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The Mechanics of Caucusing

The fate of the free world rests on this? Uh-oh.
Des Moines, Iowa

“Let’s see a show of hands,” said Fischer, sporting casual clothes with his silver hair and trim beard. “How many of you have not caucused before?” About half his audience raised a palm. Fischer urged the newbies not to be intimidated. “It’s easy,” he said emphatically. “It’s not complicated. Sometimes my friends in the media say that it’s arcane, it’s mystical. It’s not. It’s really easy.”

Easy? Tell that to Iowans, up to 90 percent of whom--despite the perhaps $50 million spent here to win their support--will likely sit out the most frantically contested caucuses in history. In 2004, with Bush hatred flaring and Iraq deteriorating, only about six percent of eligible Democrats bothered to show. And even in the waning days of this even more feverish campaign, which has left virtually no adult unmolested by a desperate candidate, many Iowans remain confounded and intimidated by the process.

After a Hillary Clinton appearance in Ames this week, for instance, one of her local precinct captains--whose job it is to corral and organize his or her candidate’s supporters on caucus night--said he frequently hears from Hillary backers who have, well, absolutely no clue what’s expected of them.

“They’re like, 'Do I have to do something? Do I have to give a speech?'” he said. The next day, a local field organizer recounted the same experience, groaning: “These people don’t even know what a caucus is!” He wasn't exaggerating: At one campaign's focus group, the Iowans present asked whether the exercise they were engaged in was the actual caucus.


Why the confusion? Well, the Iowa caucuses truly are arcane. First, they require physical clustering, an unfamiliar concept on its own, but more daunting when done in front of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers. This process is poorly understood even by many of the political reporters tasked with explaining it to the public. Gordon Fischer gently rebukes journalists who refer to Iowa “voters,” noting that on the Democratic side no actual votes are cast. Instead, Iowans literally vote with their feet. At 6:30 Thursday night, perhaps 150,000 of them will show up at roughly 1,700 different caucus sites around the state--churches, schools, and other neutral locations, where turnout can range from the dozens to several hundred--and physically gather in different room corners according to the candidate they support.

Secondly--and this is where things get complicated--the caucuses are not your basic one-man, one-vote affair. Caucuses are in fact a competition to win delegates to county conventions, which choose delegates to a state convention, which, in turn, is where national delegates are chosen. The number of delegates awarded to each precinct is based on turnout there in the previous two general elections--and on caucus night, delegates are divvied up based on what proportion of the turnout each candidate can muster. (By the way, can you believe Jamie Lynn Spears is keeping her baby? Girlfriend, please.) (Sorry, had to keep your interest somehow! Are you beginning to understand that low turnout?) So anyway, when the media reports the official caucus results, those percentages reflect the number of delegates awarded--not, as in a primary, the preferences of thousands of individual voters.

One quirk of this system is that it means supporters can go to waste. If Barack Obama needs 100 backers to sweep all 10 delegates in one precinct, it doesn’t matter if 1,000 people show up. That’s why candidates spend so much time stumping in rural areas, as Hillary Clinton did last weekend when she rolled through the itty-bitty town of Traer, population 1,500 and best known for an outdoor winding iron staircase. A small handful of supporters in a place like Traer can win you delegates that might require dozens of supporters in a highly populated urban precinct. (This is also a reason why the campaigns fear that John Edwards, popular in rural areas, may surprise people tomorrow night.)

Such arcana explains the campaigns’ obsession with demystifying the caucus process. When I asked the Clinton precinct captain what he tells people who are worried they’ll have to speak, he barked, “I tell them, ‘No! You just gotta stand there!’” It’s why the Clinton campaign released a web video entitled “Caucusing Is Easy.” Clinton’s website also includes a reassuring FAQ page, which addresses such questions as: “Do I have to speak publicly at the caucus?” and--this one is for the grannies--“I have to stand the whole time?” The answer to both questions is no. But it’s a bit stunning to consider that America’s fate could be massively influenced in part by whether a bunch of old ladies realize they can take a load off.

