If you live in a state where you indicate your choice of a presidential candidate by voting in a primary, you may not realize how different a caucus is. A primary is basically a polling of the registered voters to determine their choice of candidate. But a caucus is a social event in which you elect the delegates who, like in the Electoral College, will represent your choice for a candidate.
The Iowa caucuses will be the first opportunity Americans have to choose their presidential candidate. About one-hundred and twenty-five thousand people will gather in one-thousand, seven-hundred, and eighty-one locations, meeting in school houses, churches, auditoriums and even houses to select the delegates for their county convention. Each precinct has a set number of delegates to allocate; the number of delegates is determined by the voter turnout in the 2004 presidential and the 2006 governor races. So if you previously had a low turn out you may only have a few delegates to allocate no matter how many turn out this time. So if you precinct has ten delegates to allocate and ten people show up to caucus, then the each delegate would represent one persons vote, but if five-hundred people show up on caucus night, you still only have ten delegates to allocate, so each delegate would represent fifty peoples vote. This strange “caucus math” makes it hard to predict who will win Iowa. When you hear that a candidate is ahead in the polls, you don’t know if the people polled will get one vote for the candidate or one-fiftieth of a vote. But it gets even more complicated than that.
On caucus night you will arrive at your precinct location in time to register before the caucus is called to order at six thirty. Attendees will read candidate letters, sign nomination papers and fill out surveys. After registering they will find the location where the candidate has staked out in the room or they will join the undecided group. At six thirty, or after registration is complete, the temporary caucus chair, will call the caucus to order. The Chair will explain that the primary purpose of the caucus is to elect delegates, alternates and convention committee members to the county convention, discuss and adopt resolutions to be recommended to the county platform committee and elect new leadership for the precinct - the precinct committee persons who will serve as voting members on the county central committee. Then the Chair will read a welcome letter from Iowa Democratic Party Chair, Scott Brennan, and a message on early voting. Attendees will be encouraged to fill out an absentee ballot request form for the 2008 general election and the Chair will remind caucus attendees that it is income tax time and that attendees can help the Iowa Democratic Party by using the Iowa Income Tax Check-Off to the Iowa Democratic Party. Next, the Chair will either read, or make available, letters from Iowa’s Democratic elected officials, including but not limited to: Senator Tom Harkin, Governor Chet Culver and Lt. Governor Patty Judge, Congressman Bruce Braley, Congressman Dave Loebsack, Congressman Leonard Boswell, State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, Attorney General Tom Miller and Secretary of State Michael Mauro. Now your ready to get down to official business, but before you can do that the caucus as a whole must elect permanent officers. These officers include a permanent chair and a permanent secretary. Usually the temporary chairs that were recruited by the County Democratic Party are encouraged to seek office as permanent chair or permanent secretary. After electing permanent officers the chair will present the petitions with the required number of signatures each candidate needed to get their name on the ballot. Letters from each of the candidates will be read. All of this and you haven’t even got to vote yet! You could be home watching the football game. Are you beginning to understand why the candidates are so worried about whether their supporters will actually show up to caucus?
Now back to the stuff that affects caucus math. In order for a candidate to be awarded a delegate he must be “viable.” The Permanent Chair will count the number of eligible caucus attendees and announce the number. Viability is then determined based on the number of delegates the precinct will elect. At most precincts the candidate must receive at least fifteen percent of the votes to be viable. At this point caucus goers divide up into their preference groups, joining the group for their candidate, or the undecided group. Caucus participants have thirty minutes to align with a preference group. This is when your neighbors and friends will lobby you to join their group. Remember, unlike a primary where your vote is a private matter, in a caucus your friends and neighbors, and even your husband, can clearly see which group you are joining. Each group will pick a preference group chair. The preference group chair will be responsible for collecting and reporting information from the preference group to the caucus chair and secretary. The first formal action of the preference group chair shall be to count their members and report the size of their preference group to the caucus chair. Next begins the complicated part, realignment. If your candidate is not viable, then you must realign with a group that is viable, or you can realign with another non-viable group to make one of your candidates viable. But caucus goers from viable groups can also realign with new groups. So maybe a candidate who has a strong turn out may decide to send some of his voters to a third tier candidate to make him viable and “steal” a delegate from his first tier competition. Figuring out how the delegates will be allocated is so complicated that there is even an Excel spreadsheet for calculating delegate allotment. Playing with this spreadsheet will help you to understand how moving one voter from your preference group to another can change the way in which delegates are allotted.
Ok, every one at your caucus is now aligned with a viable preference group and it time for more caucus math. The caucus chair will determine the number of delegates that each preference group is entitled to elect. He will do this by multiplying the number in each preference group by the total number of delegates to be elected and then dividing the result by the number of total eligible caucus attendees. Once he has determined the number he will announce the results and a call will be placed to Iowa Democratic Party’s toll free Reporting Line and report the results of the caucus. A representative from each preference group must be present when the results are reported. Now that you know the number of delegates your candidate has, you have to elect the delegates and alternates to go to the county convention. Each delegate candidate will be given an opportunity to speak to their preference group. After the delegates are chosen, the preference groups disband and join with the other caucus goers for the ratification of the slate of delegates and alternate delegates. Then the caucus will nominate persons to serve on the Platform Committee and the Committee on Committees for the County Convention from the delegates and alternate delegates just elected. The delegates who serve on the Platform Committee will help determine which platform resolutions are submitted to the state Convention for ratification in the State Democratic Party Platform and the delegates who serve on the Committee on Committees will be divided up among the following committees for the County Convention: Rules, Credentials, or Arrangements. Following this the caucus will discuss and adopt resolutions to be submitted to the platform committee. Resolutions are proposed by the caucus participants and time is allowed for discussion before calling the resolution to a vote. And finally, if there is no other business, the caucus is adjourned.
Those of us living in primary states can rejoice that on the cold winter night of the Iowa caucuses, we will be home watching football on the TV, checking the results of the Iowa caucuses online, and studying our absentee ballot that we must fill out and mail by Super Tuesday. For some of us participating in democracy is easier than it is for others.