Caucus Away

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Jan 28, 2016 12:01 AM
Caucus Away

This Monday, Iowa will kick off the 2016 presidential primary process. Iowans closely guard their station as residents of the first state in the union to voice their choice for the presidential nominee for the Republican and Democratic parties.

Many of us non-Iowans are used to voting in primaries. For us, this means showing up on a certain day at our polling place between certain hours or sending in our absentee ballots before the primary date.

In Iowa, the process works much differently. They caucus rather than vote. What does this mean?

In the state's 99 counties, there exist 1,681 caucus locations. The locations range from schools and civic centers to Thoma's Dairy Bar Cafe in Garnavillo (population 745). Caucuses can even happen in homes!

The caucuses are run by the Democratic and Republican parties rather than by the state of Iowa. People who want to participate must first figure out where their caucus is located (both parties have a website that provide the information), then show up and get in line to register by 7 pm the night of the caucus.

While you must be registered as a "party member" to caucus, both parties allow you to register on the night of the caucus at your location. Republican caucuses require valid ID; Democratic caucuses require none.

In Republican caucuses, participants vote by silent ballot. The candidates and/or their representatives are invited to talk to the audience, after which blank pieces of paper are passed around. The caucus goers write the name of the candidate they favor on the paper and the papers are given to a collector who counts the votes for each party.

This process has its challenges. In 2008, then-GOP candidate Mitt Romney was declared the winner. Two weeks later, Rick Santorum was declared the winner. Sorry, Rick, a bit too late to propel his campaign in New Hampshire.

For Democrats, caucus goers show their support by standing in an area designated for a particular candidate. They are given time to encourage others to join in. If, after 30 minutes, a group favoring one candidate or the other is considered too small to be "viable," then it is required to realign with other candidates.

What does this process mean? That if you are sick or out of town on business, you can't participate. It also means that, for your voice to be heard, you have to figure out where to go and get there on time. Many Iowans see this as an indication of their passion and interaction with the process, but it also means it's harder to participate in the process.

According to Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University and author of "How Many People Participate in the Iowa Caucuses?" the 2004 Democratic caucus turnout rate was 23 percent. Four years later, it soared to 40 percent. The 2008 Republican turnout rate was 21 percent, and held steady at 20 percent in 2012.

Since both parties allow for on-site party registration, the potential exists for independents or other party members to participate in the caucus. According to Goldford, exit polls after the 2012 Republican caucuses showed that "75 percent of participants were previously registered Republicans, while 2 percent had been registered Democrats and 23 percent had been registered as independents." Of those who had been independents, 43 percent "cast their preference vote for Ron Paul."

On the other side, "in 2008, 20 percent of the Democratic caucus participants had previously been independents."

When all is said and done, does Iowa's track record show that it helps determine the eventual nominees?

Maybe not. Reid J. Epstein and Peter Nicolas wrote this week in the Wall Street Journal, "How Iowa and New Hampshire Rate in Predicting Election Winners," that "Iowa Republicans haven't picked the party's nominee since George W. Bush won in 2000. Bob Dole in 1996 was the only other Iowa winner to claim the nomination since 1976."

Guess they are attributing the 2012 Iowa pick to Santorum. Although Romney was the declared winner for two weeks, one could argue that, by then, the public had moved on.

"The record is different for Iowa Democrats," Epstein and Nicolas note, "who have chosen the eventual party nominee in three of the last five contested caucuses."

Let's just hope that the 8-12 inches of snow predicted to fall next Tuesday in the Hawkeye State does not arrive a day early. If it does, the number of Iowans having an impact on the outcome of the caucuses will likely dwindle even more.