Special Report

What Is a Caucus?

Photo by Joe Raedle / Newsmakers / Getty Images

The first major contest of the 2020 presidential election, the Iowa Democratic Caucuses, will take place on Feb. 3. In the months leading up to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in mid-summer, the rest of the nation will hold their primaries and caucuses to help select the Democratic candidate for president.

The candidates in the Iowa caucus include former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Biden and Sanders are slugging it out in Iowa, with some polls giving the former vice president the lead, while others favor the senator. Sanders was narrowly defeated by Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state under President Barack Obama, in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses in a result that surprised many political pundits. Clinton would go on to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Sanders building momentum

The presidential primaries follow the Iowa Caucuses, with New Hampshire hosting the first presidential primary on Feb. 11. In New Hampshire, Sanders, who represents neighboring Vermont, holds a comfortable margin in all the major polls. Sanders decisively defeated Clinton in New Hampshire four years ago.

Since it is the first contest in the presidential nominating process, the Iowa caucuses are considered very important. Since the first Iowa caucuses were held in 1972, the winner of nine of the 18 Iowa caucuses held by both parties eventually won the nomination in the years the state held caucuses.

While the Caucuses tend to be good predictors of who will win each party’s nomination, they are poor predictors of who will win the presidency. Only three presidential candidates who won the Iowa Caucuses went on to become president — George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama. Here is each president’s path to the oval office.

Committed voters go to caucuses

The Iowa Caucuses tend to bring out committed voters, such as evangelical Christians. The caucus has served as a springboard for candidates that had been considered longshots, such as Jimmy Carter in 1976 — although he did not finish first in the caucus; Sanders, who finished in a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in 2016; and Barack Obama, then a senator from Illinois, who upset Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus in 2008.

Going first in the presidential campaign doesn’t necessarily bring respect. Former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, White House Chief of Staff to President George H.W. Bush, once snarkily remarked that Iowans pick corn but New Hampshire picks presidents.

While primaries are an easily understood voting process for choosing a nominee, caucuses are more arcane. A caucus is a meeting of party members who convene to discuss policies, actions, or — as in the case of the Iowa Caucuses — meet to nominate a presidential candidate. Those participating in a caucus don’t directly select a presidential candidate. They are choosing delegates who will represent them when they vote for candidates at the national convention.

Caucuses rooted in American history

In America, the roots of the caucus process go back to the late 18th century, when the leaders of the emerging political parties selected their candidates for president and vice president. The current caucus system grew out of the desire to make the nominating process more inclusive and transparent — more democratic, actually — to lessen the power of party bosses. For a historical perspective, here is each president’s path to the Oval Office.

Republicans and Democrats conduct their caucuses differently in Iowa. Each party elects a chairperson and a secretary to lead the caucus. Then the presidential candidate, or his or her representative, may speak to the group prior to the start of the proceedings.

In the Republican caucus, voters cast a ballot of support for their preferred candidate. The Democratic caucus is more involved and, at times, a more chaotic and exuberant affair, as the process goes about delegate allocation. In the Democratic caucus, participants split into various groups for their preferred candidate and try to persuade others, particularly those who are undecided, to join their group. Before 2016, participants had to be physically present at a caucus site to participate, but both parties now permit military service people who are out of state to take part.

Candidates seek 15% threshold

A candidate must get what is called a viable percentage, usually 15%, of the votes at a given location to be a viable candidate. If a candidate fails to reach the viability threshold, his or her supporters must support another candidate, stay undecided, or abstain. Participants are allowed 15 minutes to decide. Once they decide, members of a candidate’s viable group must stay with that candidate.

Each candidate who meets the viability standard gets at least one state delegate, and more delegates go to the candidates who receive more votes. The Democratic state party then calculates what are called “delegate equivalents” that were earned by each candidate at each caucus site and tallies them and allocates them to the candidate. Delegates are party activists, political leaders from a town or county, members of a local party organization, or early supporters of a candidate. The turnout for caucuses is usually lower than that for primaries. In the case of the Iowa caucus, turnout can be negatively impacted by inclement weather, since the event takes place in the winter.

The candidate with the most delegate equivalents gets the most delegates, who are sent to the Democratic National Convention. In order for a candidate to win his or her Democratic Party’s nomination, the candidate must get a national total of 2,376 out of 4,750 delegates. On the Republican side, the candidate must receive 1,277 votes out of 2,552 delegates to get the nomination. They may be nominating the next great president. This is how historians rank every president.

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