Get Ready to Caucus

Posted on 01/06/20

           
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What is a Caucus?

Very few states in the nation still hold caucuses, and the remaining states hold primary elections. Unlike a presidential primary, caucuses are party nominating contests in which individuals come together and select delegates for a candidate. It’s more than a moment at a ballot box; it is a social activity.

They occur first at the precinct level*. Community members, party leaders, and activists come
together to conduct party business, field party platform planks, and, of course, support a particular candidate. There will be over 1,600 precinct-level caucuses on February 3, 2020.

The Iowa caucuses for both parties will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2020.

Regardless of party affiliation, a caucus in Iowa breaks down into three essential steps.

1. Check in

2. Delegate Distribution

3. Platforms and Party Business

*For more information on county, district, and state level caucuses, contact the Iowa Democratic Party or the Iowa GOP, or ask your precinct chair the night of the caucus.

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Democratic Caucus

The Democratic Caucus will take place on February 3, 2020. Make sure to arrive at your caucus location before 7:00 PM so you can get checked in and seated so the caucus can begin promptly. It is recommended that you arrive by 6:30 PM. This is an opportunity for you to confirm or update your address and party affiliation if need be. No identification will be required.

Once everyone is checked in, the caucus is opened by a temporary chair. Caucus-goers will then vote on the chair, and the proceedings can officially begin.

Once the caucus is opened, candidates or representatives from campaigns (often referred to as surrogates) can speak on behalf of a candidate in order to convince undecided caucus-goers to support them. Not all candidates will have speakers in every precinct, so it is possible that they will simply distribute campaign literature to inform caucus-goers about their choices. Once all the surrogates have had an opportunity to speak, the real fun can begin.

The next step in a Democratic Caucus is the delegate distribution. This will happen in two rounds.

  • For the first round, caucus-goers will physically move to a designated space in the room for their first candidate preference. If they are not sure which candidate they would like to support, they can form an “Uncommitted” group (fun fact, “Uncommitted” won the 1976 Iowa Caucus, and former President Jimmy Carter was in second place).
  • Once everyone is in place, a count is taken. NEW for 2020, at this point everyone will fill out the first side of a Candidate Preference Card.

In order for a candidate to be considered viable*, they will have to have a minimum of 15% of caucus-goers in their corner (literally). NEW for 2020, if your candidate immediately meets the viability threshold, your “vote” is locked in, and you will not be able to realign with another candidate, this also includes the uncommitted group.

NEW for 2020, each caucusgoer will be given a piece of paper called a presidential preference card that will act as a physical record of who they supported. Precinct leaders will direct caucusgoers to write down which candidate they're supporting on their preference card. Do not lose this card. You must return it to precinct officials before you leave the site. After the first alignment, members of viable groups may fill out their preference cards, return them to precinct officials and go home for the night. If you realign with a second candidate, you'll complete the second side of the Candidate Preference Card.

If your candidate/group has not met the 15% threshold, then you will have the opportunity to realign with another candidate during the second round, otherwise known as the realignment period. During this realignment period, campaign surrogates may try to persuade uncommitted or non-viable groups to move into their camp. You can still move to or remain uncommitted, you can merge two unviable corners, or you can join with an existing viable group. If, at the end of the realignment, your group is still not viable, then your votes are not counted in the final totals. After the realignment, another count is taken, and the results are calculated.

But it is not so cut and dry. Once the final count is taken, there is a considerable amount of “caucus math” that has to take place in order to calculate how many delegates each viable candidate will receive, which is contingent on the number of delegates available to your precinct. Once the calculations are done, the results are announced to the caucus then reported to the state parties. From here, the caucus will decide who in the room will go on to serve as a delegate at the county convention. Caucus participants are free to leave after the delegate nominating process ends.

After the nominating contest ends, the caucus moves into party business. During this time, people may introduce possible platform planks. These planks are then voted on and reported to the state party. During this time, party representatives may also ask for donations to the state parties.

After party business, the caucus is closed and the remaining attendees can – finally – go home.

*Not all precincts have a 15% viability threshold, but 15% is the most common.

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Republican Caucus

The Republican Caucus will take place on February 3, 2020. Make sure to arrive at your caucus location before 7:00 PM so you can get checked in and seated so the caucus can begin promptly. This is an opportunity for you to confirm or update your address and update you party affiliation if need be.

Once the caucus is opened, candidates or representatives from campaigns (often referred to as surrogates) can speak on behalf of a candidate in order to convince undecided caucus-goers to support them. Not all candidates will have speakers in every precinct, so it is possible that they will simply distribute campaign literature to inform caucus-goers about their choices. Once all of the surrogates have had an opportunity to speak, the real fun can begin.

The Republican Caucus takes the form of a straw poll. Caucus-goers are given a paper ballot, on which they will write down the name of their first preference. The ballots are turned in to the Secretary, counted, and the results are announced to the caucus. The results are then sent to the state party.

At this point, the caucus will select which delegates will go on to represent them at the county convention. These delegates are not necessarily tied to particular candidates. In other words, delegates are not assigned proportionally to candidates (unlike the Democrats).

Once the nominating contest ends, the caucus moves into party business. During this time, people may introduce possible platform planks. These planks are then voted on and reported to the state party. During this time, party representatives may also ask for donations to the state parties. Last but not least, the caucus is closed and attendees can go home.

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Where to caucus?

The most important thing to note is that the Iowa Caucuses are not run by the state of Iowa. Rather, they are administered by the state parties. For this reason, your caucus location may be different from your regular voting location.

While some of these locations may be set already, they are subject to change. NEW for 2020, Democrats have some satelite caucus locations set up for the 2020 Caucuses. Most of these Democratic satellite locations will be in Iowa, but there are also going to be satellite caucus locations in a handful of states outside of Iowa including Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota.

To find out where your caucus location is, or to find a satelite location, check your party website.

Find your precinct in Iowa here.

Find the location of your precinct's caucus:

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Who can caucus?

Like in a general election, there are certain minimum requirements one needs to fulfill in order to caucus. You must be a United States Citizen, you must be eligible to vote in the state of Iowa, you must be 18 years of age by election day*, and you must be registered with whichever party you choose to caucus for.

Of course, there are certain caveats to that last rule. You are able to register with a party or change your party registration on caucus night. You are also able to caucus if you are registered under “No Party”, but the price of admission to either the Democratic or Republican caucus is to register on caucus night with that party. To be clear though, you cannot participate in both the Republican and Democratic caucus for the same cycle.

If you plan on registering with a party prior to caucus night, it is recommended that you complete that process about 2 weeks prior to caucus night, to ensure that your registration has been processed and will be accessible on caucus night. If you miss this deadline, that's okay, you can still register at the caucus.

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After the caucus?

The delegates elected during the caucuses will attend county conventions. Participants at county conventions select the delegates to represent a candidate at district conventions that then select delegates for the state conventions. Delegates are further narrowed to attend the party national conventions. There, the national delegates select which candidate will be the party’s nominee for president. Stay tuned to your party's website to see the dates and times for these conventions.

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Content provided by the Iowa Caucus Project at Drake University

This story is provided by AARP Iowa. Visit the AARP Iowa page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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