Do you know your way around a Democratic caucus?
February 3rd, 2020 will be my first ever caucus experience. Yikes.
The Iowa Democratic Party this year is introducing “the most significant changes to the Iowa Caucuses since 1972.” Not only will the 2020 caucus require some time for the party to adjust to these new changes, but it will also be a challenge for long-time caucus-goers to navigate this unexplored terrain.
I’m not scared, per se. Overwhelmed might be a better word. As a Democrat, I’m preparing to walk into an hours-long social event with neighbors, community members, campaign surrogates, and the like. Not really knowing what to expect, I pulled together as many resources as I could in an attempt to map the caucus for myself. Now that it’s all put together, it can serve as a map for our readers, as well.
Let’s start with some of the basics.
Iowa is one of only two states in the nation still holds a caucus, while the remaining states hold primary elections. Unlike a presidential primary, caucuses are party nominating contests in which voters come together and select delegates for a candidate. It’s more than a moment at a ballot box; it is a social activity. Community members, party leaders, and activists come together to conduct party business, field party platform planks, and, of course, support a particular candidate. There will be nearly 1,700 precinct-level caucuses on February 3, 2020.
The most important thing to note is that the Iowa Caucuses are not run by the state of Iowa. Rather, they are administered by the state parties. For this reason, your caucus location may be different from your regular voting location. Caucus locations are determined by the state parties. While some of these locations may be set already, they are subject to change, so make sure you double-check before caucus night! The Iowa Democratic Party has already released its preliminary caucus locations, which you can view here.
Caucuses, notably, have much smaller turnout rates than primary contests. There are a number of reasons for this, for better or for worse, but ultimately that means that there are specific types of people who tend to be more likely to caucus than others. Typically, caucuses will be composed of party elites and party activists, those people who have more “skin in the game.” However, anyone who cares about the party and the process is welcome and encouraged to participate on caucus night.
Alright, now let’s get into the weeds a bit. You can read this all directly on the Iowa Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan, but this is probably a little easier to muddle through.
This is where things get a little bit trickier. The Democratic Party caucus is considerably more complex than the Republicans’ caucus, but the check-in process is essentially the same. This is an opportunity for you to confirm or update your address and update your party affiliation if need be. Once everyone is checked in and has found a seat, the caucus is opened by a temporary chair. Caucus-goers will then vote on the chair, and the proceedings can officially begin.
Once the caucus is opened, candidates or representatives from campaigns (often referred to as surrogates) can speak on behalf of a candidate in order to convince undecided caucus-goers to support them. Once all of the surrogates have had an opportunity to speak, the real fun can begin.
The next step in a Democratic Caucus is the breakouts and delegate distribution. This will happen in two rounds. For the first round, caucus-goers will physically move to a designated space in the room for their first candidate preference. If they are not sure which candidate they would like to support, they can form an “Uncommitted” group (fun fact, “Uncommitted” won the 1976 Iowa Caucus, and former President Jimmy Carter was in second place). Once everyone is in place, a count is taken.
In order for a candidate to be considered viable, they will have to have a minimum of 15% of caucus-goers in their corner (literally). If your candidate immediately meets the viability threshold, your “vote” is locked in, and you will not be able to realign with another candidate. If your candidate has not met the 15% threshold, then you will have the opportunity to realign with another candidate during the second round, otherwise known as the realignment period.
During this realignment period, campaign surrogates may try to persuade uncommitted or non-viable groups to move into their camp. During this period, you can still move to or remain uncommitted, you can merge two unviable corners, or you can join with an existing viable group. If at the end of the realignment your group is still not viable, then your votes are not counted in the final totals. After the realignment, another count is taken, and the results are calculated.
But it is not so cut and dry. Once the final count is taken, there is a considerable amount of “caucus math” that has to take place in order to calculate how many delegates each viable candidate will receive, which is contingent on the number of delegates available to your precinct. Delegate assignments are proportional to the “vote” totals taken on caucus night, so, technically, it would be possible for a candidate to earn 37.7% of delegates from Iowa. Once the calculations are done, the results are announced to the caucus then reported to the state parties. From here, the caucus will decide who in the room will go on to serve as a delegate at the county convention.
Once the nominating contest ends, the caucus moves into party business. During this time, people may introduce possible platform planks. These planks are then voted on and reported to the state party. During this time, party representatives may also ask for donations to the state parties.
Last but not least, the caucus is closed and attendees can – finally – go home.