The Iowa caucuses are biennial electoral events for members of the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. state of Iowa. Unlike primary elections in most other U.S. states where registered voters go to polling places to cast ballots, Iowans instead gather at local caucus meetings to discuss and vote on the candidates. During both the presidential and midterm election seasons, registered Iowan voters vote in a per-precinct caucus for the party of which they are registered as a member. The caucuses are also held to select delegates to county conventions and party committees, among other party activities.
The Iowa caucuses are noteworthy as the first major contest of the United States presidential primary season. Though the demographics of Iowa are not representative of the rest of the country, the caucuses are still seen as a strong indicator for how a presidential candidate will do in later contests. They can provide candidates with momentum going into the following contests. Candidates who do poorly in their caucus are likely to drop out in the following days. The 2020 presidential caucuses are tentatively scheduled for February 3, 2020.
Political parties in Iowa have used caucuses to select party leaders and candidates for office since the 1800s. Before 1907, parties selected all candidates for political office through the caucus system. Iowa held a presidential primary in 1916, but returned to the caucus system in 1917 due to high costs and low participation.
After the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest activity, the Democratic Party decided to make changes to their presidential nominating process by spreading out the schedule in each state. Since Iowa had a complex process of precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions, and a state convention, they chose to start early. In 1972, Iowa was the first state to hold their Democratic caucus, and had the first Republican caucus four years later.
Under Iowa law, political parties are required to hold caucuses every two years to select delegates to county conventions and party committees.
The Iowa Caucuses operates very differently from the more common primary election used by most other states (see U.S. presidential primary). The caucuses are generally defined as "gatherings of neighbors." Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's 1,681 precincts. Typically, these meetings occur in schools, churches, public libraries and even individuals' houses. Caucuses are held every two years, during both the presidential and midterm election seasons, but the ones that receive national attention are the presidential preference caucuses held every four years. The rules of the caucus process to determine delegates to national conventions are determined entirely by the party, and differ substantially between the Democratic and Republican parties.
In addition to the voting and the presidential preference choices, caucus-goers begin the process of writing their parties' platforms by introducing resolutions.
Democratic Party process
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Each precinct divides its delegate seats among the candidates in proportion to caucus goers' votes. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site (forming a preference group). An area may also be designated for undecided participants. Then, for roughly 30 minutes, participants try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Each preference group might informally deputize a few members to recruit supporters from the other groups and, in particular, from among those undecided. Undecided participants might visit each preference group to ask its members about their candidate.
After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the supporters for each candidate are counted. At this point, the caucus officials determine which candidates are viable. Depending on the number of county delegates to be elected, the viability threshold is 15% of attendees. For a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least the percentage of participants required by the viability threshold. Once viability is determined, participants have roughly another 30 minutes to realign: the supporters of inviable candidates may find a viable candidate to support, join together with supporters of another inviable candidate to secure a delegate for one of the two, or choose to abstain. This realignment is a crucial distinction of caucuses in that (unlike a primary) being a voter's second candidate of choice can help a candidate.
When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct apportions delegates to the county convention. These numbers are reported to the state party, which counts the total number of delegates for each candidate and reports the results to the media. Most of the participants go home, leaving a few to finish the business of the caucus: each preference group elects its delegates, and then the groups reconvene to elect local party officers and discuss the platform. The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to choose delegates to the district convention and state convention. Most of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are selected at the district convention, with the remaining ones selected at the state convention. Delegates to each level of convention are initially bound to support their chosen candidate but can later switch in a process very similar to what goes on at the precinct level; however, as major shifts in delegate support are rare, the media declares the candidate with the most delegates on the precinct caucus night the winner, and relatively little attention is paid to the later caucuses.
In 2014, the Iowa Democratic Party announced changes to the caucus system that will allow members of the military to participate in a statewide caucus and establish satellite caucuses for the disabled and others who have trouble making it to the physical location of the caucuses. They will also work for the passage of a new law that requires employers to allow employees to take time off for the caucuses.
In 2016, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) held a Tele-Caucus for military members serving out-of-state and Iowans living abroad. In addition, the IDP held Satellite Caucuses in 2016, in an attempt to improve accessibility and participation in the Iowa Caucuses. Starting in 2020, 10% of state convention delegates will be assigned through tele-caucuses.
Republican Party process
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For the Republicans, the Iowa caucus previously followed (but should not be confused with) the Iowa Straw Poll in August of the preceding year. The winner of the Straw Poll has failed to win the Iowa caucuses in 1986, 2006, and 2010. In June 2014, the party announced that the Straw Poll would no longer take place.
