The Iowa Caucus and Why it Matters
by Bryanne McDonough | published Feb. 8th, 2016
Once every four years, the American media turns their eyes to Iowa.
Presidential candidates flock to the state, courting the voters in order to win the state and their party's nomination. The momentum gained from doing well in the Iowa primaries can carry a candidate through to election. Take, for example, the year 2008. Before the Iowa primary, Barack Obama was an underdog candidate and the media thought that he was unlikely to win party nomination. However, he won a much larger proportion of delegates than expected and the media's attention propelled him into the presidency.
"If Barack Obama had not won in Iowa, most commentators believe that he would not have been able to go on to capture the Democratic nomination for President," a University of Chicago Press publication, "Why Iowa," stated.
The reason Iowa is so important in determining presidential nominees is all because of timing and Jimmy Carter. Iowa didn't always hold the first state caucus and the political influence associated with it. After the unsuccessful 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Democratic Party's McGovern-Fraser Commission created new rules which resulted in Iowa's caucus being moved to January, the first in the country.
Jimmy Carter realized the opportunity that Iowa possessed in his 1976 presidential bid. Iowa was the first time the public would officially voice their opinions of the candidates in the form of ballots and location in a room (we'll get back to that one later). This was an opportunity to see how well a campaigns message went over with the general public. Carter knew that Iowa had potential and began to spend a disproportionate amount of time campaigning there before the precinct caucuses. After being unexpectedly successful in Iowa, the media turned its attention on Carter and the rest is history. Carter showed how a successful Iowa campaign can turn the national tide to a candidates side and sense then, Iowa has held significant political influence.
"In the history of these caucuses, no candidate who has ever finished worse than third among the candidates [in Iowa] has ever gone on to win the nomination," said David Yepsen, a political columnist for the Des Moins Register, quoted from howstuffworks.com.
Every state holds its own form of caucus or primary and each state has their own variations on the process. In Iowa, each precinct gets a certain amount of delegates who move on to the county caucus, which elects delegates to the state convention. The delegate system is similar to the way our electoral college process works. The delegates are distributed to candidates based on the proportion of voters for those candidates, but they are not actually legally obligated to vote for said candidate. In fact, because of the large amount of time separating the precinct caucuses and the state convention, this is often not the case.
For example, in the 2008 precinct caucuses, Obama got 16 delegates, Clinton got 15 and John Edwards got 14. However, by the time the state convention occurred, Edwards had dropped out of the race and the state sent 48 delegates to the Democratic National Convention for Obama and only 9 for Clinton.
Iowa is not necessarily the best choice for the first caucus because of its lack of diversity, which does not allow it to accurately represent the entirety of the American population, but we're stuck with it. Many other states have wanted the political influence that comes with holding the first primary or caucus, but none have been able to usurp Iowa for this prestigious role, though many have tried. New Hampshire actually has it written into state law that they will hold the first primary, but Iowa's caucus doesn't invalidate that because it is technically a caucus. In 2008, 40 states met in Washington D.C. in Feb. 2007 to discuss a rotating primary schedule but this ultimately failed. According to Northeastern University, if a state attempts to move their primary before Iowa, the Republican and Democratic parties take away some of the delegates that state has, effectively limiting its voting power.
Each party runs their caucus a little differently, according to "Why Iowa." Both parties have eligible voters gather at the precinct level, often in elementary school gyms and local libraries. The Republicans elect delegates and then hold a simple ballot vote. The chairperson tallies the votes and reports it to the state party headquarters. The votes do not necessarily correspond to the actual distribution of delegates. The process is over relatively quickly. The Democrats, on the other hand, can be there late into the night.
The actual 'voting' cannot occur until a half hour after the start of the meeting, according to party rules. Then, participants move to different areas of the room to show support for their candidate. The captains of each candidate group will try to coerce voters to their corner using cookies, cakes and old-fashioned debate. Or, if its 2008 and you are Hillary Clinton, sandwiches and snow shovels.
After everyone has settled, the number of people in each group is tallied. Any candidate who has failed to reach 15 percent of the voters is claimed nonviable, according to party rules. The voters in those circles then regroup, either to a viable candidate or merge with another nonviable candidate to try and boost numbers to 15 percent. The voters are tallied once more and those in nonviable groups are given a final chance to join with a viable group. This process is long and involves a lot of discussion, but some argue that it is more representative because it allows voters to choose their second choice candidate if their first isn't popular enough. Others argue that because of the public nature of the vote, some may be swayed by peer pressure to join the same group as their neighbors. After the final votes are tallied, the chairperson phones in the results to the state party headquarters.
Marco Rubio's chances of winning the Republican nomination nearly doubled after coming in at a strong third, according to Betfair. Meanwhile, Trump dropped from 50 percent to 25 percent even after beating Rubio. Betting odds are determined by algorithms that use past presidential election data and ideological match to analyze a candidates chance of success.
Bernie Sanders came in a close second to Hillary Clinton, coming in just 0.3 percent behind. However, Clinton won 23 delegates while Sanders won only 21. This is due to the electoral college-like delegation process. There will be more delegates coming from the other states, so a one delegate difference shouldn't affect the final nomination that much.
Sanders was unable to replicate Obama's success in 2008, mostly because he failed to get the same young voter turnout. Sanders won 84 percent of the votes from 17- to 29-year-olds, but only 18 percent of the votes came from this age group. Clinton did much better among voters older than 45, which made up over 60 percent of caucus goers, according to NPR.
The lesson to take from this is that Sanders could take the Democratic presidential nomination if he urges enough young voters to vote in the primaries and Trump's momentum is faltering, bringing Rubio and Cruz to the top. The New Hampshire primary is set to take place on Feb. 9 and will also have a large influence in the final nominations. Trump is currently campaigning hard in New Hampshire to make up for his loss in Iowa.
Even with the large political influence that comes with being an Iowan voter, only 10 percent of voters turn out for caucuses, NPR reports. Although Iowa accounts for a lot of media attention and influence, all state primaries help determine the party nominations.
Your vote probably has more influence in the state primaries than the actual election — so go out and vote.