After months of campaign rallies, town halls, and photo-ops with deep-fried cuisine, the 2016 US presidential candidates are just three days away from the caucuses in Iowa, a midwestern US state that has become a key battleground in the presidential election.
Despite the contest being the first major referendum for the Republican and Democratic hopefuls, what actually happens on Monday night is a mystery to many, including longtime CNN host Larry King, who once famously declared, "I have never understood the Iowa caucus."
The Iowa caucuses are a complicated process, and, like so many things, Republicans and Democrats approach them differently. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that over time, each party has repeatedly tweaked its process in order to gain an edge over the other. The end result is a seemingly impenetrable morass of bylaws and rules.
So VICE News has compiled a list of questions and answers about the caucus that address what a caucus actually is, how the process works, and if Iowa even matters, anyway. Larry King, take note.
What is a caucus?
The caucus process is left over from the days when old men would gather in meeting halls to debate which candidate should be their party's nominee. Not much has changed. On Monday at 7pm, friends and neighbors will gather in Iowa's 1,681 precincts and determine who they think is the best candidate to endorse. They will then assign delegates to represent the candidates with the most supporters. Any registered voter in Iowa can participate in a caucus; they can even turn up to support a candidate from the other party, as long as they re-register when they arrive at the caucus location. But the caucuses on February 1 are just the first step in a four-tiered process that lasts the entire spring — long after the media and candidates have moved on from the Hawkeye State.
Graphic by Sarah MacReading/VICE News
Some argue that caucuses, which are run by state parties, are a more democratic way of choosing a nominee than primaries, which are conducted by secret ballot and run and funded by state governments. But caucuses are also a much more confusing process — and require voters to head to caucus halls in the middle of winter to spend hours debating politics with their friends and neighbors.
The Democratic precinct caucuses resemble a game of musical chairs. Caucus-goers literally stand in groups to show support for a candidate, moving around and realigning before each head count is taken. Every candidate needs to reach what is known as "viability," or at least 15 percent of the people in the caucus hall. If a candidate fails to achieve viability, his or her supporters are given time to move around and join a different group before a final head count. Based off the last tally, "pledged delegates" get assigned to represent candidates at the next caucus round.
Graphic by Sarah MacReading/VICE News
At each subsequent level of caucusing (county, district, and then state), delegates are chosen from the pool of delegate attendees to go onto the next step, until just 44 pledged delegates are chosen to go to the National Convention on July 25. There are also eight "unpledged" delegates that go to the convention. More about them later.
The process for Republicans is simpler. The night begins with activists delivering speeches urging residents to support one candidate over another. After they hear the various arguments, caucus-goers write down their preferred candidate on a piece of paper and drop it into a box; votes are then tallied and reported to the state party chair. Delegates are proportionally assigned to the candidates based on these results.
In past elections, all of the Republican delegates were unpledged, meaning that they were not required to vote for the candidate at the next round of caucusing or eventually the convention. But last year, the Republican National Committee changed the rule to make delegates binding, meaning delegates are required to vote for them at the next round of caucusing and eventually at the convention. Like the Democrats, Republican delegates are winnowed down through three more rounds of caucuses; the 30 final delegates chosen will go to the Republican convention in Cleveland in July.
What the difference between a pledged delegate and unpledged delegate?
Democrats have two different tiers of delegates at their national convention. A pledged delegate is someone who has committed to supporting the candidate at the convention based on the results of the caucus. Unpledged delegates, also known as superdelegates, are free-movers at the convention who can change their endorsements based on the results of the public ballot and who they think will be the stronger candidate in a general election. Pledged delegates are the VIP members at the party — usually party leaders or elected officials — who are not selected through the caucus or primary process but get an automatic seat at the national convention table. The purpose of having unpledged delegates is to allow party elders to have a greater say in who the party nominee will be.
Graphic by Sarah MacReading/VICE News
Each year, the Democrats reserve 15 percent of delegations for unpledged delegates. There are 713 superdelegates nationwide this year, eight of whom come from Iowa. To win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, the candidate will have to win more than half of the 4,764 delegates expected to be at the DNC convention.
Republicans do not use superdelegates. How delegates commit support to a candidate differs by state — some are "winner takes all," where all of the state's delegates are assigned to whichever candidate wins the greatest number of votes determined either through caucusing or primary voting. Other states assign their delegates proportionally according to voting results. Still others are a mix of the two systems.
There will be about 2,472 total delegates at the GOP convention, and a candidate must win 1,237 in order to become the Republican Party's nominee for president.
How important are the Iowa caucuses?
When it comes to determining who will be president next year, not very. Pundits love to obsess over Iowa because it's the first state to kick off the primary season and is seen as a possible indicator of how the chips will fall for candidates nationally. But this has not always borne out historically.
Since Iowa adopted the caucus system in 1972, Iowa has been only been a predictor of national leaning roughly half of the time. In the last 44 years, five Democrats and four Republicans who came in first place in the state caucuses have gone on to win their party's nomination. For example, Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum both won in Iowa in 2008 and 2012 respectfully, before later dropping out of the race. They are both running again in 2016.
What's more, Iowa sends a relatively small number of pledged delegates to the national conventions; only 30 Republicans and 44 Democrats, which make up about 1 percent of the total delegate vote at each convention. Not exactly a lot of sway in picking the eventual party nominee.
The candidate who receives the highest percentage of caucus votes on the night of February 1 is really just a "public winner" who acts as a weathervane for the larger presidential race, says Nick Kachiroubas, a professor of political history and elections at DePaul University.
The fact that Iowa is in the coveted place of going first means that "everyone likes to use it make their prognostications — because somebody did do well or didn't do well in Iowa this means X, Y, or Z," Kachiroubas said.
But all this doesn't mean the Iowa caucuses should be ignored. The caucuses on February 1 are important for the simple reason that it's the first time voters actually express their support for a candidate after years of speculation and hypothetical polling.
When to Start Paying Attention
March 1, also known as Super Tuesday, is the day that a large chunk of big states conduct their primaries. At that point, it generally becomes pretty certain who the likely nominee is going to be, and trailing candidates tend to drop out as it becomes clear that there is no mathematical chance for them to secure enough delegates at the convention. If a candidate who has won primaries pulls out before the convention takes place — that's what happened with Huckabee in 2008 — his or her delegates become unpledged and pick another candidate to support.
The national conventions in July are pretty much just big parties with a lot of balloons and television cameras, since each party usually knows who their candidate is going to be by then. During the convention, each party conducts a largely ceremonial vote (the Democrats also tally up the superdelegates) and then announces the nominee, who's already waiting in the wings.