What Is the Iowa Caucus, How Does It Work, Why Does It Matter and When Will We Know the Winner?

A lot of eyes will be on the Democratic caucus in Iowa on Monday

A lot of eyes will be on the Democratic caucus in Iowa on Monday, where the country will get its first tangible proof of what voters think about the candidates vying to challenge President Donald Trump come November.

The 2020 Iowa caucus will begin on Monday night and comes as the Democratic Party is still whittling down a historically large field of candidates.

A January poll in the Des Moines Register showed that only 40 percent of the state’s voters had made up their minds on who they would vote for, and other state polls have been similarly volatile — with four candidates leading and a fifth not terribly far behind.

There are still 11 Democratic candidates in the race: Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, entrepreneurs Tom Steyer and Andrew Yang and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

In reality, however, polling has consistently shown that only five of those politicians are likely to attract any notable support: Biden, Buttigieg and Sens. Klobuchar, Sanders and Warren — with Sanders having a slight lead.

What makes this year’s Iowa caucus interesting is the uncertainty of its outcome.

But why does it matter, how does it work and when will we know who the winner is?

What Is the Iowa Caucus?

The Iowa caucus is the first stop in the 2020 presidential election, where the Democratic and Republican parties begin to decide on which candidate will win their respective nominations to run for president.

While the Republican Party will almost certainly nominate President Trump, the Iowa caucus has major implications for the Democrats, many of whom have been campaigning for a year. As Iowa is the first state to begin its voting — the result of a decades-old change in primary voting rules which essentially boiled down to Iowa needing to be first because its rules were more complex — the Iowa caucus has become a telling event that gives voters across the nation a first glimpse at who is a legitimate candidate and who is not.

Many observers point back to Jimmy Carter’s success there in 1976 ahead of his presidential victory.

How Does It Work and When Does It Start?

Fundamentally, the Iowa caucus works like any other election in the country: Voters show up to their respective voting locations and make their choice for a candidate. But it’s the specific rules for the Democratic caucus that make it so much different from the kinds of elections millions of Americans are used to.

Democratic Iowa caucus-goers are required to be at their voting locations longer than it takes to just cast a ballot: Instead, they gather at their location and physically — openly — declare their vote by sorting into different groups. So Biden voters will go in one corner while Sanders voters go in another.

Candidates who do not get enough voters to reach a minimum threshold (15 percent, in most cases) then lose those voters — who can be persuaded in the room to pick a second candidate.

This year’s caucus begins at 7 p.m. local time, or 8 p.m. on the East Coast.

There will be two rounds of caucusing.

The final results take into account those voters who needed to pick a new candidate if their first choice didn’t get enough support.

Iowans will gather at local precincts to discuss and cast their votes. These precincts are commonly held in community spaces, like gymnasiums or VFW halls or local utility buildings, but they can even be held in homes. There are 1,678 precincts across the state, with an additional 99 satellite precincts.

In contrast to the Democratic version, Republican caucus-goers in Iowa vote by secret ballot, like a more conventional election.

Democratic caucus-goers sign in at Valley Church, the caucus site in precinct 317, on February 1, 2016 in West Des Moines, Iowa
Brendan Hoffman/Getty

Why Does It Matter?

Given its first-in-the-nation status, the Iowa caucus is widely seen by political observers — including many in the national media — as a proving ground for a politician’s candidacy. The thinking goes that anyone who wants to ultimately win the nomination of their party should first succeed in Iowa.

This has some historical precedent: Many past nominees have first won in Iowa while many other candidates have seen their campaigns end suddenly with a poor result. Still, the caucus’ strange rules and the state’s demographics have led to sustained criticism that it should not be the ultimate arbiter of a national election. (See more below.)

Commonly an event where underdog candidates can prove themselves, Barack Obama and Carter both elevated their political profiles nationwide by winning the Iowa caucus before going on to win the Democratic nomination and their ensuing elections.

In 2016, however, Donald Trump lost the caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz — but only by a small margin. He went on to more impressive victories, including in the next state to vote: New Hampshire.

Bill Clinton, another future president, also lost the Iowa caucus (and the New Hampshire primary) before rebounding with voters in other states.

When Will We Know the Winner?

With the Iowa caucus starting at 7 p.m. local time, vote tallies are reportedly expected to begin coming in fairly quickly — around 7:30 p.m. or 7:45 p.m. local time (or around an hour later on the East Coast).

Later in the night (and by the next morning), more data will be released about how voters picked candidates in both rounds of the caucus and the projected delegates won by the top candidates.

How Does Someone Win the Caucus?

It’s a Democratic caucus, so of course it’s a little complicated: The ultimate goal is to win a set number of Iowa delegates for the Democratic National Convention in the summer. At least 1,991 delegates are needed to win the nomination. Iowa, a tiny state, has 41 delegates to win in the caucus.

While delegates are awarded in rough proportion to the number of votes someone gets in the Iowa caucus, results this year will also show vote breakdowns for each round of caucusing — so candidates can see if they are successfully persuading voters to join them.

That could help someone make the case that while they “lost” the caucus by number of delegates, they have reason to be hopeful in future states because their campaign is resonating with persuadable voters.

Isn’t the Iowa Caucus (Kind of) Controversial?

Right: The Iowa caucus isn’t perfect. Because of its outsized role in influencing how candidates are perceived for the rest of the race, Iowa is regularly criticized for being much more rural and more white than many parts of the country where people live.

Its rules are also the frequent target of criticism, because voting in a caucus is far more difficult — requiring more time during a particular part of the day, without flexibility — than voting in a typical election elsewhere.

“As a black person,” one Iowa voter told The Atlantic recently, “I don’t think that Iowa being first—setting the tone and putting candidates on the stage and propelling them to the candidacy—I don’t think that’s fair.”

The caucus process has supporters as well.

“Those who say that diverse voices are not being heard need to spend more time here in Iowa,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price told The New York Times. “Everyone thinks that the only thing Iowans talk about is corn and that the only thing we talk about is the ag economy, and that’s just simply not true.”

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile argued that Iowa’s history and procedures make its caucus-goers particularly deliberative for the task at hand.

“While it doesn’t look like America, when they take into consideration the qualities and values we’re looking for in a candidate, I believe that they represent what is truly best about our country,” she told the Times. “They’re smart and they take this seriously.”

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