How Many People Participate in the Iowa Caucuses?

Posted: July 15, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: About the Caucuses


By Dennis J. Goldford, Harkin Institute Flansburg Fellow

Professor of Political Science, Drake University


Americans talk a great deal about the right to vote, but we apparently do not really mean it.

For a midterm election—in other words, in the even-numbered year in the middle of a presidential four-year term when there are House, Senate, and numerous state-level elections but no presidential contest—turnout nationwide tends to run between 37% and 40% of eligible voters. That’s right—for all that we Americans complain about Congress, not much more than a third of us, on average, bother to vote in a midterm election.

Turnout in the midterm election of 2014 was particularly poor. According to the New York Times, less than half of eligible people voted in 43 of the 50 states. “In the three largest states—California, Texas and New York—less than a third of the eligible population voted.” Turnout in New York was 28.8%, and turnout nationwide was 36.3%.

Voting turnout always declines in a midterm election, but even in presidential elections it is not overwhelming. Although 61.6% of eligible voters cast a presidential vote in 2008, and 63.8% did so in 1960, over the last 50 years nationwide turnout in presidential elections has tended to be somewhere in the 50-59% range.

In presidential years, then, we get a national average voting turnout of, say, 55%; in midterm years we get about 37%, and the average turnout for primaries and caucuses tends to be about 17-20% of eligible voters. Local elections—mayoral races, city-council elections, school-board elections, and so forth—tend to be even lower.

Participation in the Iowa caucuses is not much different from these general numbers. According to Iowa election law section 43.91: “Any person voting at a precinct caucus must be a person who is or will by the date of the next general election become an eligible elector and who is a resident of the precinct.” In other words, all registered voters and those 17-year-olds who will be 18 and eligible to vote in the following November election may participate in the caucus process.

Iowa, however, is a “closed primary” state, which means that to participate in a Republican or Democratic precinct caucus a person must be a registered member of that political party. Only registered Republicans may vote in a Republican caucus, and only registered Democrats may vote in a Democratic caucus.

Equally important, unlike the rule in New Hampshire allowing independents to choose to vote in either party’s presidential primary, the rule in Iowa forbids independents—those officially registered to vote but listed as “No Party”—from participating as independents in a party caucus. They must re-register as either a Democrat or a Republican, and may ordinarily do so at the precinct site on caucus night, in order to participate.

At times there are “No Party” voters in Iowa who are willing to re-register to do so. According to exit polls at the 2012 Republican caucus, 75% of participants were previously registered Republicans, while 2% had been registered Democrats and 23% had been registered as independents. Interestingly, of those 23% who changed from “No Party” to Republican, 43% of them cast their preference vote for Ron Paul. In 2008, 20% of the Democratic caucus participants had previously been independents, while 13% of the Republican caucus participants had likewise been independents.

Thus, while at times a small number of caucus participants were independent or “No Party” voters who re-registered to take part in a Democratic or Republican caucus, most independents do not participate in the Iowa caucuses. In January 2012, independents were 36.3% of all active Iowa registered voters, a plurality. At the same time, Republicans were 31.0% of Iowa voters, and Democrats were 32.5%. Thus, the biggest single group of active Iowa registered voters does not participate in the Iowa caucuses. (The figures for January 2008 were: Republicans, 29.9%; Democrats, 31.5%; independents, 36.8%.)

Therefore, to measure the extent to which Iowans actually participate in their famous precinct caucuses, we have to remember that (1) 17-year-olds can vote and (2) independents and members of one party may re-register to participate in the other party’s caucuses. This would seem to overstate the participation rate. Still, bearing this in mind, we can see how the actual caucus turnout stands as a percentage of the party registration for the month in which the caucuses took place:

January 2012 Republican turnout:               121,503

January 2012 Republican registration:        614,913

2012 Republican caucus turnout rate:           19.76%

January 2008 Republican turnout:               119,200

January 2008 Republican registration:        576,231

2008 Republican caucus turnout rate:           20.69%

January 2008 Democratic turnout:               239,872

January 2008 Democratic registration:        606,209

2008 Democratic caucus turnout rate:           39.57%

January 2004 Democratic turnout:               124,331

January 2004 Democratic registration:        533,107

2004 Democratic caucus turnout rate:           23.32%

With the exception, then, of the extraordinary Democratic caucus year in 2008, we can see from these numbers that in the last two Iowa caucus cycles, not unlike earlier cycles, only roughly 20% of eligible caucus-goers actually turn out to participate on caucus night. (Indeed, if we recall the figure above that 75% of the 121,503 Republican caucus participants in 2012 had actually been registered Republicans prior to caucus night, then those 91,127 Republicans [75% of 121,503] were actually only 14.82% of January 2012 registered Republican voters.)

In other words, four out of five members of each party, not to mention the overwhelming number of “No Party” independent voters, do not bother to take part in the Iowa precinct caucuses. It is also worth noting that the Republican Straw Poll, traditionally held in the August preceding a caucus year until it was canceled for 2015, has even lower participation rates. In 2011, when the top two finishers were Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Representative Ron Paul of Texas, the total Straw Poll vote was roughly 16,800. With a statewide Republican registration at the time of 610,285, that yields a turnout of 2.8% of eligible Republicans—microscopic, and yet it drove former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty out of the race.

The question therefore presents itself for your consideration: for all the attention lavished upon Iowa by presidential candidates, political activists around the country, and national and foreign news organizations, does the precinct-caucus turnout deserve such attention?

Consider, first, that since 1972 the Iowa caucuses have carried tremendous weight in the presidential-nomination process, principally because Iowa is first. In any sequential nomination process, any state going first will carry special weight simply because it is first, whatever other factors may add in importance. In that sense, the question would be whether Iowa should go first, and not whether the turnout for the caucuses is adequate.

Consider, second, that when we look at turnout rates for other state primaries and caucuses—an average of 15.9% of eligible voters in the Republican primaries and caucuses in 2012 (and the 2008 turnout rates were Democrats at 19.4% and Republican at 10.8%)—then Iowa is certainly not an outlier.

So what do you think?