Most Americans have no idea how the Iowa caucus process works. They just think that the Hawkeye State votes funny and leave it at that.
It’s an understandable reaction. The Iowa caucuses are complex and convoluted, and each political party makes up its own rules, which makes the events even more arcane. However, the caucuses allow those attending to shape the policies of the Iowa GOP because party business is discussed at each caucus location. That enables Iowans to have a say in what planks will be added to the state’s Republican platform.
During presidential election years, the GOP calls the voting the “Republican Presidential Preference Poll.”
Historically, fifty percent of caucus winners go on to win the nomination of their respective parties, and fifty percent don’t. But the caucuses give us the first palpable sense of who the eventual nominee of each party could be, and those finishing second and third are considered real contenders. Those finishing with less than 15% of the vote are not considered viable. Unless they can finish in the top three in New Hampshire, they could be forced to decide whether or not to continue.
In past primaries, the rule was winner takes all delegates. But this year the GOP approach is far more like the Democrat party’s way of assigning delegates to candidates.
Until April of 2012, primary results will be awarded per capita based on the percentage of votes each candidate gets in each primary state. If, for example, Romney wins with 25% of the vote, then 25% of the delegates elected on his behalf will represent him at the GOP’s National Convention.
So, just how do the Iowa caucuses work?
It all begins with the Ames Straw Poll, which, in the scheme of things, is a vote-buying game that takes place in August in the year preceding the General Election.
Contenders start by bidding for the booth next to the tent where the vote is held at the Iowa State Fair in Ames. This year Ron Paul paid a small fortune to win that booth, but it wasn’t worth the investment. Voters filed past it casting only a quick glance at his banner but gave the win to Michelle Bachmann.
To get a good turnout for the Straw Poll, candidates pay to have their supporters bussed in from all over the state. Not only do the candidates pay the bus fare, they pick up the price of admission to the fair and hand out food and drink coupons. But despite being financially courted, there’s no guarantee that voters will vote for those who picked up the tab for them. In fact, until recently as much as 50% of voters had not selected a candidate.
While it can give a contender a boost in the polls overall, a Straw Poll win doesn’t mean that Bachmann can roll what’s really a bought-and-paid-for victory down the road to a solid win at the caucuses. In fact, according to Real Clear Politics, as of December 27, 2011, Bachmann was in fifth place in Iowa with only 9% of the vote.
Further, of the last five Ames Straw Poll winners, three won the caucuses and two did not.
Regardless, to some candidates the victory is considered pyrrhic and thus not worth the investment. Such first tier contenders as Romney and Perry thumbed their noses at the process this year, saving precious campaign dollars to invest in the race for the caucuses.
The GOP Iowa Strategy
The prevailing strategy has been to have a good ground game. By that I mean candidates need to launch a strong, well organized “retail-political” strategy that takes them all over the state to appear at town hall meetings, give speeches, or hold meetings in popular restaurants to meet and greet voters and answer questions. They also have to have an army of volunteers, phone banks, letter folders and stuffers and drivers who are willing to pick up voters and deliver them to the caucuses.
Caucus turnout is heavily affected by the weather. If it’s snowy and fiercely cold, only those truly committed to a candidate will turn out. If the weather is good, the turnout is invariably larger.
As candidates launch their ground games, the goal of each is not only to press the flesh with voters, but also to convince precinct leaders and potential county delegates to endorse them. As a result, the campaign is a dual-tiered and exhausting endeavor. In other states, endorsements help, but they’re secondary to winning voter support.
On January 3, 2012, in this election cycle, voters will show up in each of 1,774 precincts, at which they will vote for candidates who will ultimately be represented by county delegates. Voters must live in the precincts where the caucuses are held. The gathering places for caucuses can be homes within the precinct, libraries, schools, churches and just about any other structure that can accommodate all voters.
As voters file in to a caucus, their party affiliation is checked. For GOP caucus goers to vote, each must be a Republican and live in the precinct. If they’re not and they wish to participate in the debates and vote, they can change their party affiliation at whichever caucus they attend by presenting a photo ID with their current address on it.
Voters must be 18 or must have achieved that age before the General Election to participate. Others attending, including the media, candidate staffers, the curious and those who won’t be 18 by Election Day may not participate in the debates or voting. However, those who are 17 but will not be 18 by Election Day are able to volunteer to be youth delegates for county conventions.
Once inside the caucus, eligible voters are given a blank piece of paper.
When the GOP caucuses come to order, one surrogate or volunteer may speak on behalf of each candidate. This is where having the support of precinct leaders can be extremely helpful if they do the talking. Debates between surrogates may occur. Once the dust settles, those eligible to vote write down the name of the candidate for whom they’re voting on the blank piece of paper they were given, fold it and drop it into a bin that’s passed around.
The votes are then tallied at each caucus and the results announced to those present. The votes and results then go to the Iowa Republican Party for a final tally.
How the Republicans will do it in 2012.
According to the GOP rules, after the votes have been tallied, announced at the caucus and sent to the Iowa Republican Party, the caucus turns to other matters. “The primary function of the caucus,” the GOP explains, “is to conduct party business. Official business of the precinct caucus includes electing members to the county Republican central committee, electing delegates, alternates and junior delegates to the county convention, electing precinct people to any committees for the County Convention and discussing and submitting platform issues to the County Convention.”
There are 99 counties in Iowa. County delegates meet and vote for state and district delegates. They in turn go to state conventions. It’s at those conclaves that delegates vote for those who will go to the GOP national convention as representatives of each candidate according to the pro-rata share of the percentages candidates received in the final vote count.
The GOP rule change this year means that delegates chosen to go to the national convention must be allocated delegates according to the final percentages each candidate gets when the results are certified. If, say, Romney gets 30% of the caucus votes, 30% of delegates going to the convention are allocated to him, and so forth.
The rules also change the concept of binding delegates to candidates. In normal caucuses, delegates to the national convention are not bound to vote for the candidate they may have represented.
Obviously, given the complexity of the system and the time between voting at county and then state conventions, Iowa is one of the last states to actually choose those who will get the nod to represent the state at the Republican National Convention.
Iowa is known for picking from second tier candidates seemingly just to upset the apple cart. But this year is very different. They, like many other Republicans, are said to be focusing on which candidate they think can beat Obama. So this time the caucuses are taking on a very serious tone, and votes will be cast with great care.
Questions about the caucus can be asked by contacting the GOP offices at 515-282-8105 or e-mail Nicole Sizemore at email@example.com.