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Here’s How The Iowa Caucus Works, And Why It’s Better Than A Primary

Caucus preparation

Iowa will hold its presidential nominating contest Feb. 3, once again the first state in the nation to begin the process of nominating the candidates who will run against each other in the November general election. Unlike most states, Iowa uses the caucus system rather than a primary election.

While confusing to new participants and observers from out of state, the Iowa caucus preserves a consultative, consensus-driven decision-making process that primaries lack. The rest of the country should learn from its example.

How the Caucus Works

Elections focus on the individual voter’s choice, but caucuses are a community-based event. In Iowa this year, state party Democrats will have 1,678 precinct caucus locations plus 87 satellite locations, including some out of state to allow Iowans abroad to make their voices heard. After some election of local party officers, Iowans get to the main event: choosing precinct delegates.

Each candidate has a designated area within each caucus location, and party members divide into those areas based on which candidate they support. The groups in each area are counted, and those with less than 15 percent of the total are told their candidate is “not viable” — that is, the candidate does not have enough support to receive any of that precinct’s delegates. (The percentage varies for very small caucus sites.)

People in those non-viable groups have three options: consider which of the remaining candidates to support, convince other free agents to join their group to bring it up to 15 percent, or refuse to join any group and have their support go uncounted. There is then a second count of the reorganized groups, with delegates assigned proportionally to viable candidates.

Even that is just the first step in the process of nominating delegates to the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee. The delegates elected from the Feb. 3 caucus meet in district conventions in each of the state’s four congressional districts on April 25 to elect the 41 district-level delegates to the DNC. The state convention on June 13 selects the nine statewide delegates and five party leaders who will also go to the DNC. Eight unpledged superdelegates will attend from Iowa, as well. For even more detail about the math involved, see The Green Papers.

Caucuses Allow for Thoughtful Decisions

Is it complicated? Yes. But with the complexity comes the ability to stop and think about your choices. When electing the president in November, the choice must come down to a single answer, because only one person can be president. But in nominating a candidate, the opposite is true. Iowa sends 49 delegates to the DNC. When asking the question, “Which candidate do Iowa Democrats want to be their party’s nominee?” there is room to say, “It varies,” and there is time to think about the answer.

When we speak of democracy nowadays, we often boil it down to the simple act of casting a ballot. But this second stage of the caucus is where the serious democratic deliberations take place. Democracy is not just winning a plurality. It is the whole idea that a free people can govern themselves. Part of self-government is thinking, discussing, and debating ideas before finally deciding on a course of action. This leads to consensus rather than mere plurality — nomination of the candidate who is the most acceptable to the most people.

This is the caucus’s advantage over the primary. With as many candidates as the Democrats have in 2020, or the Republicans had in 2016, many are bound to end up with less than 15 percent of the vote. The caucus allows voters whose first choice falls short of the threshold to reassess their position and put their vote where it would do the most good, with the viable candidate most to their liking. The delegates selected in that process represent a community, not just a collection of individuals.

Primary elections, on the other hand, are fought among voters who often receive their information about the candidates only from mailers and TV ads, which are not the most reliable sources. Caucus-goers have that information, too, but they also listen to live presentations from campaigns and locals in favor of a candidate. There is credibility in a message from a friend and neighbor that can never come from a slick advertisement. The trust that exists in communities can help people consider options more thoughtfully.

Caucuses Are Better than Primaries

Primaries, especially for president, are a long-running mistake. They were a Progressive-era reform designed to make the parties more democratic and responsive to the people. That is a good impulse, as far as it goes, but the results have been less than satisfactory, and they are only getting worse. The results of the 2016 presidential primaries should not fill anyone with confidence in the system. The 2020 primaries are shaping up the same way, with too many candidates chasing too few votes.

The problem lies in using the wrong tool for the purpose. Our general elections should be more democratic, and we should seek to maximize participation in them. But the purpose of a primary is not mass democracy; it is to select which person will receive the endorsement of a private organization. That no more needs the participation of outsiders than the selection of a company’s CEO or a church’s bishop. Although they nominate candidates for political office, the parties’ nominations are not, themselves, public trusts.

This is another advantage of the Iowa caucus: It asks Iowa Democrats whom the Democratic Party should nominate. Only people who care enough about the party to join it get to have their opinion heard. Every voter who has the right to vote for president may do so in November. But being allowed to vote does not give you the right to say how a group of which you are not a member selects the person to represent them.

A party caucus epitomizes the consultative, community-based democracy that leads to consensus candidates. Voting is a part of self-government, but only a part. Speaking, listening, and exchanging ideas are also necessary to build trust and find agreement. Caucuses do that; primaries don’t.