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How Do the Iowa Caucuses Work? Here’s a Guide

Tuesday night will deliver the first concrete results of the Democratic primary. Here’s how they’ll be determined. Strap in, it’s pretty confusing

A supporter holds a Bernie action figure outside a campaign event at Ingersoll Tap in Des Moines, Iowa, February 2nd, 2020.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

It feels like “election season” has “officially begun” several times at this point, but Tuesday night in Iowa marks the first opportunity candidates will have to put some actual, non-symbolic points on the board. The Iowa caucuses will set the tone for the remaining few months of the Democratic primary (we think), while bringing at least some semblance of clarity to a confusing race the Democratic Party may have already bungled (we hope). With Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden currently neck-and-neck in the state — and Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Mike Bloomberg, and Andrew Yang (kind of) not far behind — it’s anybody’s guess who will emerge from Iowa with momentum heading into next week’s New Hampshire primary.

This all begs a very key question, though: What the hell is a caucus?

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than you could ever imagine. Here’s what you need to know:

Caucus? Caucuses? What’s going on here?

Unlike the far-simpler primary system, which entails a simple statewide vote among registered Democrats, multiple caucuses will take place across Iowa beginning at 7 p.m. local time Tuesday night. And by “multiple,” we mean 1,679. That’s the number of state precincts that will host a gathering of registered Democrats who will be 18 by Election Day to determine how Iowa’s 41 pledged delegates will be divvied up. In addition to the 1,679 precincts hosting caucuses, the state will hold a number of satellite caucuses for residents who are unable to make it to the pre-designated caucus locations.

All told, the state expects turnout to exceed the record 240,000 Iowans who caucused in the 2008 Democratic primary.

OK, so what is a caucus?

At each caucus site — which include churches, gyms, and more — voters will physically gather in a designated area of the venue that corresponds to their preferred candidate. All the Sanders supporters below the basketball hoop! and so on. That’s the first round. A candidate must register 15-percent support from the voters in attendance to advance to the second round. Supporters of candidates who don’t meet that threshold have the option to realign with another candidate during the second round. So, in theory, a candidate who comes in, say, third place in the first round could still win that particular caucus should they siphon support from the eliminated candidates.

A formula will be applied to these results to determine the number of delegates to be allocated at each caucus site.

Still with us? More or less? Let’s move on.

What changes did the Democratic Party institute for 2020?

To make things even more confusing, the Republicans’ caucus process is entirely different from that of the Democrats. Fortunately we can save the Republican explainer for 2024 and focus on the Democrats, who have switched things up a little bit this year.

The most notable change is that the party will release three numbers simultaneously:

Another notable factor that could actually impact the results is that only voters who support a candidate who fails to reach the 15-percent threshold may realign with another candidate after the first round. In the past, a voter could hop over to another candidate regardless of how well the candidate they supported initially performed. No longer.

For example, if Sanders, Biden, and Elizabeth Warren received 25, 25, and 15 percent support, respectively, some voters who supported Warren may have deemed it in their interests to hop over to Sanders after the first round, in an effort to prevent Biden from winning. In the past, they would have been able to do this. This year, their support for Warren will have been locked in after the first round, since she crossed the 15-percent threshold.

When will the winner be announced?

It depends how close it is. The caucus process will begin at 7 p.m. local time, and typically takes a few hours to complete. In 2016, the race was so close between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders that Clinton wasn’t declared the winner until the following morning.

Let’s hope that isn’t the case this year.