Iowa but who are unable to make it to their caucus site may participate in a “satellite caucus.” The party approved more than 100 satellite locations throughout Iowa, the United States and three locations in Europe. The deadline for people to register to participate in a satellite caucus that begins before 6 p.m. Central time or is out-of-state is Friday. Caucusgoers can register to do so through the Iowa Democratic Party’s website.

Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price said in a press release Iowa Democrats will caucus “from Paris to Palm Springs” on Feb. 3.

“Our goal has remained steadfast throughout this process – to make these caucuses the most accessible in our party’s history, and the satellite caucuses do just that,” Price said in the release. “I’m glad that so many Iowans are able to take advantage of this expanded opportunity to have their voices heard on caucus night, whether in their precinct caucuses or through one of these sites. With the work being done by so many activists, volunteers and leaders – not only here in Iowa, but across the country and around the globe – we are as confident as ever that these will be the most successful caucuses Iowans have ever seen.”

Editor’s Note: This story previously said Democratic caucusgoers could change their preference of a candidate after the first round at a caucus even if that candidate was viable; this story has been updated to reflect changes the Iowa Democratic Party made disallowing that. The Daily regrets this error.