Your Idiot's Guide To The Democratic Caucuses

Eric Kleefeld // Published January 3, 2008 in Talking Points Memo
Here it is: Your Official Election Central Idiot's Guide to the Iowa Democratic Caucuses.

Tonight is the big night when Iowa Democrats will gather in precinct caucuses, normally held in school gymnasiums and other public places, to voice their support for different presidential candidates. So what exactly will they be doing in there?

A Democratic Party caucus is not a conventional primary. Instead, it has its own peculiar processes, with their virtues and deficiencies. For example, it has a form of instant runoff that allows people to initially support minor candidates and then go for a front-runner. On the other hand, the system is undemocratic in that it's only open to people who can show up at 6:30 p.m. and then stay for two hours. And on top of that, there is no such thing as a secret ballot — a participant's vote is made in the full view of his friends, family and neighbors.

But what on earth actually happens, and how does a candidate win?

Our guide to the whole process is after the jump.

Here's what's going to happen tonight. Starting at 6:30 P.M. Central Time, every registered Democrat in Iowa who wants to participate in the caucuses will show up at his or her local precinct. There are 1,781 precincts across the state. Each precinct will have anywhere from a handful of caucusers all the way up to several hundred.

Independent voters (or even Republicans) who want to caucus merely show up at their local precinct, then re-register as Democrats at the door. The act of doing this effectively turns them into Dem voters for the evening — even if they remain independents (or Republicans) in their hearts.

A record number of independents is expected to turn out tonight, a development that could benefit Barack Obama, who's leading among them in polls.

At each precinct, these caucusers will then divide up into groups, depending on which candidate they are supporting. It's important to understand that the caucusers aren't technically voting for a candidate by caucusing for him or her. Rather, at the end of the process, candidates get awarded a number of delegates to county party conventions, based on how many Iowans caucus for them. Those delegates will later go on to elect state convention delegates, who at their convention will finally pick the federal delegates.

But never mind all that stuff about conventions. What you need to know is that at the end of the day, the winner will be the candidate with the most projected state delegates from all the precincts statewide. Here's how we get to that point.

In each precinct, once the first round of caucusing is done, each candidate will get assigned a number of delegates roughly proportional to the percentage of caucusers who supported him or her. Now here's the rub: All candidates that don't get more than 15% of caucusers are deemed non-viable. Though getting 15% is the threshold in most precincts, there are many smaller precincts with less delegates and therefore much higher thresholds — but there's no need to worry about that for now.

Once some candidates are declared non-viable, supporters of viable candidates will court those people to caucus for their own viable candidates, and after the floating votes have reallocated another count is taken.

This is why you heard the candidates appealing to Iowans to make them the "second choice" of voters — because people supporting lesser candidates at first can still support one of the majors.

Here's how it ends: Eventually, the proceedings stop, and the state Democratic party then tallies up the total percentage of the state delegates each leading candidate is projected to have. This number is the percentage of support for each candidate we'll be hearing about later tonight — and whoever has the largest percentage of state delegate support will be crowned the winner.

Simple, huh?

(This guide is separate from the procedures used at Republican caucuses. Instead, they use an archaic procedure in which participants mark down their votes in a secret ballot, and those votes are then counted from the boxes and given to the state party headquarters.)

Late Update: To clarify a point, state and county delegates are apportioned based on the total number of Democratic votes that the area produced in the last general elections for president and governor. Thus, apportionment is intended so that delegate strength will approximate the overall distribution of Democratic voters throughout the state.