The who, what, when, where and winners of the Iowa Caucus

Illustration by Lev Cantoral

After more than a year of constant campaigning by 30 different candidates (26 Democrats and four Republicans) and their supporters, the Iowa Caucus will finally be held on Monday, Feb. 3. Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) officials are anticipating a massive showing.

“I think we’ll see our biggest turnout that we’ve ever seen,” Iowa Democratic chair Troy Price told the Des Moines Register.

GOP officials are also hoping for a good turnout by registered Republicans, even though the result of their contest isn’t in doubt. Although three other Republicans campaigned in Iowa last year — William Weld, Mark Sanford and Joe Walsh — Donald Trump will be the winner.

The current record for Iowa Caucus turnout was set in 2008, with both Democrats and Republicans hitting peak numbers. Turnout for Democrats was 239,872, while 119,188 Republicans participated in their party’s caucus straw poll.

Barack Obama beat out four other Democrats to win the Jan. 3, 2008 caucus, while Mike Huckabee finished first in a field of 14 Republicans.

(One current candidate was also a candidate in 2008. Joe Biden finished last among Democrats, and dropped out of race almost immediately after the caucus results were announced.)

For the benefit of both first-timers and veteran caucus-goers interested in the changes to this year’s Democratic caucus, Little Village has assembled a guide to who, where, when and what — what happens on Caucus Day, and what happens next.

Who can caucus?

Any Iowan registered as a member of the Democratic Party can participate in the Democratic caucus. Likewise, any registered Iowa Republican can participate in that party’s caucus.

According to the most recent voter registration totals from the Iowa Secretary of State’s office, more voters are registered as “no party affiliation” (746,492 active voters) than registered as Democrats (614,519 active) or Republicans (639,969 active). No party folks, members of the various other parties and Iowans not yet registered to vote will not be able to participate in either caucus.

Information about registering to vote is available on the Secretary of State’s site.

People who aren’t already party members will be able to register or change their registration at the caucus site, but both parties would prefer people to register in advance to avoid slowing things down on caucus night.

Where to caucus?

IDP’s caucus page links to I Will Vote, an online tool to help voters find their precinct. But the tool isn’t entirely accurate, according to a tweet from Johnson County Democratic Party caucus organizer John Deeth.

The Republican Party of Iowa (RPI) has taken a different approach.

RPI has a list of caucus locations on its website. It also links to two other sites that have look-up tools. But the first is the Iowa Secretary of State’s polling place locator, which warns that it can’t be used to find caucus locations. The second is the Team Trump caucus locator page that collects information about you to be used for fundraising, before it provides a location, which may not be accurate.

Better information for Johnson and Linn County voters of both parties can be found on the websites of their auditors.

The Johnson County Auditor’s Office has a list of caucus locations, and the Linn County Auditor’s Office has its own location look-up tool.

IDP will also have satellite locations available for voters who can’t make it to their assigned precinct on caucus night. In 2016, IDP had four satellite locations; this year it will have 87 — 60 in Iowa and 24 in other states, as well as three international sites, in France, Scotland and the Republic of Georgia.

The expanded number of satellite locations is how IDP is complying with a mandate from the Democratic National Committee to expand access to the caucus. Originally, IDP was going to meet that mandate with a “virtual caucus” conducted over the phone. But on Sept. 6, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws committee rejected both Iowa’s and Nevada’s plans for phone-in virtual caucuses over concerns the security provisions of those plans were inadequate. (Ironically, the committee vote happened during a conference call.)

IDP party leaders were surprised by the rejection. The expanded use of satellite locations — which the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws committee approved on Sept. 20 — won’t increase access as much as the virtual caucus would have, since a voter still needs to be physically present at a caucus location. The state party will need to address the accessibility issue again before the 2024 election.

The Republican Party has not required RPI to make its caucus more accessible.

IDP has a separate online look-up tool for the satellite locations. There are certain restrictions on attending a satellite location, which are listed on IDP’s “Key Changes” page.

When the caucus process gets underway, the same procedures will be followed at both the regular and satellite locations.

When to caucus?

Anyone wanting to participate in either party’s caucus needs to be in their assigned room or standing on line waiting to get into the room at 7 p.m. on Feb. 3. The only exceptions will a handful of Democratic satellite locations, and the starting times for those locations are available on the IDP’s site.