The process of selecting Iowa delegates to the Republican National Convention prior to the 2016 election cycle started with selection of delegates to the county conventions, which in turn affected the delegates elected to district conventions who also served as delegates to the state convention where delegates were chosen for the national convention.
This process rewarded candidate organizers who not only got supporters to the caucus sites but also got supporters willing to serve as delegates to county conventions and willing to vote for other delegates who supported a specific candidate. In 2012, this process resulted in Ron Paul supporters dominating the Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention, having 22 of the 28 Iowa delegates, with Mitt Romney getting the other six delegates.
Because the delegates elected at the caucuses are not required to declare a candidate preference, the media does not always have a purely objective way to determine the success of individual candidates at the caucuses. The media focused on the secret ballot polling conducted at the caucus sites and have generally referred to this non-binding poll as the caucus. There were irregularities in the 2012 caucus site polling results, including the fact that eight precinct results went missing and were never counted.
Because of the irregularities in the process and the fact that the totals reported to the media were unrelated to the delegate selection process, there have been changes in both how the caucus site secret ballot polling is sent to state party headquarters and in how Iowa delegates to the national convention are required to vote.
Beginning with the 2012 Presidential election, Iowa switched from the old winner-take-all allocation to proportional allocation. The change was made to prolong the race, giving lesser known candidates a chance and making it harder for a frontrunner to secure the majority early. It was also hoped that this change in the election system would energize the base of the party.
Starting in 2016, caucus results have become binding when selecting delegates. Acting in accordance with a mandate from the Republican National Committee, the delegates are bound on the first ballot to vote for candidates in proportion to the votes cast for each candidate at the caucus sites.
Since 1972, the Iowa caucuses have had a 43% success rate at predicting which Democrat, and a 50% success rate at predicting which Republican will go on to win the nomination of their political party for president at that party's national convention.
Since Republican President George W. Bush did not face any opposition in 2004, only Democratic caucuses were held. The meetings ran from 6:30 p.m. until approximately 7:00 p.m. on January 19, 2004, with a turnout of about 124,000 caucus-goers. The county convention occurred on March 13, the district convention on April 24, and the state convention on June 26. Delegates could and did change their votes based on further developments in the race; for instance, in 2004 the delegates pledged to Dick Gephardt, who left the race after the precinct caucuses, chose a different candidate to support at the county, district, and state level.
The number of delegates each candidate receives eventually determines how many state delegates from Iowa that candidate will have at the Democratic National Convention. Iowa sends 56 delegates to the DNC out of a total 4,366.
Of the 45 delegates that were chosen through the caucus system, 29 were chosen at the district level. Ten delegates were at-large delegates, and six were "party leader and elected official" (PLEO) delegates; these were assigned at the state convention. There were also 11 other delegates, eight of whom were appointed from local Democratic National Committee members; two were PLEO delegates and one was elected at the state Democratic convention. John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 37.64% of the vote, John Edwards coming second.
The 2008 Iowa Democratic caucuses and 2008 Iowa Republican caucuses took place January 3 at 7 p.m. CT. Candidates spent tens of millions of dollars on local television advertisements and hundreds of paid staff in dozens of field offices. Barack Obama (D) and Mike Huckabee (R) were the eventual winners.
The 2012 Iowa caucuses took place on Tuesday, January 3, starting at 7 p.m. CST. Incumbent president Barack Obama only faced minor opposition in the Democratic caucus and received 98% of the vote, but the Republican caucus was heavily contested between several challengers. Initial results reported that Mitt Romney beat out Rick Santorum by just 8 votes, but when the final results came out two weeks later Rick Santorum secured the victory over Romney by a margin of 34 votes with Ron Paul in a strong 3rd. Results were certified by the Caucus, but not by the Republican party, who declared it a split decision due to missing reports from 8 precincts, but who later certified the caucus as a win for Santorum. The caucus winner changed yet again when the Iowa delegate totals were finally determined giving Ron Paul the win along with several other states that same weekend.
The 2016 Iowa caucuses took place on Monday, February 1. The counting started at 7 p.m. CST and lasted one hour, after the caucus discussions. For the first time, results were electronically sent to both Democratic and Republican headquarters.
