How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work?

Jan. 18, 2004 -- The Iowa caucuses are the first contest in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. The caucuses are also one of the more peculiar parts of the process.

Unlike a primary, where every voter casts a vote for one candidate, the caucuses involve meetings where people form groups supporting a particular candidate, to claim a share of delegates to the state's county conventions.

Unlike primaries in other states, where the polls are open from some time in the morning to some time in the evening, Democrats across the state of Iowa will meet in 1,993 precincts at precisely 6:30 p.m. Whereas it might take a few minutes to stop by the polls in a primary, a caucus takes a couple of hours.

Democrats will meet in schools, churches, community centers, and even their neighbors' homes on Jan. 19 to literally stand up in support of their favorite candidates. The Iowa Democratic Party expects upwards of 100,000 Democrats to participate this year.

Can Be Open to Teens, Ex-Republicans

The caucus meetings are all about participation and community discussion.

Iowa's Democratic caucuses are open to any Iowa resident who is at least 18. Seventeen-year-olds who will be 18 by Election Day in November also are allowed to participate, and those who are too young are invited to take part as observers.

Even Republicans or independents can come to a Democratic caucus and change their registrations on caucus night in order to participate.

When asked about the possibility of fraudulent participation by people who are not Iowa residents, Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Gordon Fischer told ABCNEWS' George Stephanopoulos: "What we're really talking about are neighborhood caucuses. … And so, I dare say, at most precincts everybody is going to know everybody else or nearly everybody else. So if there's somebody coming in from the outside, frankly, they'll stick out a little bit."

Time for Persuasion

Precinct chairs start the caucus meetings by reading a letter from Fischer thanking everyone for participating and asserting Iowa's leading role in the presidential nomination contest.

The precinct chair also passes around an envelope to collect donations to help support the party. Fischer thinks a possible record turnout could mean record donations for the party.

At 7:00 pm CT, the precinct chairs will instruct the attendees to break up into their presidential preference groups. Strong supporters of particular candidates will try to sway those who are undecided.

A caucus is different from a straw poll because supporters for a candidate in a precinct caucus have to reach a certain number in order to be counted. Generally, that level of support, what the Party calls the "viability threshold," is 15 percent of the total group.

After 30 minutes, if supporters for a particular candidate do not meet that minimum requirement, then the entire caucus group divides again. So, it is possible that a candidate in the lead the first time around might not lead once the groups divide again.

Delegate Formula

Once all the preference groups are viable, the precinct chairman calculates how many delegates each group can claim to the county convention. The chair multiplies the number of supporters in a preference group by the number of delegates that caucus elects to the county convention, and then divides by the total number of people at that caucus.

When the math is complete, the precinct chair will call a computerized phone system at the Iowa Democratic Party to input the number of delegates each candidate has won. The caucus meetings will then go on to other business such as electing the actual delegates and voting on issue platforms.

The party will gather the numbers from all of the precincts to project who is leading.

This is just the first step of the process in Iowa. County conventions will elect delegates to the district and state conventions, which will in turn elect delegates to the Democratic National Convention. All along the process, the delegates are not beholden to vote for a certain candidate and they can change their minds.

So, in the end, the Iowa Democratic precinct caucuses are an exciting first step in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, but they are exactly just that — the first step.