Then what happens? (Republican edition)

The RPI conducts a presidential preference straw poll at its caucus precinct. Participants get a paper ballot — technically, the ballots are called “presidential preference cards” — and write down the name of the candidate they are backing. Delegates to the county convention are elected from among those in attendance. Then the precinct chair conducts whatever party business is on the agenda — including the election of county central committee members — and opens the floor to allow attendees to submit possible planks for the party’s platform.

Then what happens? (Democrat edition)

The Democratic caucus is very different.

The first significant thing Democrats do is sign in upon arrival. Getting an accurate count of participants is important because Democrats allocate delegates based on the number of people present at each precinct. Republicans don’t use attendance numbers to apportion delegates.

The representatives of the various campaigns will be at specific locations around the room. A person can join the group representing the candidate they already support, go from group to group and listen to various groups or join a group of undecided voters and wait for already-decided caucus-goers to approach you with their best pitches for why you should support their candidate.

When it comes time to make a decision, supporters of each group will come together in what is called the first alignment. And so will undecided voters. Members of each group will fill out presidential preference cards.

It takes 15 percent of the voters present in a room for a group to be considered viable. Members of any group that fails to get 15 percent will have the chance to join one of the viable groups in the second alignment.

There are two big changes to the caucus agenda in 2020: First, there will only be two alignments this year. Second, unlike previous years, if your group is viable after the first alignment, you are not allowed to change your mind and join a different group in the second alignment. If you back a contender at the beginning, consider your wagon hitched.

Johnson County residents caucus in 2016. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

“It used to be that campaigns would send people over to another group to make them viable and hurt a different candidate,” John Deeth explained in the most recent issue of Little Village. “Example: We had a place last time where Hillary was at two delegates, Bernie at one and O’Malley was just short of viable. Hillary’s crew sent some spare people over to O’Malley to make him viable so that Bernie would not get another delegate. You can’t do that anymore.”

The change applies not only to the supporters of the different candidates, it also applies to those who are undecided. If 15 percent or more of the voters are in the “undecided” group at the first alignment, they cannot choose an actual candidate in the second alignment.

Because voters may end up locked in for the second alignment, “undecided” could have its best year since 1976, when it finished in first place.

Voters who changed groups for the second alignment will write their new candidate choice on the back of their card.

There will only be two alignments this year, and once the results of the second alignment are totaled, the delegates to the state convention will be awarded.

And the winners are…

On the Republican side, it will be Trump.

On the Democratic side, it’s more complicated. Not only are there multiple viable candidates, but there were also be multiple results reported.

For the first time, IDP will release the number of votes each candidate received during each of the alignments, as well as the numbers of delegates awarded to each viable candidate. Previously, only the number of delegates awarded was released.

The Associated Press, which most news organizations rely on for the caucus results, has said it will declare the winner in Iowa just as it has in the past. But the AP will also report the totals from the two alignments.

There’s another change in how Democrats are reporting results, one that’s raising concerns about possible tampering. IDP has rolled out an app that caucus precinct managers are supposed to download to their smartphones that can be used to report precinct results on caucus night. IDP leaders have repeatedly assured the public that they are aware of potential hacking problems and have made security a top priority.

But not everyone is reassured.

“The entire ecosystem of smartphones is extraordinarily poorly secured,” Doug Jones, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Iowa and an expert on cybersecurity, told NPR. “And resting security functions on that ecosystem is something I don’t trust at all.”

Party leaders points out each precinct will have paper copies of voting results in case there is a problem with the app. But Jones said the existence of a paper trail wouldn’t discourage a hacker who wants to disrupt the caucus.

“Once you report something, it’s really hard to undo it, no matter how many retractions you print, no matter how many apologies you say, it’s too late,” he explained. “From that point of view, someone hacking the reporting process, even though its purpose is entirely informal, not intended to have any permanent importance, is something that could be very disruptive.”

The best known example of such confusion in the Iowa Caucus happened in 2012, and didn’t involve smartphones or apps.

On caucus night, the Iowa’s Republican Party announced Mitt Romney had won its caucus by eight votes. Two weeks later, after recounting all the votes, party officials announced that Rick Santorum had actually won its caucus by 34 votes. Santorum claimed the confusion badly damaged his campaign.

Romney, of course, went on to win the Republican Party nomination for president, before losing in the general election to President Obama, whose 2008 Iowa Caucus victory established him as a credible presidential candidate.