Since 1976, the Iowa caucus has been the first indication of which candidate for President of the United States would win the nomination of his or her political party at that party's national convention.
While the Iowa caucus has been the first such caucus each year in the United States for a century, it only came to national attention in 1976, when obscure Georgia governor Jimmy Carter won the most votes at the Democratic caucus. In a major upset, he went on to win his party's nomination and eventually the presidency. Since then, presidential candidates have focused increasingly on achieving a win in Iowa. In 2000, for example, the Iowa caucus results placed Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush far ahead of their rivals. The two would go on to win their parties' nominations later in the year.
The 2004 caucuses, similarly, proved to be important for Democratic presidential nomination hopefuls. Often, the caucus is an important factor in determining who remains in the race and who drops out. In the days leading up to the caucus, predictions showed candidates John Kerry and Howard Dean neck-and-neck for first place, with Dick Gephardt and John Edwards right behind them. Other candidates, notably Joseph Lieberman and Wesley Clark, who did not campaign in Iowa, failed to secure more than 5% of the vote. (For further information on the 2004 Iowa caucus, see 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses.)
The 2008 caucuses saw record high turnout, exceeding the records set in 2004. For Democrats, 236,000 turned out, while 115,000 Republicans came to their caucuses. Barack Obama won the Democratic caucus with 37%, followed by John Edwards with 30% and Hillary Clinton with 29.5%. Senators Chris Dodd and Joe Biden dropped out after poor showings. On the Republican side, MIke Huckabee's underfunded and inexperienced campaign upset Mitt Romney. Huckabee received strong support from fundamentalists. Fred Thompson and John McCain were tied for third, while Ron Paul finished fifth.
The Iowa caucus operates very differently from the more common primary election used by most other states (see U.S. presidential primary). The caucus is generally defined as a "gathering of neighbors". Rather than going to polls and casting ballots, Iowans gather at a set location in each of Iowa's approximately 2,000 precincts. Typically, these meetings occur in schools, churches, or libraries. The caucuses are held every two years, but the ones that receive national attention are the presidential preference primaries held every four years. In addition to the voting, the caucuses are used to discuss each party's platform and issues such as voter turnout.
The Iowa caucus is less-binding than the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary because Iowan caucus-goers elect delegates to county conventions, who, in turn, elect delegates to district and state conventions where, ultimately, the national convention delegates are selected. The term "caucus" used in this sense is believed to be a Native American word meaning "a meeting of tribal leaders."
The Republicans and Democrats each hold their own set of caucuses subject to their own particular rules that change from time to time. Participants in each party's caucuses must be registered with that party. Participants can change their registration at the caucus location. Additionally, 17-year-olds can participate, as long as they will be 18 years of age by the date of the general election. Observers are allowed to attend, as long as they do not become actively involved in the debate and voting process.
Republican Party process
The Republican caucuses are a straw poll where each voter places his or her vote in a hat (by secret ballot). The non-binding results are tabulated and reported to the media and the state party where delegates are later chosen.
Democratic Party process
The process used by the Democrats is somewhat more complicated. Caucus-goers form into "preference groups," where their candidate preferences become public. For roughly 30 minutes, attendees try to convince their neighbors to support their candidates. Participants indicate their support for a particular candidate by standing in a designated area of the caucus site.
After 30 minutes, the electioneering is temporarily halted and the number of votes for each candidate is counted. The supporters of any candidate who doesn't have enough supporters to be "viable" will then have to find a viable candidate to support or simply choose to abstain. This viability level is currently set at 15% of the number of attendees at the caucus site. Consequently, for a candidate to receive any delegates from a particular precinct, he or she must have the support of at least 15% of that precinct. This causes the caucuses, unlike primaries, to favor front-running candidates.
From here, the caucus-goers have roughly another 30 minutes to support one of the remaining candidates or choose to abstain. When the voting is closed, a final head count is conducted, and each precinct proportionally apportions county delegates for each candidate who later attend a county convention.
The delegates chosen by the precinct then go to a later caucus, the county convention, to chose delegates to the district convention and state convention. At the district convention, the delegates assign 29 of the actual delegates to the National Convention from Iowa. At the state convention, the other 16 delegates are chosen. Delegates to each level of convention are not bound to vote for their chosen candidate and can switch allegiance.
In 2004, the meetings ran from 6:30 p.m. until approximately 8:00 p.m. on January 19, 2004. The county convention is on March 13, the district convention on April 24, and the state convention on June 12. Delegates may change their votes based on further developments in the race; for instance, in 2004 the delegates pledged to Gephardt who left the race after the precinct caucuses will chose a different candidate, perhaps based on instructions from Gephardt.
The number of delegates each candidate receives eventually determines how many state delegates from Iowa that candidate will have at the Democratic National Convention. Iowa sends 56 delegates to the DNC out of a total 4,366.
Of the 45 delegates chosen through the caucus system, 29 are chosen at the district level. Ten delegates are at-large delegates, and six are "party leader and elected official" (PLEO) delegates; these are assigned at the state convention. There are also 11 other delegates, eight of whom are appointed from local Democratic National Committee members, two are PLEO delegates and one is elected at the state Democratic convention. The group of 45 delegates are pledged to a candidate; the group of 11 are unassigned.
Candidates with an asterisk (*) eventually won their party's nomination. Candidates with two asterisks (**) subsequently won the presidential election.
- 2008- Barack Obama** defeated John Edwards and Hillary Clinton
- 2004- John Kerry* defeated John Edwards
- 2000- Al Gore* defeated Bill Bradley
- 1996- Bill Clinton** (unopposed)
- 1992- Tom Harkin defeated Paul Tsongas
- 1988- Dick Gephardt defeated Paul Simon
- 1984- Walter Mondale* defeated Gary Hart
- 1980- Jimmy Carter* defeated Ted Kennedy
- 1976- Jimmy Carter** defeated Birch Bayh
- 1972- Edmund Muskie defeated George McGovern*
- 2008- Mike Huckabee defeated Mitt Romney
- 2004- George W. Bush** (unopposed)
- 2000- George W. Bush** defeated Steve Forbes
- 1996- Bob Dole* defeated Pat Buchanan
- 1992- George H. W. Bush* (unopposed)
- 1988- Bob Dole defeated Pat Robertson
- 1984- Ronald Reagan** (unopposed)
- 1980- George H. W. Bush defeated Ronald Reagan**
- 1976- Gerald Ford* defeated Ronald Reagan
- DM Register 2008 Caucus coverage
- DM Register 2004 caucus coverage by David Yepsen
- CR Gazette caucus history
- CNN Iowa 2004
- The Caucuses' Greatest Hits: An Iowan's Historic Perspective by John Deeth
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 1)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 2)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 3)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 4)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 5)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 6)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 7)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 8)
- How the Iowa Caucuses Work (Part 9)