In the Democratic caucus, Hillary Clinton received 49.84% of the vote and 23 pledged delegates, narrowly defeating Bernie Sanders with 49.59% and 21 delegates. The Republican caucus awarded delegates to nine candidates: 8 to Ted Cruz, with 27.6% of the vote; 7 each to Donald Trump and Marco Rubio, with 24.3% and 23.1% respectively; 3 to Ben Carson, with 9.3%; and 1 delegate each to five other candidates.
The 2020 Iowa caucuses are scheduled for Monday, February 3.
Note: Candidates in bold eventually won their party's nomination. Candidates also in italics subsequently won the general election.
- 1972 (January 24): "Uncommitted" (36%), Edmund Muskie (36%), George McGovern (23%), Hubert Humphrey (2%), Eugene McCarthy (1%), Shirley Chisholm (1%), and Henry M. Jackson (1%)
- 1976 (January 19): "Uncommitted" (37%), Jimmy Carter (28%) Birch Bayh (13%), Fred R. Harris (10%), Morris Udall (6%), Sargent Shriver (3%), and Henry M. Jackson (1%)
- 1980 (January 21): Jimmy Carter (59%) and Ted Kennedy (31%)
- 1984 (February 20): Walter Mondale (49%), Gary Hart (17%), George McGovern (10%), Alan Cranston (7%), John Glenn (4%), Reubin Askew (3%), and Jesse Jackson (2%)
- 1988 (February 8): Dick Gephardt (31%), Paul Simon (27%), Michael Dukakis (22%), and Bruce Babbitt (6%)
- 1992 (February 10): Tom Harkin (76%), "Uncommitted" (12%), Paul Tsongas (4%), Bill Clinton (3%), Bob Kerrey (2%), and Jerry Brown (2%)
- 1996 (February 12): Bill Clinton (98%), "Uncommitted" (1%), and Ralph Nader (1%)
- 2000 (January 24): Al Gore (63%), and Bill Bradley (37%)
- 2004 (January 19): John Kerry (38%), John Edwards (32%), Howard Dean (18%), Dick Gephardt (11%), and Dennis Kucinich (1%)
- 2008 (January 3): Barack Obama (38%), John Edwards (30%), Hillary Clinton (29%), Bill Richardson (2%), and Joe Biden (1%)
- 2012 (January 3): Barack Obama (98%), and "Uncommitted" (2%)
- 2016 (February 1): Hillary Clinton (49.8%), Bernie Sanders (49.6%), and Martin O'Malley (0.5%) 
- 1976 (January 19): Gerald Ford (45%), and Ronald Reagan (43%)
- 1980 (January 21): George H. W. Bush (32%), Ronald Reagan (30%), Howard Baker (15%), John Connally (9%), Phil Crane (7%), John B. Anderson (4%), and Bob Dole (2%)
- 1984 (February 20): Ronald Reagan (unopposed)
- 1988 (February 8): Bob Dole (37%), Pat Robertson (25%), George H. W. Bush (19%), Jack Kemp (11%), and Pete DuPont (7%)
- 1992 (February 10): George H. W. Bush (unopposed)
- 1996 (February 12): Bob Dole (26%), Pat Buchanan (23%), Lamar Alexander (18%), Steve Forbes (10%), Phil Gramm (9%), Alan Keyes (7%), Richard Lugar (4%), and Morry Taylor (1%)
- 2000 (January 24): George W. Bush (41%), Steve Forbes (31%), Alan Keyes (14%), Gary Bauer (9%), John McCain (5%), and Orrin Hatch (1%)
- 2004 (January 19): George W. Bush (unopposed)
- 2008 (January 3): Mike Huckabee (34%), Mitt Romney (25%), Fred Thompson (13%), John McCain (13%), Ron Paul (10%), Rudy Giuliani (4%), and Duncan Hunter (1%)
- 2012 (January 3): Rick Santorum (25%), Mitt Romney (25%), Ron Paul (21%), Newt Gingrich (13%), Rick Perry (10%), Michele Bachmann (5%), and Jon Huntsman (0.6%)
- 2016 (February 1): Ted Cruz (27.7%), Donald Trump (24.3%), Marco Rubio (23.1%), Ben Carson (9.3%), Rand Paul (4.5%), Jeb Bush (2.8%), Carly Fiorina (1.9%), and others (7.3%)
- Iowa Democratic caucuses, 2016
- Iowa Republican caucuses, 2016
- Republican Party presidential primaries, 2016
- Democratic Party presidential primaries, 2016
- United States presidential election
- Iowa Straw Poll
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