DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — For the past several months Iowans have had intimate access to Democratic presidential candidates in their living rooms, town halls and church basements. In less than four weeks, Hawkeye State voters will choose which of the candidates still standing will have their support for the party’s nomination.
Iowa Democrats will not go to the polls and cast ballots, however, as other states do. Instead, they will go to 1,678 precinct caucuses across the state on Feb. 3 to elect 11,402 delegates to 99 county conventions.
Then, in March, those 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 July in Milwaukee.
Caucuses are nothing like primaries. They are run by the political parties, not by the state.
“Caucuses are simply business meetings of two private organizations,” Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, said in an interview. “Presidential politics has been piggybacked on top of that.”
Unlike a primary, caucuses are largely a measure of how party activists rate the presidential candidates.
“The caucus process is sticking a thermometer into the body politic and taking the temperature,” Goldford said. “That’s all they are: An expression of preference. I don’t even like to call it a vote.”
Support for Democratic presidential candidates is expressed in the delegate selection process, which assigns “delegate equivalents” to the state convention using a mathematical formula weighted to compensate rural counties for their population disadvantage compared with urban counties.
And this year for the first time, so-called satellite caucuses will be held in 97 other sites for those who cannot get to their regular precinct caucus. Sixty-nine satellite sites are in Iowa, and additional sites are in 13 other states and three are abroad – including one in Paris, France.
The caucus process begins at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3 with participants dividing up into groups based on which 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.
The Democratic Party will also report the delegate equivalent totals the candidates will be taking to the state convention.
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.
The Iowa candidate selection process may seem arcane and hopelessly convoluted to outsiders, but before 1904, when Wisconsin held the first direct presidential primary, state political parties selected presidential nominees in some form of party caucuses.
Iowa Republicans hold biennial precinct caucuses as well, but they conduct a straw poll at the beginning of the meeting before moving on to conduct party business. This year’s Republican caucuses will have a predictable outcome, which usually happens whenever an incumbent president is running for a second term.
Before 1972, no one outside the state paid much attention to the party caucuses Iowa holds every two years. In that presidential election year, however, Iowa moved its caucuses up to January, and the New York Times kicked off the horserace handicapping by publishing a story on the results, which got a lot of attention.
Among the readers was a former Georgia governor by the name of Jimmy Carter, who learned from that experience and exploited the caucuses to springboard his presidential campaign to the White House in 1976.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Iowa has fought hard to maintain its first-in-the-nation contest, followed by the New Hampshire primary. This arrangement between Iowa and New Hampshire – in which Iowa is No. 1 only if it does not threaten New Hampshire’s position as the No. 1 primary state – assures the preservation of Iowa’s caucuses.
Critics of the caucuses point out that winning in Iowa isn’t always an accurate prediction of which candidate will go on to win the nomination. Since 1972, only three candidates who won the Iowa caucuses eventually became president: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
When it is all over, and the candidates and the political reporters have moved on, Iowa will go back to being an ordinary state again, and the debate will be renewed about why a small and homogeneous state should have so much sway over presidential politics.
Still, it’s likely that in one or two years, presidential hopefuls testing the waters will begin making trips to Iowa.
“I always like to say Iowa is not first because it is important, but Iowa is important because it is first,” Drake’s Goldford said.