A Primer on the Iowa Caucus

January 27, 2020

Exactly one week from tonight on February 3rd, Iowa Democrats will head to their caucus locations to choose their preferred presidential candidate. Iowa has held the first presidential contest since 1972 and its voters take their responsibility seriously. Historically, the eventual Democratic nominee has won either one or both of the initial contests in Iowa or New Hampshire. The only exception was the 1992 race.

On Caucus night across 1,678 precinct meeting sites, eligible voters will gather in person and choose sides in front of their neighbors. The process is straightforward, yet complex. Voters must be in line by 7:00 p.m. in order to enter the caucus site. The doors close and voters stand in a section of the room assigned to their candidate to form preference groups. They discuss the candidates and campaign platforms to sway more of their neighbors to their respective corners. Some voters may opt for another corner immediately upon entering the room if they see a large crowd already gathered. It’s not always easy to take a stand among neighbors and stand one’s ground.

Next comes viability. An initial tally determines which campaigns are viable with the required 15 percent of support from those present. Campaigns that fall short of that mark are done in that precinct. This is where having a robust field organization is key. Campaign organizers focus carefully on the ground game. They make sure their voters turn out on time and in the right locations. They train first time voters on what to expect. Once in the room, precinct captains organize their corners, look for undecideds and negotiate opportunities to be the second choice of caucus goers. When a campaign falls short in the tally, its voters can move to a different corner or no longer vote. With a large field of candidates, deal-making for second choice voters will be critical. Campaigns with smart, savvy and sociable precinct captains who can quickly read the room, persuade others and utilize the rules will be the ones able to drive results.

Following the results, candidates will claim victory or momentum and scramble to the nearest airport for a flight to New Hampshire, where that state will hold the nation’s first primary a week later on Tuesday, February 11.

Every presidential election year, political operatives begin to wonder: Is this the year when Iowa or New Hampshire will lose their outsized influence? 2020 is no different and managing expectations in these two states will be a top priority for every campaign. For more information on the Iowa Caucuses visit: https://iowademocrats.org/2020-caucuses/ 

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