How Do The Iowa Caucuses Work Anyway?

Politico’s Zachary Abrahamson has a good article up today explaining just how the Iowa Caucuses work.

As a preliminary matter, participation is technically limited to registered Republicans but that isn’t really much of a bar:

Only registered Republicans may participate, but voters can register at the caucus entrance with photo identification that proves Iowa residency and age. That opens the door to cross-over participation. In 2008, for example, independents comprised 13 percent of Republicans at party caucuses and 20 percent of Democrats.

“We’re expecting quite a few people who are either independents or more moderate Democrats to switch sides, at least for the night, and caucus with us,” Story County Republican Chairman Cory Adams said.

Rick Halvorsen, Warren County’s Republican chairman, expects “up to 10 percent” of each precinct’s attendees to be filling out registration forms on the night of the caucus. Iowa’s county auditors provide county parties voter lists updated through mid-November, “so if [caucusgoers] have registered at the county auditor’s office since that time, they won’t be on our sheet,” Halvorsen said.

As for how the process works, it’s worth noting that the Republican process is quite different from the Democratic Party’s process, and usually takes much less time:

Before the vote itself, state party rules allow each campaign one “surrogate or volunteer” who may speak on behalf of the candidate for a few minutes before balloting begins.

Following simpler rules than Democrats, Republican caucusgoers each cast a single ballot for their preferred presidential candidate. At the close of balloting, a caucus official phones the tallies in to the state party. Results recorded report the percentage of ballots won by each candidate.

Republicans don’t have a viability threshold — a Democratic tradition where a candidate’s supporters must choose another campaign unless their preferred candidate has support from at least 15 percent of caucusgoers — which means a GOP caucus has just one round of balloting and no realignment toward second or third choices.

A Republican presidential preference poll could take just 30 minutes, after which Adams said “close to half” of caucus participants may leave, skipping the delegate selection that takes place in the event’s latter half.

The difference between the Republican and Democratic Party procedures are important for candidates like Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum because the lack of a viability threshold means that their supporters won’t have the same chance to lobby supporters of other candidates that Democratic caucus-goers do. It’s one and done for all the candidates, which makes the final push to Caucus Night all the more important.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    That comports pretty well with what my Iowa friends and relatives have told me. They’re caucuses not elections and the tone and structure of the two parties’ proceedings are different. Based on what I’m told if you come in a few minutes late to a Republican caucus you can miss it while the Democratic caucuses are frequently boisterous and chaotic and may go on for a considerable period of time.

  2. John Peabody says:

    Just a comment on the photo- the peaceful map of Iowa, placidly showing the rivers, without the railways, highways, or interstates…it’s quite nice. Similar maps of places like New Jersey, California, or Texas, would be a change of pace.

  3. Would anyone recognize a map of California or New Jersey without the highways, though?

  4. de stijl says:

    How Do The Iowa Caucuses Work Anyway?

    Like effing magnets ; – )

  5. @de stijl:

    I always thought it was a series of Tubes 😀

  6. John Peabody says:

    Doug- good point on not recognizing California or New Jersey. I’m outed as a map-lover. A heckuva a lot pf people do not even know that there are rivers in New Jersey, let alone that [yes, epochs ago] they were the core of the transportation system.