Just How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work? Iowa's voters caucus on Jan. 3. The state's 1,784 precinct caucus locations will receive Democratic voters who apportion delegates to various candidates. It takes place in public. But Republicans choose the winner by popular vote, putting a candidates name on paper and dropping it in a box.
NPR logo

Just How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17570314/17570282" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Just How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?

Just How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/17570314/17570282" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There are 1,784 precinct caucus locations all over the state and when Iowa voters get there, they will go through a complicated process of apportioning delegates to the various candidates, that is, if they're Democrats. Republicans use a different system.

It's rather confusing, and so we're going to get an explanation this morning from NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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 campaign in Iowa are producing videos, like these, trying to reassure people that…

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Male #1: Caucusing is easy.

Unidentified Male #2: Okay. You want to put Hillary in the White House? First, you have to caucus.

LIASSON: John Edwards has made a caucus cartoon.

(Soundbite of John Edwards political ad)

Unidentified Male #3: Joe(ph) 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, Senator Barack Obama Presidential Campaign): Now, do we do the orientation or are we gone through demo 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 captains' 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're caucusing for pies.

Ms. GREY: I am the precinct captain for blueberry pie. Blueberry pie is a pie that thinks outside the box.

Unidentified Woman #2: …pumpkin pie, and I just wanted to encourage everyone to caucus for pumpkin pie because the time is now for pumpkin pie.

Unidentified Man #1: Apple pie. Never really have to get into details about how American apple pie is. I think it's very self-explanatory.

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

Ms. GREY: (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 non-viable candidates who are 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 are traded, like offers of delegate slots at the state convention.

Unidentified Woman #2: If you want to be a delegate, maybe we can make a deal.

Ms. GREY: I could be the delegate for pumpkin?

Unidentified Woman #2: We can see what we can do about it, yeah.

Unidentified Woman #3: You can be the delegate.

Ms. GREY: All right. Done and done. I will join you over here in pumpkin if you let me go to the convention.

(Soundbite of cheering)

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…

Ms. GREY: And here, because we are tied - this is going to blow your mind -we're actually going to flip a coin.

(Soundbite of crowd talking)

Ms. GREY: Yup. That's actually what 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): I think the Republicans will 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.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

Ms. GREY: All right. So here's the coin. And it's head.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman #4: It's pumpkin.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.