Fischer did his best to put the caucus in easy-to-grasp terms. “It’s a lot like gym class. You remember dividing up into teams to play dodgeball, or basketball?” Caucusing is much the same, Fischer explained: people grouping and re-grouping.


Re-grouping? Yes, that’s the final oddball twist. In any precinct where at least one candidate fails to win enough supporters--usually fifteen percent of total turnout--to be “viable,” a second round of caucusing is held. Several Democratic candidates--Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich--aren’t likely to be viable anywhere, and even the top-tier candidates won’t meet the threshold in a few precincts. (Republicans spare their brethren this added wrinkle.)

That means a hefty number of delegates--maybe enough to decide the Democratic race--could shift in the roughly 30 minutes of bartering and pleading that occurs between the first round of caucusing and the second. Some vote-shifting will be preordained. Four years ago, Dennis Kucinich directed his supporters to caucus for John Edwards in districts where he wasn’t viable; this week he urged them to back Barack Obama in places where he fails to achieve viability. (Edwards’s surprising second-place showing in 2004 is often attributed in part to Kucinich’s support, although earlier this month--and before the recent Kuncinich-Obama pact became public--one top Edwards aide called that a “legend” and “overblown,” adding, “it didn’t change the race all that much.”)

If this all sounds bewildering, it’s part of the grand design, according to Dave Nagle, a former congressman and Democratic state party chair. “Our caucuses were designed to try to bring consensus,” Nagle says. “That’s why people get second choices. We’re trying to find the candidates that … people can most agree on.”

No one ever expected the caucuses to set the tone for the entire presidential campaign, Nagle adds, almost apologetically. They were first conceived, in 1968, as a way of commingling activists for “party building” purposes. It was only in 1972, when New York Times correspondent R.W. “Johnny” Apple detected rising support for George McGovern’s campaign here against Ed Muskie, a trend other journalists missed, thus birthing a national media obsession. “What made it take this turn was Johnny Apple,” Nagle says. “Where Apple went, the rest of the press would follow. By ’76, we had this horde of press descending on us. The thing more or less got cemented in history.”


Back in Des Moines, Fischer led his flock through the mock caucus. Hanging on the walls were large hand-lettered signs bearing the names of early U.S. Presidents: Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Adams. Based on what I assumed were basic prior instructions, the Obama supporters clumped together for the first round under the signs for their chosen “candidate.” Having drawn just five supporters out of thirty four caucusers, James Madison was declared non-viable. (Poor guy wrote the Constitution!) His people were now free agents. Fischer explained that on caucus night there would be a mad scramble to win over such people: “There will be non-viable people at your caucus--I almost guarantee it. And there will be people who are tempted to leave because they feel so strongly about their candidate,” he explained. “They become the most popular people in the room. These are like the ‘Heathers’ of their high school.”

A scrum followed, in which supporters of the various presidents engaged in mock-pleading with one another. One of them was New Hampshire Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter, who had recently endorsed Obama. Speaking on behalf of Thomas Jefferson, Porter pleaded with the deflated Madison followers: “I like James Madison. His time is going to come. But this man wrote the Declaration of Independence…. He’s lived in the city, but he’s also lived in the country. He understands everyone’s problems.” (Sometimes second-round voting comes down less to impassioned arguments and calculations than to more quotidian factors, Nagle says. “It might be the fact that you need that guy’s snow blower in the morning.”)

Afterwards, there was some minor confusion about how to calculate the delegate count. “You don’t have to do math,” Fischer reassured the crowd; that’s the work of the precinct captain. “Don’t let the math intimidate you.”

Fischer’s flock was dedicated and enthusiastic. But by the event’s conclusion, it was hard to say that even these committed supporters felt totally at ease with the process.

“Do people agree with me that it’s easy and fun?” Fischer asked by way of wrapping things up.

“Yes,” came the wan response. It didn’t sound too convincing.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor for The New Republic.