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Iowa Caucus – a Last Minute Guide

After months and months of campaigning, the Democratic and Republican presidential contenders will finally face voters for the first time this week. You wouldn’t have been able to read anything recently about the presidential contest without hearing incessantly about the Iowa caucus.

But what is the Iowa caucus? And does the outcome really matter?

The Iowa caucus is the first in the series of caucuses and primaries which allocate delegates who determine the candidates of the major parties at the presidential election. Prior to 1972 the primary and caucus contests played a minor role with party bosses in smoke-filled backrooms wielding greater influence. Since 1972 Iowa has held the first of these nominating contests. This initially began by accident but - noticing the attention that came with being “first in the nation” - Iowa lawmakers legislated that they must now always hold the first contest.

There are two initial things to note about the Iowa caucus process:

1. It is not the same as a primary

2. The systems used by the Democrats and Republicans are different.

On caucus day, groups of Iowans will meet in each of Iowa’s 1,681 voting precincts. These might be large affairs held in school gyms or smaller meetings in someone’s lounge room. You must be present at the time for your vote to count. Before each vote (or series of votes) representatives of the candidates may make speeches in a last-minute attempt to persuade voters.

The Republican process is the most straightforward with the caucus attendees casting a secret ballot to determine who will win the delegates from that precinct. The Democratic system, by contrast, is much more convoluted. The caucusesgoers divide into groups based on their preferred candidate. If a candidate has not reached a “viability threshold”, usually 15%, then their voters must disband and they join one of the other candidates. With the rest of the American voting system being based on first-past-the-post, this is an unusual occurrence of preferential voting. Once all candidates have met this “viability threshold” then they are awarded delegates based on the percentage of support they receive.

In case that was as clear as mud, here it is explained using Lego.

On the Democratic side, the caucus results are a strong indicator of eventual success in the nomination process with the previous five being won by the eventual nominee.

On the Republican side, the caucus results are an incredibly poor indicator of the eventual nominee and, I would argue, are greatly overrated by political commentators.

Since 1976 there have been seven contested Republican caucuses (in 1984, 1992 and 2004 sitting Republican presidents ran unopposed). Three have been won by the eventual Republican nominee - sitting President Gerald Ford in 1976 (by 2%), Bob Dole in 1996 (by 3%) and George W. Bush in 2000 (10%). A greater number, though, have not been won by the eventual nominee. In 1980 George H. W. Bush defeated eventual nominee Ronald Reagan. In 1988 incumbent Vice President and eventual nominee George H. W. Bush came third behind Kansas Senator Bob Dole and television evangelical Pat Robertson. In 2008 former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee took top honours and the eventual nominee, Senator John McCain, finished in fourth place. In the most recent caucus, 2012, Rick Santorum, the most conservative runner, edged out eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, for the victory.

What can explain these outcomes?

1) Ideological complexion of Iowa Republicans

Iowa voters, and caucusgoers in particular, are not representative of the broader United States electorate. They tend to be whiter, more religious, and much more socially conservative. 42% of Iowa Republicans are white evangelical Protestants compared with 18% of the broader population. On social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, Iowa Republicans are not only more conservative than the national electorate but also than most Republicans. The pre-eminence of these social issues, in conjunction with the high percentage of religious voters, indicate why the previous two caucuses having been won by a Baptist minister and a Senator who actively promoted the teaching of intelligent design. It is also why Donald Trump was keen to trumpet the endorsement of Sarah Palin, a popular figure with social and religious conservatives.

2) Role of organisation

A former campaign organiser in Santorum’s victory contended afterwards that “organisational effort” will always dwarf “candidate appeal” in determining victory in Iowa. Organising your supporters to be at a particular place at a particular time takes a high level of organisation and a sustained effort to ensure a campaign’s supporters are committed. Ensuring your resources are best allocated across the 1,681 precincts is a mammoth organisational task. We can again witness the role of religion with church groups a natural organising tool as well as an active base of people who are used to turning up somewhere at a certain time!

So is the Iowa caucus a pointless aberration that should be ignored? No! And never say that about an election!

Here are 3 things to watch out for:

1) Will Trump’s support hold?

Critics have long dismissed Trump’s support as soft and argued that voters were willing to lend him their support in opinion polling but would shift to a more credible candidate when the actual voting neared. This doesn’t appear to have occurred and if Trump’s numbers coming out of Iowa are close to the predicted polls, it will be game on.

2) Who will come in third?

There aren’t many races where who takes bronze is just as important as who takes gold, but this is one of them. For reasons outlined above, it is likely (famous last words!) that Trump and Cruz will come in first and second. Whoever comes in third is likely (there’s that word again!) to become the so-called “Establishment” or “moderate” front-runner. There is a strong chance that these forces within the party won’t be happy for their support to be split between multiple candidates and will try to coalesce around one person. If Rubio were to finish third, as the polls predict, there will be significant pressure on the other moderates, such as Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich, to withdraw and endorse Rubio. If either of these men were to take third place, though, their candidacies will be back on track.

3) Will Hillary #feelthebern?

It was a long cold night for the Clinton camp eight years ago as they watched Barack Obama claim victory and shatter the apparent inevitability of her nomination. Will history repeat in 2016? Polls have Clinton slightly ahead of Senator Bernie Sanders and a victory for her is expected. If Sanders were to claim victory, as well as being the strong favourite for the New Hampshire primary, the Democrats could be looking at a long and drawn-out contest.

Mitchell Robertson is the US Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image Credit: Phil Roeder ("Caucus Tourism") (Flickr: Creative Commons) and uhuru1701 ("American Flag (also a jigsaw puzzle)") (Flickr: Creative Commons) Images merged.


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