How The Iowa Caucuses Work

Ken AshfordElection 2008Leave a Comment

The explanation:

The purpose of the caucus vote is to select delegates to attend a county convention — each caucus sends a certain number of delegates, based on the population it represents. The delegates at the county convention in turn select delegates to go to the congressional district state convention, and those delegates choose the delegates that go to the national convention.

The Republican caucus voting system in Iowa is relatively straightforward: You come in, you vote, typically through secret ballot, and the percentages of the group supporting each candidate decides what delegates will go on to the county convention.

The Democrats have a more complex system — in fact, it’s one of the most complex pieces of the entire presidential election. In a typical caucus, registered democrats gather at the precinct meeting places (there are 1,993 precincts statewide), supporters for each candidate have a chance to make their case, and then the participants gather into groups supporting particular candidates (undecided voters also cluster into a group). In order for a particular group to be viable, they must have a certain percentage of the all the caucus participants. If they don’t have enough people, the group disbands, and its members go to another group.

If you’ve followed along so far, it may be worthwhile to note that Kucinich told his caucus participants to go to the Obama group if (as expected) the Kucinich groups turn out to be not "viable".

I should also note that, unlike the Republicans, the support for a particular candidate is shown by raised hands.  In other words, the vote is not secret.

The percentage cut-off is determined by the number of delegates assigned to the precinct. It breaks down like this:

  • If the precinct has only one delegate, the group with the most people wins the delegate vote, and that’s it.
  • If the precinct has only two delegates, each group needs 25 percent to be viable.
  • If the precinct has only three delegates, each group needs one-sixth of the caucus participants.
  • If the precinct has four or more delegates, each group needs at least 15 percent of the caucus participants.

Once the groups are settled, the next order of business is to figure out how many of that precinct’s delegates each group (and by extension, each candidate) should win. Here’s the formula:

    (Number of people in the group * number of delegates)/ number of caucus participants

For example, say a precinct has four delegates, 200 caucus participants, and 100 people support John Doe. To figure out how many delegates you assign to John Doe, you would multiply 100 by four, to get 400. You divide 400 by 200 and get 2. So John Doe gets two of the four delegates.

The media reports the "winner," based on the percentage of delegates going to each candidate. This isn’t exactly accurate, since it’s actually the state convention that decides what delegates go to the national convention, but more often than not, there’s a clear statewide winner after the caucuses.

I print that for your information, because I still am not sure what the fuck it means.  It all seems needlessly complicated. Carpetbagger agrees:

In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” King Arthur and his knights come across Camelot, and at least initially, couldn’t be more pleased. After thinking it over, and considering exactly what goes on inside Camelot, Arthur concludes, “On second thought, let’s not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.”

I’ve come to think of the Iowa caucuses in the same light.