Political Animal

Blog

January 03, 2012 8:00 AM How the Iowa caucuses will work

By Steve Benen

The focus of the domestic political world will obviously be on Iowa today, and the awaited caucuses will get underway in about 12 hours. Following up on an item Ed Kilgore published last week, I thought it’d be worthwhile to run a primer on how this process will work.

At 8 p.m. eastern, Iowa Republicans — without photo IDs, and with same-day registration — will gather at one of 1,774 caucus sites, usually held in a local school, library, or other public building. If you’ll be 18 or older by Election Day 2012, you’re eligible to participate.

“Voting” (I put voting in quotes because, technically, participants are caucusing, not voting) is pretty straightforward, but slightly different from previous years: there will be paper ballots, which will be tallied at a secret location.

Folks who followed the 2008 Democratic caucuses may recall the viability threshold, which made participants’ second and third choices fairly important. The Republican process doesn’t work the same way:

Republicans don’t have a viability threshold — a Democratic tradition where a candidate’s supporters must choose another campaign unless their preferred candidate has support from at least 15 percent of caucusgoers — which means a GOP caucus has just one round of balloting and no realignment toward second or third choices.

Individual caucus events often feature campaign representatives, making last-minute appeals, though participants generally show up knowing which candidate they intend to support.

By most estimates, the process should be wrapped up by around 9 p.m. eastern, at which point most participants will simply leave, while some party activists stick around to choose delegates to the state Republican convention.

And … that’s it. Then we all wait with bated breath for the results to be announced.

As is always the case with just about every election, turnout will be of great interest. I’ll just quote Ed’s piece:

…Democratic turnout in 2008 broke all records and exceeded everyone’s expectations — other than those of the Obama campaign, which successfully expanded participation by first-time caucus-goers — including a lot of people self-identifying as independents (20% of the total) and a lot of young people (the caucuses for both parties are usually a very geriatric affair). Edwards and Clinton actually hit their “marks” in mobilizing their supporters, but they were aiming at a lower total turnout model.

Estimates of GOP Caucus attendance this year are all over the place, above and below the 120,000 who caucused in 2008 (about half the Democratic totals). And as with Obama in 2008, the biggest unknown variable is whether Ron Paul’s minions will be able to expand participation to overwhelm the field, particularly among college students who normally don’t caucus, and who will not have returned to class by January 3.

And with that, roughly “four hundredths of one percent” of the total U.S. population will have made an enormous impact on who the Republican nominee — and perhaps the next president — will be.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

Post a comment
  • berttheclock on January 03, 2012 8:10 AM:

    Please, please, please, stop the "Java Joe's" marathon.

  • c u n d gulag on January 03, 2012 8:16 AM:

    "The Republican process doesn’t work the same way..."

    Truer words were never spoken.

    And why is that tonight's event will make me think of "White Flight?"

    Btw - There's no "Reverse Santa" either.
    He didn't come down the chimney and take away our CRAPTCHA?

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on January 03, 2012 8:25 AM:

    four hundredths of one percent, mostly mugwumps who after looking at the certifiably insane selection are still able to say that one of these clowns is actually fit to run this country.
    Its a faux faux faux faux nooze world.(yes you too NBC CBS ABC) Only on that planet does this matter.
    It's a horse race ladies and gentleman.
    I had to turn off MSNBC after the three millionth opinion piece from yet another political commentator reiterating what had been said by the previous 2,999,999 commentators.
    Redundancy it's all we got when there's no story.
    Newt cries Santorum cries Bhoner cries . Who's next I cant wait.
    They were actually lamenting on Mourning Joe that Santorum cried too late last night to make the evening nooze.
    Give me a fucking break. I can't take it anymore

  • DAY on January 03, 2012 8:27 AM:

    Thanks, Steve, for the explanation.
    Now can you tell us how a new Pope is "chosen"?
    (I'm pretty sure the huge crowds in Saint Peter's Square don't get to caucus. . .)

  • c u n d gulag on January 03, 2012 8:46 AM:

    DAY,
    Choosing a new Pope is a great mystery.

    It probably involves some child-schtupping, and puffing on cigarette's afterwards to create some smoke, so I don't think we want to know.

  • Zorro on January 03, 2012 9:24 AM:

    And with that, roughly “four hundredths of one percent” of the total U.S. population will have made an enormous impact on who the Republican nominee — and perhaps the next president — will be.

    Makes perfect sense for a "democracy" which is really more of an oligarchy of the 1%.

    -Z

  • T2 on January 03, 2012 9:42 AM:

    paper ballots counted in secret. Sounds like a recipe for Voter Fraud to me. Seriously.

  • chi res on January 03, 2012 9:45 AM:

    At 8 p.m. eastern, Iowa

    Really?

    Are you hoping Iowans will read this post and be an hour late to the caucuses?

    Or is WM really so east-coast-centric that you list eastern time for an event taking place only in central time?

  • locoparentis on January 03, 2012 10:46 AM:

    "By most estimates, the process should be wrapped up by around 9 p.m. eastern, at which point most participants will simply leave, while some party activists stick around to choose delegates to the state Republican convention."

    So what really happens is that there is a non-binding vote which is reported by the press as significant and the party regulars pick the county convention delegates who may or may not reflect the voting in each caucus.

  • jpeckjr on January 03, 2012 11:39 AM:

    I've participated in Democratic caucuses in two states, CO and MN. We also had to consider state races, including US Senate, Congress, governor, and state legislature. Any of those races being dealt with in the Iowa caucuses?

    At a caucus in Colorado, there were only six of us. I was elected caucus chair and a delegate to the state convention, mostly because, at 32, I was the youngest person there, and I was willing to fill out the paperwork. Actually, kind of cool when you think about it.

    In Minnesota in 2008, it was a completely different experience. 1000 people showed up in a town of 25,000, at a woefully inadequate union hall. 900 went home after expressing their presidential preference. The other 100 of us dealt with the other races, including US Senate, Congress, and Governor. Didn't know my doctor was a Dem until I saw him in line!

    Caucuses are not elections. The only people elected are those to serve as delegates to other party events. The "winner" of the Iowa caucus may not be the eventual nominee.

  • stinger on January 03, 2012 1:41 PM:

    @jpeckjr: No Senate or governor races this year. House lines have been redrawn, as Iowa loses a Rep, and there's some interest in the western part of the state where there's a chance to get rid of Steve King. Some state-level races too, of course.

    Alas, Washington Monthly didn't give us the Xmas gift of NO MO CAPTCHA, and apparently didn't make it their New Year's resolution, either.

  • coalburner on January 03, 2012 5:17 PM:

    "Iowa Republicans — without photo IDs, and with same-day registration"

    Of course the Repubs wouldn't need photo IDs. After all, its only the democrats that commit voter fraud

  •  
  •  
  •