Caucus Calculus: A Guide to Iowa

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.

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 npr.org.

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