The bizarre ritual called Iowa

The Iowa presidential caucuses have become such an accepted part of the political calendar it’s easy to forget what bizarre rituals they are.

But on 6:30 Thursday, if turnout is as expected, 150,000 Iowa Democrats and 80,000 Republicans will gather in public libraries and church basements in 1,784 precincts to propel one or more of a dozen possible candidates to their party’s nomination. Or not. Some years, like 2004 and 2000, it works. Other times it doesn’t.

The numbers are only a fraction of the Iowa electorate and an infinitesimal percentage of the national electorate, and, being disproportionately over 55 and female, unrepresentative of both. There’s some concern that given easy residency and ID requirements the results might be affected by the hundreds of out-of-state campaign workers in Iowa.

But like little Peterkin and the famous battle, everybody says the caucuses are important, so they are.

The two parties’ caucuses operate by slightly different rules, with the Democrats’ predictably being more complicated. The Democratic rules for caucus chairs run to 13 pages.

Straw polls are taken with candidates required to get at least 15 percent of the vote to be considered “viable.” Failing that, “supporters of nonviable candidates have the option to join a viable candidate group, join another nonviable candidate group to become viable, join other groups to form an uncommitted group or chose to go nowhere and not be counted.” And all that has to be done within 30 minutes. Iowans are serious about their civic duties but they’re not going to take all night performing them.

The caucus chair then multiplies the number of members in each preference group times the number of delegates allotted that precinct and divides by the number of eligible attendees at the caucus. The candidate with the most delegates wins — sort of.

What the caucus is doing is electing delegates to a later county convention, which in turn chooses delegates for a district convention, then the state convention and finally the national presidential nominating convention by which time Iowa has been all but forgotten.

One other thing: The choice of candidate is nonbinding on the delegate.

The chair is instructed to adjourn the caucus with, “Thank you all for coming.” And we do thank you. We think.


  1. JudyB

    No matter how often I have had the “Iowa Caucuses” explained to me, I still can’t understand how they are supposed to be so important. That said, I am more excited than ever before to see what the results will be this year.
    My cousin, lives in Iowa and is participating in Dem. cacuses(until 3 yrs. ago a Rep.), is still not sure of who she will support, but has narrowed it down to Clinton, Obama or Edwards. She has a feeling that because politicians have had people working in Iowa all year long spending so much time and money, that many participating in the caucuses are confused and still up in the air, like herself. She told me that she is wore out from all of it but is really excited herself, not to just get it over with, but to see who wins and how important it will pan out to be in the long haul.

  2. inibo

    This explanation of the process only convinces me that it cannot be understood by mere mortals. I only hope the Ron Paul campaign gurus in Iowa understand it better than I do.

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.-Amendment X