Iowa is holding one of the most anticipated events of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election today – “the Iowa caucuses”. The election isn’t until November, but the first major hurdle for the Democratic candidates is the Iowa caucuses. This is where voters begin whittling down the pool of candidates to what will eventually be just one Democratic nominee. The Iowa caucus is particularly important because it is the first in the nation, often setting the tone for the contests that follow in other states. This year, the Hawkeye State is expecting a huge turnout, even bigger than the nearly quarter-million voter record set in 2008. The caucus has a reputation for unexpectedly dashing the hopes of more than a few would-be Presidents. Here is a quick rundown of the basics to help you better understand how the Iowa Caucuses work and why they are so closely watched: (Sources: Business Insider, Politico, PBS, Wikipedia)
 

What’s A Caucus? Currently, just three states still rely exclusively on caucuses over primaries, including Nevada, Wyoming, and Iowa. A caucus is far from the traditional “voting” process that most of us are familiar with. In fact, it’s not an election at all. For one, the whole thing is administered by volunteers rather than any official agency of the state. Each political party hosts their own caucus and each of them runs things a little bit differently. Things for both start with caucus participants showing up at the designated precinct locations by a set time on caucus night. Republicans vote by secret ballot and the guy with the most votes wins. The Republicans don’t have much of a contest this year with President Trump running but they’ll be holding their caucus nonetheless. For Democrats, the process is a lot more complicated. Caucus goers make their preference known by basically standing in a location designated for the candidate they support. A head count is then taken and any candidate that doesn’t have enough support is deemed non-viable. Those supporters then have a chance to try to convince more caucus participants to join their group, or they can all disperse and join the supporters of a different candidate. The number of votes each candidate receives is then calculated and will determine what percentage of that precinct’s delegates will represent each candidate at the county convention. Caucus participants that don’t like any of the candidates can also choose to be “uncommitted”. In 1972 and 1976, “uncommitted” Democrats actually won. For both parties, this is just the first step in selecting presidential delegates, which ultimately won’t be decided until the Spring.

Prediction Track Record – Iowa’s caucus-goers have a pretty good track record of predicting the eventual Democratic nominee, but not so much for the Republican counterpart. Every Democratic nominee since 1996 has started out with an Iowa win. Another interesting track record fact – it’s rare for the Iowa caucus winners to go on to win the New Hampshire primaries, which are the second major event of the presidential election cycle. This is especially true for Republicans with no party winner in Iowa having followed with a win in New Hampshire dating back to 1980. Another interesting bit of trivia – every winner of a major presidential party nomination since 1980 won either the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, or both. Hillary Clinton won the 2016 Iowa caucus. President Trump lost the caucus but won the New Hampshire primary. Looking back a bit further, Obama’s win in Iowa back in 2008 was a significant game-changer. On the day of the caucuses, he trailed Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in national polls. But days after he won there, he shot up to within 5 points of her.

Iowa’s Impact – As former Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen explains in “Three Tickets,” the real role of the Iowa caucuses is to narrow the field. Since it is the first time any state’s voters actually weigh in on a presidential election, the results carry a lot of weight. With so many Democratic candidates running in 2020, it’s unlikely that the nominee will be clear the morning after the Iowa caucuses. However, it will be more clear which candidates aren’t organized enough to continue on in the presidential nomination process and at least a few can be expected to end their campaigns.

Why Iowa Goes First – Considering that Iowa only ends up representing about 1% of the country’s delegates, some might think it’s strange that it’s the state to kick everything off. They got the first spot due to a scheduling conflict actually. In 1972, the Democratic Party had to move Iowa’s caucus ahead New Hampshire’s primary, then just never changed it back. Republicans followed suit in 1976 and it’s simply been that way ever since. Jimmy Carter is often credited for cementing Iowa’s role and subsequent support for keeping them first-in-the-nation. A relative unknown at the start of the 1976 election cycle, he spent considerable time campaigning in the state and eventually came in second behind “uncommitted.” That suddenly put him in the spotlight and he, of course, went on to win the Presidency.

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