What Goes On During the Iowa Caucuses, Anyway?

Iowa Voter in Days Leading Up to Caucus

A woman wears American flag earrings at an event in Ames, Iowa for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, two days before the state caucuses. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Need a ride to the Iowa caucuses, or a babysitter to watch the kids on Jan. 3? What about an online tutorial on the art of the caucus?

Both Republican and Democratic candidates have offered all of the above in speeches and on their Web sites, in an effort to urge Iowans to show up on Thursday night. But the Iowa caucuses are not like the general elections, or even like primaries, where people declare their choices in a secret vote. Here is NPR's guide to caucusing:

So how do Iowans pick their candidates?

Beginning at 7 p.m. CST, Iowans will gather in their neighbors' homes, schools, churches or gyms for what's essentially a neighborhood party that lasts for hours. The caucus goers advocate for the candidates of their choice. In the case of Democrats, they also debate policy issues such as Iraq, health care or the economy. Then they declare their presidential preference in one of the state's 1,784 voting precincts.

How many delegates are at stake?

There are 45 Democratic delegates and 40 Republican delegates at stake. But the number of delegates matters much less than the attention the winners will get, both from the national media and from voters in subsequent states.

Does the style of voting differ between Democratic and Republican caucus goers?

Yes. The Republicans choose their candidate based on a show of hands; whichever candidate earns the most votes wins that GOP precinct.

Meanwhile, Democrats debate and try to build coalitions with other supporters from the same voting precincts. Democratic candidates need the support of at least 15 percent of each precinct to move on to the next round, the county convention. If a candidate is not deemed "viable" — if he or she cannot get the 15 percent — then their supporters are free to form coalitions with other candidates.

What are the Iowa county conventions?

At the county convention, delegates are named to the state convention — where national convention delegates are allocated. But by then, the contest is usually already decided.

Why do Iowans get to vote first?

Starting in 1972, Iowa Democrats changed the way they selected their delegates by requiring that at least 30 days pass from the date of the caucuses to the county conventions. This pushed the caucus date up to Jan. 24, turning it into the first contest anywhere in the nation on the presidential calendar. Four years later, the Republican Party of Iowa also moved their caucus to the same date as the Democrats.

In 1976, the Iowa caucuses earned even more attention when they helped propel a little-known candidate, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, onto the national political stage. Carter went on to also win the New Hampshire primary, along with the general election.

How many Iowans are expected to caucus?

Traditionally, voter turnout at the Iowa caucuses is low. During the 2004 presidential race, when there was only a Democratic contest, only 6.4 percent of eligible voters participated; that's roughly 125,000 voters. Iowa's population is 2.9 million people.

Numbers were even more disappointing in 2000, the last time both parties held caucuses, when a total of only about 145,000 people turned out to caucus.

Why don't more Iowans participate?

In part, that low turnout is due to the strict rules about participation. Iowans must physically show up to caucus (there's no absentee voting), and that leaves out folks such as the infirm, those serving in the military and those working night shifts. And of course, it also excludes would-be caucus goers who just can't commit to venturing out during Iowa's cold January nights.

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