Explainer: what are the Iowa caucuses?

Ready or not… Reuters/Scott Morgan

Every four years, just around now, the otherwise innocuous American state of Iowa is the centre of national and international attention as it holds the first elections to determine the country’s presidential nominees. It’s a strange and highly specific event, and for those not following US politics closely, it’s hard to get a handle on just how important it is.

Indeed, most people outside of the US would probably have a hard time locating Iowa on a map. About a 350-mile straight shot west from the massive city of Chicago, the state has a population of slightly more than three million. While it is stereotyped as little more than a conglomeration of farms, it actually has quite a diverse economy. Still, it’s hardly representative of the US as a whole: disproportionately white, rural, and old.

And even more so than primaries, the caucuses tend to be dominated by party activists – hardly a representative sample of the general electorate. That owes a lot to the actual caucus process, which is truly exceptional for its intricacy.

What are caucuses?

While primaries basically function like any other election – secret ballots, voting booths and the like – caucuses have a much more “direct democracy” feel to them. Instead of all-day voting at polling stations, caucusgoers must turn up at a caucus venue at a particular time to participate in a live and public process. The Republicans have 900-odd caucus sites, and the Democrats around 1,100.

And crucially, whereas primaries are organised and financed by state governments, caucuses are organised and financed by the state parties. In Iowa in particular, the upshot is that the Republican and Democratic caucuses do not work the same way – and that caucusgoers are disproportionately drawn from a base of dedicated party supporters.

The Republican caucuses have a more populist feel to them than primaries: party supporters gather with representatives of the candidates’ campaigns giving short speeches in town-hall settings before caucus attendees decide on a particular candidate by way of secret ballot.

Iowans caucusing for the Democrats in 2008. Reuters/Jim Bourg

The Democratic caucuses are more peculiar. The process is something like a bafflingly complicated version of a transferable vote leadership election. Again, there are no secret ballots; caucusgoers simply gather in different parts of the room, grouping themselves into literal clusters of support for each of the candidates.

Then supporters of the different candidates make speeches and pleas to coax supporters of the less popular candidates over to their side of the room before the final tally of support is taken.

Why does Iowa matter so much?

Partly by accident of history and partly by design, Iowa has made its caucuses the first point at which presidential candidates can actually say they’ve won something.

Winning debates and being ahead in polls is certainly helpful, keeping candidates in the media spotlight and generating momentum. But the Iowa caucuses are the first contest to allocate convention delegates to candidates, and a win or at least a good showing offers a candidate enormous momentum. A poor performance in Iowa is likely to diminish the chances of a candidacy to the point that supporters will withdraw (including and not least importantly financial support).

A version of this played out in 2008, when Barack Obama triumphed over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards and began the serious phase of his long, dogged march to the nomination. Clinton was almost mortally wounded by her third-place showing. Now-Vice-President Joe Biden, meanwhile, couldn’t even muster 1%, thereby ending any realistic chance of becoming the Democratic nominee.

But on the other side, the same year’s results proved that not coming first doesn’t always spell doom. John McCain came in fourth with 13.1% – not a great result, but respectable enough. And with wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina in the next few weeks, he ultimately became the Republican nominee.

…and stand on this side of the room… Reuters/Scott Morgan

So who are this year’s front runners? The Democrats have a relatively simple contest on their hands, albeit a close-fought one. Most polls put Hillary Clinton in a virtual tie with Bernie Sanders, the junior Senator from Vermont (their only competitor, former governor of Maryland Martin O’Malley, is a distant third).

The calculus on the Republican side is much messier. The majority of polls give real estate mogul Donald Trump a very slight edge over Ted Cruz, the firebrand conservative senator from Texas, but with a startling number of other candidates – Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and many more – a surprise result could easily throw the field into disarray.

But a lot simply depends on which poll you look at. Because of the demands the intricate and specifically timed caucus process places on its attendees, polling the Iowa electorate is notoriously difficult. And with a melée of candidates wrestling with an awkward and unpredictable process, February 1 should be an exciting night.