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Five Things to Know About the Iowa Caucuses

The Hawkeye State knows its way around political chaos

Precinct officials count paper ballots for Mitt Romney in the 2012 Iowa caucuses. (Zhang Jun/Xinhua Press/Corbis)
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For better or worse, when Iowa voters gather to caucus for their favorite potential commander in chief of the United States, they kick off the official presidential election season. But what exactly will happen in Iowa on Monday and why should you care?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, you’re not alone—even the Washington Post’s chief political correspondent, Dan Balz, calls it “a confusing and chaotic process.” To help you navigate through the noise, here are five things to know about the weird world of the Iowa caucuses:

They’re not political primaries

It’s tempting to refer to the caucuses as political primaries—after all, they help determine the state’s nominee for president. But caucuses are different. As David Weigel explains for the Washington Post, they are far more informal, mush together multiple precincts and are even tabulated by political parties, rather than state election officials.

Though Iowa political parties have been caucusing since before the state was even founded, caucuses were not always seen as presidential kingmakers, but rather used to be treated just as political meetings. This changed in 1972, following new Congressional rules that prompted Iowa's Democrats and Republicans to hold their caucuses on the same day, earlier than other states. Because the state hosts the nation’s first caucuses, its picks naturally garner lots of media attention.

They’re…complicated 

The Democratic and Republican caucuses couldn’t run more differently. Democratic caucuses happen in person and, this year at least, also via "telecaucus." Throughout the process, Democratic voters act like a kind of miniature electoral college. Attendees show up, then separate into candidate groups by preference. People in candidate clusters of less than 15 percent of the entire group must wheel and deal with other attendees to try to lure, bargain and even bribe them into their groups. Eventually, candidates without 15 percent of attendees are nixed and their supporters must move to a different cluster or go home. The group is counted again and Democratic delegates are assigned based on those numbers. This means that turnout doesn’t actually count—Democratic caucuses can be determined based on extremely small numbers.

The Republican process is much simpler: there are about 900 Republican caucus sites, where voters gather, hear speeches from precinct captains (or candidates, themselves), then vote by hand on paper ballots.

They’re full of surprises 

In recent years, the Iowa caucuses have become notorious for choosing obvious underdogs, such as Rick Santorum, even though these candidates won’t get close to the nomination, nationally. That’s because the process is so interactive, relying on convincing testimony from neighbors and friends to sway voters toward one candidate or another. But this process can also help candidates on the brink convince other states that they’re viable—and predict a surge toward victory.

Take Jimmy Carter, for instance. While Iowa caucuses have been the nation’s first in the election cycle since '72, Carter brought them into national prominence in 1976, when he pushed past other candidates with a heavily Iowa-focused campaign. As Julian E. Zelizer writes for the Atlantic, Carter “was brilliant at understanding that local political events could become a form of theater, staged for the benefit of the media.” That savvy helped him defeat his closest competitor by a two-to-one margin and snag the presidency that November.

They’re being documented in better ways than ever before

At the root of the caucuses is Iowans talking to, agreeing with and arguing with other Iowans. But that doesn’t mean there’s not room for some technology at the caucuses. As Issie Lapowsky reports for WIRED, expect to see a lot more documentation at this year’s caucuses, thanks to smartphones, social media, and apps that help groups calculate how many votes a candidate must have to be viable.

There’s more at stake than just votes

Some detractors call the caucuses outdated and irrelevant—after all, Iowa has few electoral votes, doesn’t consistently predict the presidential winner and has a quite homogeneous, white electorate. But the caucuses aren’t just for determining a nominee. Rather, political operatives use them to scope out the strength of their competitions’ ground games and the media uses them to help better understand the unfolding narrative of the political season. So like it or not, there’s no way you won’t hear about its caucuses in the days and weeks to come.

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