DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The 2020 presidential election officially begins Monday when hundreds of thousands of Iowa Democrats and Republicans will attend more than 3,300 precinct caucuses across the state to register the first official support for presidential candidates.
Monday also marks the end of Iowa’s quadrennial moment in the center of the political universe when presidential elections roll around. For the past year, some two dozen candidates have been crisscrossing the state. The top 10 Democratic candidates made more than 1,400 appearances around Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register’s Candidate Tracker, ranging from border-to-border bus trips to soapbox speeches at the Iowa State Fair.
After the counting is done Monday, the 2020 campaign bandwagon moves on to New Hampshire and other states for the next round of primaries and caucuses, and Iowa goes back to being a pumpkin.
What happens in Iowa is not a primary election, which is the system used in most states, where voters go to the polls and cast ballots for the candidate of their choice. Instead, Iowa’s party caucuses are primarily business meetings where delegates are elected to county conventions.
Iowa Republicans will caucus too, even though President Donald Trump has no serious opponents. Still, Trump surrogates – including White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson – are expected to be in the state Monday to attend GOP caucuses and fire up support.
The Democrats’ caucus process begins at 7 p.m., when registered voters will go to 1,678 precinct caucuses across the state to elect 11,402 delegates to 99 county conventions. Then, in March, those 11,402 county delegates will elect delegates to district conventions who will elect delegates to the state convention. Ultimately, 49 delegates from Iowa will go to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July.
Regular precinct caucuses will be held in school gymnasiums, public libraries, American Legion halls, churches and community centers. Democrats for the first time this year will also hold “satellite caucuses” at 87 sites for those who cannot get to their regular precinct caucus. Sixty satellite sites are in Iowa, and additional sites are in 24 other states and three are abroad – including one in Paris, France.
While it is a foregone conclusion that Trump is assured victory in the Republican caucuses, it’s anybody’s guess what could come out of the Democratic caucuses.
Recent state polls show Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren bunched at the top of the heap, with Amy Kolbuchar still in the running though in single digits.
The headlines will be focused on which candidate, or candidates, have the most supporters among caucus participants who show up Monday night.
The Democratic Party officially declares the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on what are called “delegate equivalents” – which is the number of delegates a candidate will take to the party’s state convention based on a mathematical formula weighted to compensate rural counties for their population disadvantage compared with urban counties. This functions somewhat like the Electoral College at the federal level.
In addition to delegate equivalents, this year for the first time the Iowa Democratic Party will also release raw numbers showing how much support presidential candidates have among caucus participants. Those raw numbers will be based on two separate counts at each caucus location.
First, caucus participants will divide up into groups based on which Democratic presidential candidate they prefer. This is called the “first alignment.”
If a candidate does not have at least 15% of the total number of participants in that caucus, those participants must join another candidate’s group until they reach at least 15%, or “viability.”
This is called the “final alignment,” which determines the number of delegates each viable candidate earned, and there can be some cajoling to win over supporters.
Both the first alignment numbers and the final alignment numbers will be reported on Feb. 3, and this year for the first time, participants will sign a card with their preferred candidate on the front and their second choice on the back if necessary. These cards will be turned into the Iowa Democratic Party in the event a recount is needed.
Thus, three candidates could conceivably claim they “won the Iowa caucuses” because there could be different winners for each category reported – the first alignment, the final alignment, and the delegate equivalents. A candidate could win the most delegate equivalents thanks to the rural-county weighting formula but lose the first or second alignment headcounts to another candidate.