The Iowa caucuses mark the official start of the presidential nomination race.
This year the caucuses will be held on the night of February 1, 2016, when Iowa Republicans and Democrats will trek through the snow and cold to 1,681 party precincts located across the state. The polls currently place Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican Ted Cruz in first place in Iowa, but the Iowa caucuses have a long history of last-minute surprises and big upsets.
Here are five facts that are key to understanding the Iowa caucuses:
1. Why Iowa goes first
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status is an accident of history. Traditionally the caucuses were held in the spring, but in 1972 the Iowa Democratic party moved the caucuses to January because of local scheduling conflicts. The GOP followed suit in 1976.
Iowa’s gone first ever since. Awed by the national media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the caucuses, the Iowa legislature enacted a law that requires the caucuses to precede all other presidential nominating contests by at least eight days. Accordingly, whenever other states attempt to skip to the head of the line, Iowa moves its caucus date forward.
The parties have steadfastly supported the Iowa caucuses. Although critics point out that the state’s population is far smaller, more rural and less diverse than average, the national parties have turned away every effort to supplant Iowa’s “first-in-the-nation” status.
2. The caucuses are not an election
Contrary to popular impression, the Iowa caucuses are not a traditional election. The term “caucus” simply means a meeting of members of the same political party. Although historically most states used caucuses to select presidential delegates, today the great majority of states opt for primary elections. Iowa is a prominent exception.
Unlike primary elections, which state and local governments administer, caucuses are private affairs run by the state parties. On caucus night, Iowa Democrats and Republicans convene separately at local party precincts to discuss the presidential race in town hall meetings.
The parties follow different caucus rules. Iowa Republicans vote by secret ballot. Iowa Democrats, in contrast, publicly display their candidate preference by congregating in designated locations in the precinct building. A head count is then taken to determine the precinct’s winner.
Although the caucuses may seem like democracy in action, the reality is the overwhelming majority of Iowa’s two million registered voters do not participate. Only the most partisan and ideologically committed voters attend the caucuses.
The biggest open secret of the Iowa caucuses is that no presidential delegates are actually awarded on caucus night. The only immediate substantive purpose of the caucuses is to select delegates to county conventions, the first step in Iowa’s long and convoluted process of selecting presidential delegates. In a reform move last fall the Republicans made the precinct results binding on the delegate award process. But the actual award of presidential delegates isn’t officially made until the state conventions in the spring.
3. The caucuses have a strong track record of predicting the Democratic nominee
Despite the complicated nature of the caucuses, Iowa Democrats have an excellent track record of predicting the eventual Democratic nominee.
The most recent example is January 2008, when Barack Obama upset Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, a victory that helped propel Obama to the White House. To show his gratitude to Iowa, President Obama held the last rally of his 2012 reelection campaign in Des Moines, where he tearfully declared: “This is where our movement for change began.”
Iowa also played a key role in 2004, when John Kerry upset Howard Dean. Kerry went on to win the Democratic nomination.
Iowa’s predictive powers date back to the 1970s. The caucuses provided a springboard to the Democratic nomination for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in 2000. Since 1976, Iowa Democrats have got it wrong only twice: in 1992, when Iowa native Tom Harkin won the caucuses, and in 1988, when Dick Gephardt from neighboring Missouri won.
If history is any guide, therefore, the candidate that prevails in Iowa on February 1 will likely be the Democratic nominee.
4. The caucuses have a poor track record of predicting the Republican nominee
In stark contrast, the Iowa Republican caucuses have a remarkably poor track record.
Since 1980, Iowa Republicans have accurately predicted the GOP nominee only twice: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W Bush in 2000. In every other caucus, Iowa Republicans chose candidates that flopped outside Iowa.
Why are Iowa Republicans so far out of step with the rest of the country?
The answer is that Iowa Republicans are much more culturally conservative than the national average. Iowa GOP voters have consistently chosen polarizing, socially conservative presidential candidates over more electable establishment candidates.
For example, in 2008, the far-right social conservative candidate Mike Huckabee beat John McCain in Iowa. In 2012 Rick Santorum, a Republican even more conservative than Huckabee, defeated Mitt Romney. But neither Huckabee nor Santorum received a lasting boost from winning Iowa, and both campaigns fell far short of winning the GOP nomination.
Wisely, therefore, the major establishment candidates in the 2016 GOP race–such as Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie–have focused their efforts on New Hampshire. History makes clear that moderate candidates have no chance with Iowa Republicans.
5. You’ll be hearing about Iowa in the general election, too
Although social conservatives dominate the Iowa Republican party, the state as a whole is politically moderate.
Indeed, by almost any measure, Iowa is remarkably well-balanced among Republicans, Democrats and independents. The legislature is evenly divided with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate. A similar partisan balance is found in statewide races. Republicans currently control the governor’s office and both US Senate seats, but Democratic candidates have carried Iowa in every presidential election but one since 1988.
Most revealing of all, more Iowans register as independents than as either Republicans or Democrats.
In short, Iowa is a classic battleground state, which means Iowa’s importance in the 2016 campaign will continue long after February 1.