IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How the Iowa caucuses work

Iowans of both major parties will gather Jan. 19 in church basements, town halls and homes to nominate their candidates for president — and help shape American politics for the next four years. Here's how it works.
Pat Kennedy's Corning, Iowa, home will be the scene of one of Iowa's 1,993 Democratic caucuses on Jan. 19.Laura Rauch / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pat Kennedy expects the coffee to be hot and the passions to be strong when she opens her home to Democrats eager to caucus and begin choosing a nominee for president.

“I don’t think we’ll be getting into big, heated arguments, but I expect people to stand their ground,” said Kennedy, a rookie precinct chairwoman in Corning, Iowa. “When people first get here, we’ll read some letters from the candidates ... then we’ll divide off into groups and go from there.”

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but a process Kennedy and other activists don’t take lightly. Iowans of both major parties will gather Jan. 19 in church basements, town halls and homes to nominate their candidates for president — and help shape American politics for the next four years.

Since 1972, when Democratic caucuses surprised the nation with their support of George McGovern, Iowa has enjoyed political clout and publicity envied everywhere but New Hampshire, site of the nation’s first primary.

Unlike primaries, where machines count the votes, the Iowa caucuses are dynamic and intimate, a cousin of the New England town-hall meeting. They are performed at the most fundamental political level — in each of the state’s 1,993 precincts.

'Neighbors getting together'
“It’s neighbors getting together, discussing political issues ... and, oh, by the way, picking a presidential candidate,” said Jean Pardee, a precinct chairwoman in Clinton, Iowa.

“It’s not just going in and casting a ballot for whomever,” Pardee said. “It means you are concerned, not only about a particular candidate, but the issues and party-building. It’s all very exciting.”

Caucuses begin with supporters of candidates clustered in corners of middle-school libraries, courthouse hallways or kitchens and living rooms. Space is designated for uncommitted voters.

Democrats have a complex system, one that uses a mathematical formula to calculate support — and ultimately award delegates to county, state and national conventions — based on percentages.

For a candidate to be considered viable, he or she must have the support of at least 15 percent of the meeting’s participants, party rules state. Those lacking often are lobbied to join with neighbors supporting more popular candidates.

“That’s when it gets kind of crazy,” said Mark Daley, spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party. “There will be people screaming back and forth ... and senior citizens with calculators trying to do the math.”

Percentages reported to party
The percentages are reported to party headquarters and winners and losers declared.

Republican caucuses use a “one head, one vote” method. “We think it’s more democratic that way ... because if you want to vote for an underdog, your voice is heard,” said Kristin Scuderi, spokeswoman for the Iowa Republican Party.

With President Bush running unopposed, Scuderi says, participants will focus on the GOP platform and voter turnout.

The caucus system dates to 1846 when Iowa joined the Union. It first gained national attention in 1972, the year state leaders moved the caucuses to January and created the nation’s first test for presidential hopefuls.

A handful of reporters from major newspapers showed up to report that Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie, the favorite to win the caucuses, polled just 35 percent, the same number declaring themselves undecided. The other surprise that night was the strong third-place finish of Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota, the eventual Democratic challenger to President Nixon.

“The name of the game in Iowa has always been expectation,” said Hugh Winebrenner, a caucus historian and political science professor emeritus at Drake University. “McGovern did much better than expected, and that launched him in the primaries that followed.”

Jimmy Carter's surprise
Four years later the surprise came from Jimmy Carter, an unknown Georgia Democrat who ran a low-budget caucus campaign. Carter used momentum from his second-place finish — more voters were undecided than behind any Democrat that year — to win the nomination.

While the 1972 and 1976 results minted Iowa as a political proving ground, Winebrenner says its reputation as a kingmaker is not valid. Caucus winners who failed to win the nomination include Democrats Dick Gephardt in 1988 and Tom Harkin in 1992 and Republicans George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Bob Dole in 1988.

“We don’t always choose the winner. The buck doesn’t stop here,” Winebrenner said. “I think of Iowa’s role now as more of a winnower of the field.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, for example, dropped out of the 2000 race after coming in last in Iowa. His wife later called the caucuses “the sign from God.”