The much-discussed yet still mysterious Iowa caucuses are finally upon us after nearly a year of campaigning, a lot of debating, and countless polls of dubious accuracy. So … how exactly do these caucuses work to give us the results we’re all waiting for? Let’s turn to some Iowans to find out.
Over at Bleeding Heartland, desmoinesdem has an in-depth explainer. Tonight is just the first part in a multi-step process that begins with precinct-level caucuses. For Republicans, things are relatively straightforward. Voters in each precinct get together in a room, hear pitches from supporters of the various campaigns, and write down their votes on pieces of paper. Those ballots counted on the spot by each precinct’s chair, then forwarded to the state Republican Party via app.
After votes are tallied, most caucus-goers go home, but there’s more work to be done: In particular, attendees then select delegates to the county conventions, which in turn select delegates to an escalating series of gatherings culminating in the Republican National Convention. As desmoinesdem explains, only the hardest-core activists stick around for this part of the event, which is why fanatic Ron Paul supporters were able to secure the most delegates to the RNC even though Paul finished in third place on caucus night. That makes tonight’s vote more akin to a straw poll for the GOP, but of course, it can be enormously important to setting perceptions and establishing narratives.
The Democratic caucuses, meanwhile, are a leetle bit more complicated. They’re not counting individual votes—they’re actually allocating delegates to the county conventions. In fact, at no point does the Iowa Democratic Party release straight totals of how many people voted for each candidate. Rather, each precinct has a set number of delegates, which are awarded based on the proportion of the vote each candidate gets at that precinct caucus in relation to the total number of delegates available. You don’t just simply write down your vote: You actually have to go to a section of the room for supporters of your preferred candidate.
What’s more, to get any delegates at all, your candidate needs the support of at least 15 percent of the voters at that precinct (and more if it’s a tiny precinct). This is known as a the “viability threshhold.” That sets the stage for the fun:
After Democratic caucus-goers have gone to their candidate’s area in the room, precinct captains count the supporters and report the number to the precinct chair, who announces the totals and which candidates are viable. Democrats then have an opportunity to "realign." Supporters of candidates who fell below the viability threshold can choose a different candidate, or they can try to persuade people from one of the other groups to come over and help them be viable, or they can try to form an "uncommitted" group.
This can be a highly strategic process. Iowa Starting Line explains:
A common tactic employed in the Democratic caucus is to help make a non-viable group viable if you fear their members would all move over to your rival. A John Edwards group may have sent three of their people to a Bill Richardson corner to get him to the 15% viability threshold so that they didn’t all switch to Barack Obama and give Obama an extra delegate. Sometimes deals will be made, like the Richardson group elects the Edwards supporter that comes over as their representative to the county convention.
That means that not only will there be intense competition for Martin O’Malley supporters in precincts where he doesn’t reach viability, but Clinton or Sanders supporters could strategically go over to O’Malley to deny a delegate to the key opposition. The Clinton campaign is reportedly planning to do exactly that, while the Sanders campaign says it has no such plans. But with this kind of realignment possible, a campaign that has highly experienced precinct captains may go in with an advantage in eking out every possible delegate—or denying delegates to a competitor.
Precinct caucuses elect county convention delegates. The county delegate totals are converted into estimated "state delegate equivalents" using a mathematical formula. The winner of the Iowa caucuses is the candidate who wins a plurality of state delegate equivalents.
And importantly, the number of delegates available to be awarded at each caucus site is not affected by how many people show up tonight. Rather, that figure is set based on historical results and won't change even if one candidate floods a particular precinct with supporters. If you want to go deeper into how it all works, check out The Green Papers.