The caucuses are part of a four-stage election of state delegates to send to the national convention of each party. These delegates then officially nominate their national candidate. The caucuses are held in 10 US states (out of 50) — Iowa, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming. In the remaining 40 states, primaries, a statewide process in which voters cast secret ballots, are used.
The Iowa caucus
The Iowa caucus marks the start of the US presidential race. It’s the first time that voters get to have a say in the electioneering process of their parties. Registered voters will physically assemble in 1,681 precincts, including churches, libraries and other smaller venues, across the state Monday to vote for their candidate. Though plenty of opinion polls have been conducted so far, the caucuses where actual party members vote are an early indication of a candidate’s viability.
Republicans and Democrats have different processes for their respective caucuses. Members need to be physically present at their respective precinct for the vote.
Republican caucus: A standard secret ballot is held at the caucus sites and the total votes are tallied across the state. Once the votes are tallied for each of the precincts, and then each of the counties (99 in the case of Iowa), delegates are selected for the state.
Democratic caucus: It is a more complicated and “grander” process. Instead of a secret vote, the attendees are supposed to physically assemble with other supporters of their candidate at designated spots. A head-count is then conducted. The atmosphere is almost like a carnival, with voters persuading others to join them. Those candidates who fail to gather 15 per cent of the attendees at the precinct are eliminated, and their voters are told to join the groups of other candidates.
Iowa is a small state with mostly rural, white and conservative population. The turnout at the Iowa caucus is also low. Despite that, caucuses in the state remain one of the key stages in the US presidential nominations process. Critics say that the only reason Iowa matters is the media attention it garners. This also means that the winners get big media coverage, hoisting them ahead of others in the competition.
Iowa is also the first time voters in other states get to see the actual support their candidates have. This ends up becoming a major factor for the independents making their choice. And not just the voters, a major chunk of media and donor attention is determined in Iowa, which in the end separates the big names from the smaller ones.
“Iowa matters because we shrink the field,” former Iowa House Speaker Christopher Rants told CNN. “We weed out those who can’t make it.”
No. Iowa has a long track-record of turning the tide in the US presidential elections. For instance, in 2008, Barack Obama was largely considered the underdog until the Iowa caucus, where he beat Hillary Clinton. That victory set the momentum that eventually propelled him to win the Democratic candidacy, and finally placed him in the White House.
Iowan Democrats, in particular, have a very good track record when it comes to predicting their eventual presidential nominee (see chart). Other than Obama, John Kerry was considered a small name until he upset Howard Dean in the 2004 Iowa caucus. Since 1976, Iowa Democrats have backed a wrong candidate only twice — in 1992 and 1988.
Republicans in Iowa, on the other hand, haven’t always got it right. Experts say that the Iowan Republicans are too conservative to be able to predict their nominees accurately. As a result, the more conservative leaders end up winning the state caucus over the more electable ones. Since 1980, Iowans have only given victory in the state to two eventual Republican nominees — George W Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996.
The 2016 contest
As far as Democratic candidates go, the latest NBC/WSJl/Marist polls (see chart) show that Iowa is set to be a very closely-fought battle between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. For Clinton and Sanders, Iowa has the potential to shift the momentum in the neck and neck fight. A loss for Sanders could seriously dent his chances against the massive Clinton campaign. But if Hillary loses, she may just hand the edge to Sanders, who has a comfortable lead on her in the next caucus in New Hampshire, according to recent opinion polls. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is left with just 3 per cent support.
On the Republican side, the Iowa caucuses will prove even more decisive. Though billionaire Donald Trump is widely considered a favourite, due to his outlandish statements and the media attention, this will be the first time that he will face the voters’ test. Iowa will determine once and for all if Trump can back his popularity in opinion polls with actual votes. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is considered a strong favourite to challenge Trump, with the NBC/WSJ/Marist predicting an open battle, which may even give an outside chance to Florida Senator Marco Rubio.