Five things to know about the Iowa caucus

For 45 years, all the presidential candidates have rushed to Iowa to campaign. Here at a Joe Biden meeting in Waterloo on February 1, 2020. REUTERS / Ivan Alvarado

Text by: Marie Normand Follow

This Monday, February 3, the eyes of the Americans will be fixed on Iowa. This tiny rural state in the Midwest is the first to vote for the primaries which will nominate the candidates of each party for the presidential election next November.


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  • What does huddle mean?

A caucus is a public meeting, an assembly of people from the same party. Only a handful of states use this system. The others organize more traditional primaries, with voting in a voting booth, by secret ballot.

We do not know for sure where this word comes from. There are several versions. For some historians, caucus is a term of Native American origin; for others, the word comes from the Greek.

  • What's the point ?

Caucuses - and primaries - allow you to choose which candidates will represent the Democratic and Republican parties in the presidential election on November 3.

Among the Democrats, 11 candidates are still in the running. Among the Republicans, less suspense: it is Donald Trump, the outgoing president, who will be chosen, even if two other small candidates stand in front of him. Republicans in Iowa are still caucusing, but other states have canceled theirs.

  • Why is Iowa voting first?

A bit by chance, a calendar story. In 1972, the Democratic Party decided to advance the date of its national convention, during which the presidential candidate is invested. All states therefore adapted to plan their own polls before this date and Iowa found itself organizing its vote first. Four years later, the Republicans are aligned: they also kick off their primaries in Iowa.

Ever since a little-known Democratic candidate at the time came to the head of caucus in 1976 and then became president - it was Jimmy Carter - the legend of Iowa was born. For nearly 45 years, all candidates have fled to this state to campaign.

  • How does a caucus work?

In a caucus, no voting booth. All the supporters of the same party meet in the same place, at the same time. You need a big enough place, like a school or a gymnasium.

Among the Republicans, it is simple: those present first listen to the speeches of the candidates' representatives, then write their choice on a piece of paper.

But for Democrats, it's a little more complicated: sympathizers vote with their feet! To show their support for a candidate, they move around and gather in different corners of the room. Groups that are too small (less than 15% of those present) are automatically eliminated. Then, a negotiation begins between the remaining groups (the “viable” groups) and the undecided or those whose candidate was eliminated in the first round. Objective: convince them to join one or the other of the camps. It can be very short or on the contrary last a long time, depending on the size of the constituency.

Finally, we count the number of people in each group, and each candidate receives a proportional number of district delegates. They will repeat the same process at higher levels (the county, then the state). This summer, the two parties will meet in a national convention to invest the candidate who has received the most delegates, that is to say the most support in all of the states.

This year, several new features in Iowa: the results of the first round will also be known, which will give us a better idea of ​​the weight of each candidate. Some candidates may claim victory on the first result, others on the third. It will be more transparent, but perhaps also more confused in terms of lessons to be learned, ”said Corentin Sellin, associate professor of history and specialist in the United States. Another change to the rules this year: supporters who chose a "viable" camp in the first round will not be able to change sides in the second. Finally, Democratic sympathizers registered on the electoral lists of Iowa will also be able to vote elsewhere on the American territory, in "satellite caucuses" distributed throughout the country.

  • Is the top candidate in Iowa necessarily invested by the party?

No. But traditionally, this is a good indicator for the future. The symbolic significance is strong: the candidate who wins Iowa obtains new funding and media attention. These initial results also allow the other candidates to adjust their speeches for the rest of the campaign. Iowa therefore allows a first screening of candidates who can hope to be invested by their party.

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