The Iowa caucuses: They’re confusing, often frustrating, so here’s how they work

How to caucus: Doing it Iowa-style

Your chance to become familiar with the hows and whys of the Iowa caucus. From people who understand it very well to first timers.
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Your chance to become familiar with the hows and whys of the Iowa caucus. From people who understand it very well to first timers.

The nation’s political eyes are now focused on the Iowa caucuses, scheduled for Feb. 1. The caucuses are the first step in nominating and electing a new president.

Yet the caucuses remain a mystery for most Americans. How do they work? Do they make any difference in the race? Why does Iowa go first?

Here are several frequently asked questions about the caucuses, with answers.

What’s a caucus?

It’s a meeting. In this case, Iowa’s Republicans and Democrats will hold local meetings at 7 p.m., Feb. 1, to begin the process of picking delegates to each party’s national presidential nominating convention. The meetings take place in gyms, schoolhouses, even homes.

How do the meetings work?

The rules are different for each party.

Republicans will caucus in each of the state’s 1,681 precincts. Only registered Republicans can participate, although voters can register at the caucus. Voters must reach the age of 18 by Nov. 8, 2016, to cast a ballot.

At a GOP caucus, participants vote for a presidential candidate by secret ballot. The state party will count the votes, then allocate 27 national convention delegates to the presidential candidates on a proportional basis.

The Democrats are different. They’ll also meet in each precinct, and in a few “satellite” locations, and only registered Democrats can take part.

But attendees are asked to publicly declare for a presidential candidate — the ballot isn’t secret. And if a preferred candidate is unable to muster 15 percent of the public vote, he or she is considered “non-viable” and a caucus goer must pick another candidate to support.

That probably won’t be a big challenge for Democrats in Iowa this year. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are likely to be viable in almost every precinct. Martin O’Malley, another Democratic candidate, may struggle to meet the 15 percent threshold in most caucuses.

News media outlets use information from these public votes to estimate each candidate’s eventual support as the convention delegate selection process unfolds later in the year.

Democrats will pick 44 national convention delegates through this process.

Sounds complicated.

It is. The caucuses are run by the parties, so the results can be slow and confusing. Voters must attend a caucus on a cold evening. Activists can dominate a Democratic caucus, scaring away voters less accustomed to the process.

That’s why campaign organization is so important. Candidates must motivate supporters to attend a meeting, sit through speeches, and participate in ways that extend beyond casting a ballot.

Do the caucuses make any difference?

Yes, but indirectly. While delegates to the national conventions are bound to certain candidates in theory — and in the rules — in practice, when the conventions actually take place, Iowa delegates typically vote for the presumed nominee.

In 2012, the GOP winner in Iowa, Rick Santorum, actually got none of Iowa’s convention votes. Instead, six went to Mitt Romney, and 22 went for Ron Paul, whose supporters dominated later steps in the process.

Sometimes, the winner of a contested Iowa caucus does go on to become the party nominee — Bob Dole won Iowa twice, and so did George W. Bush. But it’s more likely the Iowa winner doesn’t prevail. The last two Republican winners in Iowa were Santorum and Mike Huckabee. Neither won the nomination.

Democrats do a little better. They picked Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama in the last three contested caucuses, and each went on to capture the party’s nomination. But Dick Gephardt of Missouri won in 1988.

Why, then, are the caucuses considered so important?

It helps to be first in line, and the only story in town. Candidates and mass media spend weeks in Iowa, unlike other primary and caucus states.

But Iowa’s bigger role is to narrow the field of candidates, not to pick a winner. Marginal candidates usually drop out of the race if they don’t do well in the state, because financial contributions dry up.

It’s a cliche, but there are usually three candidates who emerge from the Iowa process. That makes the choices easier for voters in subsequent states, like New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Seth Watkins talks about the presidential race.

Why does Iowa get to go first?

The caucuses were moved to the front of the line in the early 1970s for scheduling reasons. They caught everyone’s attention in 1976, when an obscure governor named Jimmy Carter campaigned extensively in the state.

He didn’t win — “uncommitted” prevailed that year — but other candidates soon realized Iowa could make or break a presidential campaign.

At that point, Iowa began to fiercely protect its first-in-the-nation status. New Hampshire was irked, but because its presidential process is a classic secret-ballot primary, it couldn’t stop Iowans from their caucuses.

Today Iowa’s position seems impregnable. If other states tried to jump in line, it would provoke a donnybrook for influence, a problem the candidates and the parties want to avoid.

But not everyone likes Iowa.

Correct. There are complaints that Iowa is too small and too demographically homogenous to play such an outsized role in picking the president. The informal nature of the caucus is also a concern.

And turnout is low. In 2008 Huckabee won the Iowa caucus with about 41,000 votes. By contrast, in 2011, Sly James got about 32,000 votes for mayor of Kansas City.

But, as Dole used to say, someone has to go first. This year, once again, it’s Iowa.

Televised on Fox Business News, Thursday's sixth Republican presidential candidate debate featured John Kasich, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush in North Charleston, S.C.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc