What is a "caucus"?

Voters in Iowa today (January 24, 2000) will gather in "caucuses" to begin the process of selecting their state's preferred presidential candidates in each party. What is a caucus?

Iowa's process for choosing between presidential candidates is unique among the fifty United States. Every other state has a more traditional primary election in which registered voters can cast their ballots for the candidates they prefer. In Iowa, however, voters in each political party attend separate, small meetings, or caucuses, in towns and neighborhoods across the state. Caucuses are held at the precinct level in schools, fire stations and sometimes even in individual's homes.

At the caucuses, those in attendance indicate their support for the candidates competing for each party's presidential nomination. In the Democratic party caucuses, votes are cast by raising hands, a sign-in sheet or by splitting into groups supporting each candidate. In the Republican caucuses, votes are cast by secret ballot (each eligible voter in attendance is able to select the candidate of his or her choice on paper without others in attendance knowing how he or she voted).

The results of the caucus voting, however, do not directly determine which candidate will win the support of Iowa's voters for the presidential nomination. In fact, the caucuses are just first step in the process. Each caucus selects delegates to send to each of the 99 county conventions, which are held in March. At the county conventions, Democrats select delegates to district conventions where delegates to the state convention are chosen. Republicans bypass the district convention stage, choosing delegates to their state convention at the county conventions. Both party's state conventions are held in June. Only then, when state convention delegates cast their votes for delegates to the national party conventions, that Iowa's preferred presidential candidate's in each major party will be determined.

So why do the Iowa caucuses get so much attention from the candidates and the media? First, Iowa is largely viewed as a "bellwether" state because it represents a cross-section of America in terms of ideology and party preference. Perhaps more importantly, the Iowa caucuses traditionally provide the candidates with their first real test. Candidates focus their energies and attention on Iowa because a win or even a better-than-expected performance there can provide or sustain the critically important early momentum all presidential hopefuls crave. Indeed, by the end of the day, some of the candidates (particularly Republican candidates, because there are still six of them competing for their party's nomination) may have suffered a big enough defeat to drop out of the race. At the other end of the spectrum, Bush and Gore, the current front-runners in their respective parties, will probably have scored victories significant enough to solidify their positions and build momentum for the next measuring stick--the New Hampshire primaries.