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What Is a Caucus and How Does It Work?

The Iowa caucus is an important event in a presidential election year.

While the Iowa caucus on Feb. 3 receives a lot of media attention, its significance and history is not always understood by voters.

Candidates have historically dedicated part of their campaign in Iowa in order to win the votes of its residents. Voters in Iowa begin the process in the presidential primary and it's the first state to hold a caucus in the primary season.

What Is the Purpose of a Caucus?

The caucus system chooses political candidates for presidential elections and is a key component of the candidate that is later chosen for each political party.

It’s the first glimpse of what voters think of the candidates vying to serve as president of the U.S. On Feb. 3, Iowans will cast their votes for the Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump. Trump has been viewed as the nominee for the Republican party.

During a caucus, a candidate must receive a minimum of 15% of the votes in a given precinct to continue on to the second and final vote. That final vote will result in the number of delegates a candidate receives.

Iowa Democrats will state their preference by meeting up at community centers, schools and other public spots where they can discuss the candidates publicly and state their support for one person over another.

Iowans have long favored the process of arguing and debating over their candidates and moving physically from one side of the room to another in order to keep like-minded voters together in a group. They believe the process is more transparent and open than primaries where the voting is done individually.

Having a caucus instead of a primary has been a controversial issue because not everyone is available to attend, and people are often working, too ill to travel to a caucus location or cannot participate for other reasons.

How the Caucus Process Changed for 2020

But this year, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) changed the caucus process for the first time since it began in 1972.

The IDP offers six additional opportunities for people to participate via virtual caucuses.

“The Iowa Democratic Party has always sought ways to improve our caucus process, and today, we are setting the stage for the 2020 Iowa caucuses to be the most accessible, transparent, and successful caucuses in our party’s history,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price in a written statement. “Starting almost immediately after the 2016 cycle, this party took a holistic look at how we can make the Iowa caucuses more accessible and transparent. These proposals are the result of thousands of hours of conversation and years of hard work.”

The virtual caucusing means that over six days, registered Democrats who have signed up with the Iowa Democratic Party will be able to participate in one of six virtual caucuses by phone or smart device.  The attendees can rank up to five choices for president. The total result of the six caucuses will account for 10% of Iowa’s caucus delegates.

The Democrats will choose their nominee at their convention in July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Impact of the Iowa Caucus 

Today the Iowa caucus becomes a publicity spectacle as thousands of journalists descend upon Des Moines and pundits give live commentary of who they think will emerge as the winner. The mood at the Iowa caucus can range from tense to jubilant.

In the past, underdog candidates were sometimes able to gain some traction and more attention from the Iowa caucus.

Statistically, candidates who win the Iowa caucus do not wind up being elected president.

There has been lengthy criticism of holding the caucus in Iowa because the state is not racially diverse and does not represent the interest of Americans ranging from rural to urban areas.

Iowa remains important because voters watch the campaigning that occurs in the state and note the winner of the caucus.

Even though the February caucus is several months before the July Democratic convention, it remains an important event. There are nine other states and three U.S. territories that participate in a caucus.