How The Caucuses Really Work — And Why They Matter So Much

How The Caucuses Really Work — And Why They Matter So Much

The Iowa caucus, where voters will gather in rooms to cast ballots publicly, remains important not only because it’s the first primary contest, but because candidates can win a majority of delegates there, even if they don’t have a majority of the votes.

That caucus anomaly is particularly important for Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is polling just behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the final hours before the polling places open. In the first caucus round for the Democrats, every candidate must have 15 percent of the votes or their votes are redistributed to the other candidates in a second round.  Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is unlikely to make that cut off, so his handful of supporters eventually will have to choose between Sanders or Clinton.

In Iowa, geography favors Clinton: More than a quarter of Sanders’ voters are expected to come from only three counties. The rest are spread out across the state’s 96 other counties. So even if Sanders were to build a substantial lead, he may only win a limited number of delegates.

Caucuses are the remnants of an archaic political process that have managed to survive into the present day. In fact, the caucus predates the republic by several decades. Working with a select group in Boston before the Revolution, Samuel Adams had devised a process to bring political candidates before the public. In 1763, John Adams wrote about a “Caucus Club,” filled with notable town figures who would then be presented to the public for a vote. One central purpose of this process was to ensure solidarity so voters could get behind a single candidate.

After the colonies achieved independence from Britain, the practice continued — but was limited to closed door meetings attended only by Congressmen and party leaders. Caucuses weren’t a deliberate attempt to subvert democracy, however; they were instead a practical necessity of the time. Slow modes of transportation and communication prevented an electorate beyond those in the state capital from taking part in the nomination process.

John Quincy Adams criticized the practice while serving as Secretary of State. He wrote in 1819 that caucusing was “a practice which places the President in a state of undue subserviency to the members of the legislature.” Since presidential candidates were chosen by the members of the House and Senate, potential nominees had to maintain a sometimes uneasy peace with the legislature. Otherwise, they could be excluded from the ballot. The process was an obvious violation of separation of powers, as the legislature could select candidates that represented their own interests.

Since those early days, caucusing has been expanded to include the full electorate, but the delegate voting system has not gone away. In Iowa, caucus-goers will head to their local precincts, where they will vote for county delegates who will in turn vote for state delegates. The state delegates will vote for the national convention delegates, who will then vote to choose the party’s presidential candidate. While the process is not confusing, it is lengthy and complex. In a recent ThinkProgress post, the author described it “as if Rube Goldberg designed a method of polling voters.”

Even this modified caucus system is subject to manipulation, with Iowa’s delegates allocated on “a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last governor and presidential elections.” That opaque process can give certain counties a much louder voice in the caucus results than others, regardless of voter turnout in tonight’s election — and potentially give undue weight to a smaller pool of voters.

Iowans take part in this system of disproportional voting strength by default, while their residence in the first primary state gives them undue national influence — but only if they’re among the minority that shows up. Each vote from Iowa is calculated to have the same impact as five Super Tuesday voters put together — a fact that explains why ethanol subsidies are a far bigger issue than they should be, and why early voting states get more federal funding if they voted for the winning candidate in the elections. With no major urban centers in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada, the first four voting states, this system is among the reasons why cities chronically remain short of education, infrastructure and housing funding.

Yet this is the reality Sanders will have to grapple with if he wants to become fully competitive by Super Tuesday. The momentum he has coming out of these first primaries will determine his future. Clinton is hoping that she can stop him in South Carolina, where black voters are a majority and support her by a margin of 4-to-1 against Sanders. But should Sanders win tonight, he just might be propelled all the way to the convention. It won’t be long before we know.


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