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Election 2008

Caucus Calculus: A Guide to Iowa

Video: Iowa Caucus Primer
Video by John Poole, NPR

We keep hearing how important the "Iowa caucuses" are in determining both the Democratic and Republican nominees for president. But do we really know what a caucus is? And why Iowa?

I visited the Iowa Historical Society building in Des Moines this month with NPR Video Producer John Poole. We toured its caucus exhibit and came back with a video narration on both the history of Iowa and what takes place in a caucus. (Watch the results at left.)

Caucuses are like a neighborhood party that last for hours. In Iowa, they begin at 7 p.m. (Central) sharp. They take place in a church or a gymnasium or a school or in someone's living room. You're there with your neighbors. You discuss issues, such as Iraq or ethanol or Social Security. And you also discuss candidates.

Unlike a primary — where your vote is private — in a caucus, you declare your support for a candidate in plain view of everyone around you. Candidate Smith's supporters go to this corner of the room, candidate Jones' that corner, and so on. If no candidate at a particular caucus site receives the support of 15 percent of the attendees, his or her supporters need to form a coalition with another candidate's supporters to reach the vaunted 15 percent threshold. Otherwise, the candidate ends up with no support at all.

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It's a seemingly complicated process worthy of a rocket scientist. But the results and how they are interpreted are not complicated.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. He writes the weekly Political Junkie column on

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