Iowa caucus 2020: When is it and why is it so important?

Caucus is the make-or-break point for many campaigns

Graig Graziosi
Monday 03 February 2020 21:39 GMT
US Election: What is the Iowa caucus?

Political strategists, news junkies and pundits are practically pacing in anticipation for the Iowa Caucus on 3 February, the US presidential election cycle’s first real throwing of the bones.

As we wait to divine guidance from the shouts of Iowans gathered in gyms, schools and libraries across the state, it’s worth examining what exactly the caucus is, its unusual operation, and why it weighs so heavily on the results of party primaries.

What is it?

The Iowa Caucus is the first time Americans will actually cast a vote for who they’d like to see become president of the United States in an election year. While most states hold primary elections to determine their party nominees for president, Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming have continued to hold caucuses.

In Iowa, the Democratic precinct caucus is a personal, complicated event in which Iowans gather in gyms and libraries and churches to essentially cast a vote with their bodies indicating their preferred candidates.

At the beginning of the caucus, voters arrange themselves into groups based on their preferred candidate. If their candidate doesn’t acquire enough votes to clear the caucus’ viability threshold – usually 15 percent of attending voters – then supporters of that candidate have a few options before the next round of voting: they can either attempt to sway supporters from other candidates to their side, join another candidate, or sit out the remainder of the caucus.

While it seems like the obvious choice for a supporter of a candidate who failed to clear the threshold would be to attempt to sway support away from their competitors, it’s actually a gamble. Any supporters who stay with a candidate that doesn’t clear the threshold and progress into the second round of voting are effectively eliminated from their vote counting towards the number of delegates that will eventually be counted at the state level to determine which candidate wins the caucus.

In the second round of voting – called “alignments” in the caucus – participants have the chance to once again support a candidate. After voting is closed, a head count is taken and each precinct determines the number of delegates it will send to the county convention. That number is reported to the state party, which uses those numbers to determine the winner of the over caucus.

Why is it so important?

Iowa has a relatively low population – only 16 percent of which turned out for the caucus in 2016 – and is overwhelmingly white. So why is it such an important indicator of determining a presidential candidate?

First, Iowa is important because it is, well, first.

Iowa is the first time the primary candidates actually can point to a for-real election and make the case for their viability as a general election candidate. The results can propel relatively unknown candidates to the top of the dog pile and give them the momentum to stay on top heading into the broader primary season. President Barack Obama wasn’t viewed as a serious threat to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary run until he won Iowa, and four years earlier John Kerry’s lifted him out of the pack to frontrunner status.

The winners of the Iowa Caucus or New Hampshire primaries – the so-called Granite State state is next to vote after Iowa – have gone on to become the party nominee in almost every election dating back more than 30 years. In fact, the only outlier is the 1992 race, as Iowa senator Tom Harkin was running and was favoured to win the state due to name recognition but not carry the rest of the country.

Second, Iowa is important for reasons of perception.

Once a candidate proves they can win, it makes a big difference in the eyes of voters, donors and volunteers.

If a candidate performs poorly in Iowa, donors, volunteers and voters can view it as a sign that the campaign isn’t viable and take their time and dollars elsewhere.

That perception is aided and amplified by the media presence surrounding the whole ordeal.

In his 2008 book Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents, Christopher Hull reports that the Iowa Caucus 143 times as much media coverage as other presidential primary elections.

So the importance of the caucus isn’t so much indicative of some Iowan power of precognition or their great representation of the American appetite, but rather its power comes from the importance that we – the gawking masses – put on the results.

The Iowa Caucuses are 3 February 2020.

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