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Civics for Citizens: Caucuses, Iowa, and What it all Means

When it comes to following the primaries in an American Presidential election, trying to stay on top of who’s ahead, who’s behind, who’s up and down in the polls (and everything in between), can leave you feeling a bit dazed and confused.

What’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?

On the one hand, a key characteristic of caucuses is that they’re run by political parties instead of state election officials. Primaries, on the other hand, are most often organized by state and local governments. Primaries follow the type of ballot voting process you’re likely more familiar with if you’ve ever voted in an American general or local election. 

Gearing up for the 2020 caucus and primary season

For 2020, Democratic parties in several states are moving away from caucuses entirely, with some states, such as Colorado, Nebraska, and Idaho, switching to existing or newly created state-run primaries. On the Republican side, four states—South Carolina, Arizona, Nevada, and Kansas—are ditching caucuses as well. 

But at this point in the year, the most talked about caucus state is Iowa. 

The Democratic caucuses in Iowa are probably what most people have in mind, where participants divide themselves into groups based on their support for the different candidates and try to persuade others to join their group. (There’s also an “uncommitted” group.) These caucuses can be rowdy affairs, where participants make speeches in support of their favored candidates, move around and between groups if necessary (called realigning), and debate for hours in order to determine candidate viability at the caucus site. Ultimately, the caucus process in Iowa determines the number of state delegates for each candidate moving forward in the process. 

However, the rules and setup are not the same for both Democratic and Republican caucuses. Because they’re party-run gatherings, the Democratic and Republican caucuses in a single state may look very different. For example, the Republican caucus in Iowa is less complicated and has a more structured vote and tally process for determining delegates. Check out this write-up from the Des Moines Register for a breakdown of how each party organizes its caucus and counts delegates. 

Why is Iowa so significant?

The thing to keep in mind is that Iowa is important because it is first, but it’s not first because it’s inherently more important than other states’ primary contests. Iowa has always been a caucus state, with rare exception. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the Iowa caucuses were moved up earlier in the year to be “first in the nation.” 

After the turmoil and violence of the 1968 Democratic convention, in which Hubert Humphrey was put forth as the Democratic nominee for President despite not having won any of the state primary elections, Democratic party leaders moved up Iowa’s caucus to account for it’s drawn out process. 

In 1976, then-nominee Jimmy Carter was the first to recognize the potential boost of winning in Iowa, which indeed worked out in his favor. After that, hoping to start out the election year on strong footing, both Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns worked to curry favor in Iowa.

Iowa helps to narrow the pool of candidates but winning there is no guarantee of becoming the eventual party nominee at the Democratic and Republican conventions. For more on the history, rules, and stakes of the Iowa caucuses specifically, Pod Save America’s five-part miniseries podcast On the Ground in Iowa is a great place to start. 

About the Author

Paige is the Programs and Office Assistant at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She received her B.A. in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College, with a focus on nonfiction. Prior to joining AGF, she worked at The Garden Club of America in the role of Information Coordinator, where she provided website support for a national network of local garden clubs, and as a Staff Administrator, where she supported the volunteer-led Communications and membership magazine committees. Paige is an AmeriCorps alum who remains passionate about volunteering, though these days she is finding more unique ways to be of service through online networks and communities from her home in the woods.