How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work? Iowa voters will start the process of deciding who the next president will be. But they'll do it in a way that can mystify outsiders — meeting in schools, gymnasiums and even neighbors' living rooms.
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How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

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How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work?

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The Iowa caucus is a communal affair. People don't cast ballots alone in voting booths. They go to caucuses where people speak out and eventually cast a vote. Opinion polls don't matter in caucuses, only the number of supporters who come to a caucus and vote for a candidate. And if you're wondering, no alcohol is served, though I do remember an extraordinary strawberry pie in Indianola, Iowa. NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro joins us. Domenico, thanks so much for being with us.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: The Democrats and Republicans do it differently, don't they?

MONTANARO: They certainly do. Republicans, very simple, can get that out of the way pretty easily. People start to make speeches. They try to win over people to vote. But then people just fold over their papers, turn them in. It's a very informal secret ballot. Democrats on the other hand...

SIMON: They're always more complicated, can't we say?

MONTANARO: (Laughter) They're very egalitarian. They want to win over each other. They have clusters in corners of libraries and gymnasiums. And you have to make a 15 percent threshold. So if you don't get 15 percent of the vote as a candidate, then your supporters have to go to someone else, and that's when it gets hairy in there where people are, you know, trying to make the case for someone to come to their side.

SIMON: And how does this wind up translating itself to delegates?

MONTANARO: It's a very complicated, long and winding process that actually takes months. And none of the results on election night actually translate to the delegates that go to the national convention. They're not bound in any way. In fact, most of this is just for momentum. It's a very small slice of delegates that wind up going to the nominating process. So really, we're talking about Sen. Sanders, Hillary Clinton trying to gain momentum heading into the next contests.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the specific party races. According to opinion polls, Mr. Trump has extended his lead on the Republican side. Does he have an organization to deliver, or is it all (unintelligible)?

MONTANARO: Well, one of the big questions is going to be whether or not Donald Trump is able to turn out all of these new voters that he says he's going to be able to turn out. So if you look at the numbers on caucus night, if the numbers are about 150,000 or higher on the Republican side, people think that's a good day for Donald Trump. If there are 125,000 to 150,000, that's the number of people are saying could be good for Ted Cruz.

SIMON: Democratic side, both Sen. Sanders and Hillary Clinton seem to be getting good crowds.

MONTANARO: For the Democrats, the thing to watch here is that Hillary Clinton has been in this state for two years organizing. They feel like they have their strong core base of support. They have Barack Obama's field operation there. Remember, he won this state in 2008. Bernie Sanders has a interesting complication because he's getting huge crowds. A lot of his supporters are young. They're college-age. The problem with them is that they're all concentrated in a few different places. He's winning more than a quarter of his vote right now in three counties. They're actually encouraging a lot of these kids to go back home so that they can filter out the vote in the rest of the state because the way delegates are picked, they need a little bit more of these kids to go back to other places. Otherwise, Hillary Clinton could wind up winning in rural counties and wind up beating Bernie Sanders, even though he might have a lot of vote concentrated in those cities.

SIMON: All this concentration on Iowa - and I don't regret a moment on it...

MONTANARO: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...But is it a little bit like trying to judge a baseball game by the bottom of the first inning?

MONTANARO: Yeah, maybe even before that, right? I mean, it's more like the scorecard at the beginning of the game and filling out the lineups or something because, like I said, there's a very small slice of delegates here at stake. This is not going to be determinative if you're just looking at the numbers. But what often happens is the people who don't perform well in Iowa or New Hampshire wind up having a very difficult time later on. In fact, we've only had one person win who hasn't won either Iowa or New Hampshire in the last 40 years on the Republican or Democratic side, and that was Bill Clinton.

SIMON: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro, thanks very much for being with us.

MONTANARO: Oh, thank you so much, always a pleasure.

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