How Iowa Works: 101

Matt Lewis
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Posted: Dec 17, 2007 3:33 PM

Everyone talks about the Iowa Caucuses, but few people really know how they work.  With that in mind, following is a quick cheat-sheet on how Iowa works:

The Caucus System: Predicting the Winner is Tough

The hardest thing about running a caucus campaign in Iowa is figuring out who will actually show up.  Caucusing is much more difficult -- and time consuming -- than merely voting.  And because they take place in January, sub-zero temperatures are usually the norm.  Folks obviously can't vote absentee -- and this year, the Orange Bowl will be on TV. 

For this reason, it is notoriously difficult to get accurate polling numbers in Iowa.  At this point four years ago, John Kerry was polling in 4th place in Iowa.  Historically, about 70 percent of caucus voters have caucused before, but when pollsters ask voters if they "may" attend a caucus, they are likely casting a wider net than the 80 - 90 thousand folks who are expected to attend the caucus.  Pollsters also tend to over-sample the number of Independents who will turn out for a Republican caucus. 

So take the Iowa poll numbers with a grain of salt.

How Campaigns Organize Iowa

There are 99 counties in Iowa and 1,781 precincts -- some of which have as few as 5 or 10 voters (who actually show up at a caucus).  As you can imagine, this creates a logistical challenge.  So how do campaigns organize for this? 

Campaigns are, for obvious reasons, hesitant to reveal too much insider information about their campaign.  But generally speaking, Iowa works like this:  Potential caucus-goers are rated on a 1-5 scale.  “Ones” are the uber-supporters who have literally signed a supporter card and agreed to voter for your candidate.  “Twos” are folks who have verbally told door-to-door canvassers or phone bankers that they support your candidate.  And, of course, fives are supporting other campaigns. 

Lists are culled by voter ID phone banks and door-to-door canvassing.  Then, precinct leaders are assigned to communicate with these supporters, making sure there is as little attrition as possible (and noting whether or not someone has switched affiliation).  Because caucusing is difficult, each campaign has field staff who conduct “caucus training” for their identified supporters. 

On Caucus day, each precinct leader is responsible for turning out his or her "Ones."  This is vital, because in order to win, a campaign’s identified voters must still turn out even if it rains, or snows, or if their car breaks down …

Caucus Day

Despite the romantic mythology that most Caucuses take place in someone’s home, the vast majority take place at a location such as a school.  Obviously, the way they are conducted varies from town-to-town and year-to-year, but here is generally what happens:

Upon arriving, voters check in with county GOP person.  If the voter isn’t registered, they may fill out a registration form at that time.  A representative from each campaign then speaks on each candidate’s behalf, and tries to sway undecided voters who may be there.  After speeches, they break into precincts (several precincts often meet at the same location). 

There are usually some GOP Parliamentary procedures to be performed, such as electing a chairman and a secretary, etc. Eventually, the time comes for folks to literally write down on a piece of paper the candidate preference.  After votes are tallied, they are reported to the Iowa Republican party.  After voting, there is also usually more Party business to be conducted, including discussing the platform.