How to Caucus in Iowa A lesson in how, exactly, the Iowa caucuses work.
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How to Caucus in Iowa

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How to Caucus in Iowa

How to Caucus in Iowa

How to Caucus in Iowa

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A lesson in how, exactly, the Iowa caucuses work.


Now the Iowa caucuses are on January 3rd, but that's not the day Iowa voters go to the polls. There are no polls that day in Iowa. There are 1,784 precinct caucus locations all over the state. And when Iowans get there, they go through a complicated process of apportioning delegates to the various candidates. That is if they're Democrats - stay with me here. Iowa Republicans used a different system - really stay with me here. I know it's a little bit confusing, but fear not. Here's NPR's National political correspondent Mara Liasson to explain.

MARA LIASSON: The first thing you need to know about the Iowa Democratic caucuses is that they take several hours. Also, everything is done in public, out in the open. There are no secret ballots. That can be a little daunting especially for first timers. And that's why the campaigns in Iowa are producing videos like this trying to reassure people that…

(Soundbite of a TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: Caucusing is easy. Okay, you want to put Hillary on the White House. First, you have to caucus.

LIASSON: John Edwards has made a caucus cartoon.

(Soundbite of John Edwards' caucus cartoon)

Unidentified Man #2: Joe wakes up happy because today is caucus day. And Joe is a precinct captain for John Edwards.

LIASSON: In addition to videos, the campaigns are also holding mock caucuses -training sessions where they walk supporters through the process and teach them what to expect on caucus night.

Ms. CAROLINE GREY (Field Organizer for Barack Obama): Now, did we do the orientation or we gone through and done the signing yet?

Unidentified Woman #1: We have not done the signing yet.

Ms. GREY: Awesome. Fantastic.

Unidentified Woman #1: But I did…

LIASSON: Caroline Grey is a field organizer for Barack Obama and the precinct chair of this mock caucus. Her first and most important piece of advice: be punctual.

Ms. GREY: If you don't get there on time, which, for us is 6:30 on Thursday, January 3rd, you actually won't be let in to the caucus - that means you won't be counted.

LIASSON: This might surprise you, but the number of delegates a candidate wins in Iowa is not determined by the number of votes they get at the caucuses. Instead, each precinct is awarded a total number of delegates based on Democratic turnout in the last two general elections. It works more like the Electoral College than the popular vote.

Ms. GREY: In this precinct, it has been determined from previous elections that we have been awarded two delegates. That means that what we are fighting for here is two of those people. So you whip out your little calculator, in this case, your cell phone.

LIASSON: This is what's called caucus math and it can make anyone but the most experienced precinct captain's eyes glaze over. Based on the total number of people who show up, the precinct chair calculates how many votes a candidate needs to make the first cut or what's called viability.

In most precincts, it's 15 percent. Whether or not this is really democratic is a question we will not address here. Instead, let's listen as the mock precinct captains make their pitches. Tonight, in place of real candidates, they are caucusing for pies.

Unidentified Woman #2: I am a precinct captain for blueberry pie. Blueberry pie is a pie that thinks outside the box.

Unidentified Woman #3: …and I just wanted to encourage everyone to caucus for a pumpkin pie because the time is now for pumpkin pie…

Unidentified Man #3: This is apple pie. I don't really have to get into details about how American apple pie is. I think it's pretty self-explanatory.

LIASSON: Once they've heard these steering speeches, the caucus participants break into preference groups. In caucus lingo, this is called alignment.

Unidentified Woman #4: (unintelligible) pie will stand right here by this lovely leather couch.

LIASSON: Once they've aligned, it's determined which candidates or pies didn't make the cut - that is, they failed to get enough votes. The remaining viable pies or candidates now get a chance to pitch for the supporters of the nonviable candidates, who were essentially out of the race. These voters can either make a second choice or go home. This is what's called realignment. And it's the time when special deals are cut and favors have traded, like offers of delegate slots at the state convention.

Unidentified Woman #5: If you want to be in a delegate, maybe we could make a deal.

Unidentified Woman #6: I could be the delegate for pumpkin?

Unidentified Woman #5: Or we can see what we can do about it…

Unidentified Woman #6: (unintelligible) been thinking about it (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #5: …yeah.

Unidentified Woman #6: All right.

Unidentified Woman #5: (unintelligible) to tell you.

Unidentified Woman #6: Done and done. I will join you over here in pumpkin, if you let me go to the convention…

Unidentified Woman #7: Yay. Whoo.

LIASSON: Realignment has occurred, but there are still three viable preference groups fighting for just two delegates. That means the two candidates with the lowest number of delegates are essentially tied and…

Unidentified Woman #8: And here because we are tied - this is going to blow your mind - we're actually going to flip a coin.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Woman #8: Yup, that's what actually happens in the Iowa caucuses.

LIASSON: This is all a bit too much for Mike Mahaffey, the former chair of the Iowa state Republican Party.

Mr. MIKE MAHAFFEY (Former Chair, Iowa State Republican Party): But I think the Republicans would just tell you, it's just too complicated.

LIASSON: Republicans in Iowa choose the winner by popular vote. They go to their precinct meetings, scribble their candidate's name on a piece of paper and drop it in a box. After that secret ballot, they go home to watch the Orange Bowl - no complicated caucus math and no coin tosses.

Mr. MAHAFFEY: With all due respect to our Democratic friends, Republicans are somewhat more skeptical of rules and regulations. And I think they're happier to have a simpler and more straightforward method of doing things than the Democrats have.

LIASSON: But the Democrats are wedded to their process too. No one wants to change Iowa political tradition.

Unidentified Woman #9: All right. So here is the coin. It is (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #10: Yay. (unintelligible)

Unidentified Woman #9: Oh, the disappointment of (unintelligible) night.

STEWART: That's NPR's Mara Liasson reporting. Stay tuned to the BPP at for continuing election coverage.

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