What Is The Iowa Caucus?

Compared to what is coming this 2016, the 2015 presidential campaigns were calm and peaceful. The presidential candidates have faced debates, going head-to-head with one another on national television. They have been watching unofficial poll numbers rise and fall month by month. However, this February, they will face the very first official state decision on their possible rankings as president: the Iowa Caucus.

What is the Iowa Caucus?

A caucus is one way for states to pick their presidential delegates per party. Unlike primary elections, they are not conducted state-wide by secret ballot. Each political party arranges a specialized local gathering, where those assembled choose their preferred delegates. Unlike with most primaries, presidential candidates cannot apply to be on the ballot (or list of choices) through lists of signatures or registration fees. What is the Iowa caucus, then?


The Iowa caucus is–by accident, traditionally, and by its own law–the first state to make a decision on presidential candidate rankings. In 1972, the usual June-scheduled state convention (after the caucus and the county and congressional district conventions) needed to be moved up. There were no free rooms in Des Moines on that June weekend, so the state convention was pushed up–pushing every other event up. The Iowa caucus went first in 1972.

As a result, Iowa guarded its place as first caucus of the year, and even embedded it in state law. In the Iowa Code 43.4, it states:

The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus, or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory, or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.


Because Independents must register as either Democrat or Republican if they want to take part in a caucus, the only caucuses are held by the two largest political parties. The Republican delegates are decided through ranking by secret ballot in the caucus. The Democratic delegates, on the other hand, are chosen by at least 15% of the delegates of each precinct. Without that 15%, the candidates are not “viable,” and the delegates either leave or switch support.

What is the Iowa Caucus’ Importance?

First, Iowa is one of the swing states. Without having a perfect record (Iowa voted for 7 winners in the last 10 elections), the state still has a good enough record to rank among the swing states. The real significance of the Iowa caucus, however, is in its setting of the race. The Iowa caucus is the first official indicator to the nation as to whom the national frontrunners of the race might be.


The ranking of the candidates is significant as well, since the first-place winners in the Iowa caucuses are not necessarily the winners of the general elections. The reverse is true as well: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all lost the Iowa caucuses but won the national elections. However, the top 2 or 3 presidential candidates grab special attention afterwards.

As the future primary and caucus participants observe the frontrunners in the Iowa caucus, their decisions begin to narrow as well. Since they know that their party nominees will go head to head with the opponent party in the general elections, it makes sense to narrow the candidate field and broaden the voting base of the top candidates. This gives the frontrunners momentum for the rest of the race.

What is the Iowa Caucus to the 2016 Elections?

The Iowa caucus will be less decisive this year in the case of the Democrats. There are only three presidential candidates on that side, and only two, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are real contenders according to the national polls. However, it will answer a question asked nationally since Sanders edged ahead of Clinton in the Iowa polls: Who is the real frontrunner of the Democratic presidential candidate race?


However, this caucus is sure to be an eye-opener for the Republican presidential candidates. At the moment, Donald Trump is still a clear poll frontrunner, with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio both struggling for second. The Iowa caucus’ top 3 Republican candidates will give the nation a look at who the likely possible winners are of the overall Republican primaries. It will also decide the final ranking of Ben Carson, who was second to Trump until the recent Paris terror attacks.

About the author

Esther has a B.A. in Humanities and an M.A. in Political Economy. When she's not writing, she enjoys playing Sequence with her family, training in Aikido, and curling up with coffee and a good book.