How in the heck does the Iowa caucus work?

Maligned by the media, mysterious to outsiders, the Iowa caucus is pretty straightforward if you follow Who, What Where, When, and How. Photo: Iowa Democratic Caucus, 2008

EASTON, Md., January 2, 2012 — On a cold winter’s night this Tuesday, January 3, thousands of Republicans and Democrats will once again wend their way to church basements, town halls, schools, and community centers to convene the 2012 Iowa caucuses, where they will determine whom they want to run against President Obama. Iowans have been practicing this election dance since the 1840s.

Here is guideline to help you decipher how the Iowa caucuses work:

Where and When:

Caucuses will start at 7 pm Central Time in all of the state’s 1,774 voting precincts, some in such remote spots that only a few voters will gather. In total, Republicans will convene in about 800 locations within those precincts.


In 2008, about 359,000 people or 17 percent of registered voters in Iowa were part of the Democratic and Republican caucuses. The turnout this year is expected to be lower since President Obama is running unopposed. Even the Republican record turnout of 2008 of 120,000 attendees may not materialize despite the national media spotlight.

Right now, 41% of Republican voters say they could be persuaded to support another candidate with only 51% saying they know exactly whom they will vote for, according to a recent Des Moines Register poll.

Only registered Republicans may participate, but with an ID that shows Iowa residency and age, voters can register at door, allowing for crossover participation. Democrats are known to have switched sides, if only for a night, to caucus with Republicans. And vice versa. And it’s legal.

How Does It Work:

The Democrats have a convoluted caucus process that involves good old-fashioned arm-twisting and can run into the wee hours of the night. It won’t this year because Obama has no challenger.

The Republican Caucuses, however, are a hybrid: part poll and part GOP meeting. Designated supporters of each candidate are allowed to campaign vigorously, making a speech on why their candidates deserve to win that evening’s votes. This is to convince the fence sitters to go with their candidate or to win over someone who is torn between two candidates.

Then Iowans vote by secret ballot. They are given blank sheets of paper with no candidate names on them. They write down their choice and the GOP at each precinct tabulates the results as they are phoned in. The results are then released to the media.

At these same caucuses, delegates are chosen to go to the county conventions that then select delegates to the district conventions, which in turn select delegates to the Iowa State Convention. So actually it will be the Republican Iowa State Convention and not the precinct caucuses, which will pick the final delegates from Iowa to the Republican National Convention.

Does It Work:

As arcane as it sounds, the caucuses somehow have worked for nearly 170 years. In 2008, Democrats selected Barack Obama and Republicans chose Mike Huckabee with John McCain, the eventual GOP nominee, not even cracking the top three.

Stay tuned for some folksy politics as it was practiced on the frontier. And still is in Iowa.

Who are you predicting will win the Iowa Caucus?

Join Communities writers, Jim Picht, Catherine Poe, Rich Stowell and Terry Ponick will be commenting on the Iowa Caucus, who is ahead and behind starting at 6pm EST tonight. 

Click to join the debate: 

Iowa Caucus: LiveStream Video and Online Chat/Communities Caucus


We will having an Online Chat here at Washington Times Communities Politics, starting at 7 pm, so please join in.  Think of it as an online caucus.  Hope to hear from you.

To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib in the Communities at the Washington Times. She can also be heard on the Democrats for America’s Future.






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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

Contact Catherine Poe


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