What to Expect at the Iowa Caucus

Iowans: we are in the home stretch! The final days of caucus season are upon us. While I’m sure many of you will be grateful that the endless ads, door knocking, and phone calls are about to end, I must say I will be sad to see the circus pack up and leave town. We are truly privileged as Iowans to have the opportunity to see and meet so many of our presidential candidates and their surrogates. Plus, it’s a great educational opportunity for our kids!

So what’s it like when the big night finally arrives? There’s no easy answer; caucusing in Iowa isn’t the same as stepping into a voting booth and filling out a private ballot. To make matters even more interesting, Republicans and Democrats have different procedures. Although each party has a different process, the endgame is the same for both: each candidate wants to finish the night with the highest number of delegates possible.

If you’ve never caucused before, here’s what you can expect.

iowa caucus


The Republicans’ process is fairly simple. Once everyone has arrived, the caucus will be called to order. Usually the caucus chair will invite attendees to speak briefly in support of their favorite candidate. Once all speeches have concluded, eligible attendees will be given a piece of paper to write down or mark their vote. After everyone has filled out their secret ballot, the votes are tabulated and announced to the room. The final results will be reported to the county, then the state. The candidate with the most votes statewide wins the Iowa Caucus, and the most delegates.


The Democratic process is a bit more complicated. Here’s an overview of their procedure, in a nutshell.

Upon arrival, caucus-goers will divide into preliminary candidate preference groups. The chair will call the caucus to order, and the attendees will be counted. Getting an accurate count of attendees is very important as it determines candidate viability. The candidate viability threshold is set at 15% of the eligible attendees in the room. If a preference group for a candidate does not meet the viability threshold, attendees will have an opportunity to join another preference group or acquire people into their group to become viable. This also gives viable groups the opportunity to add more people to their group and score additional delegates.

This is when things can get a bit spirited. Since the goal is to add as many people to your group as possible, participants are encouraged to persuade members of non-viable and uncommitted groups to join them. Caucus goers tend to be a passionate group, so it’s not uncommon for the debate to get heated!

After everyone has settled into a new preference group, a realignment occurs and a new count is taken. If there are non-viable groups after this first realignment, then the process is repeated until there are no non-viable groups. (That shouldn’t take very long this year since there are only three candidates.) Delegates are awarded based on the number of people in the preference groups. The results are reported to the county and the state, and the candidate with the highest number of delegates wins the Iowa Caucus.

Important Things You Should Know:

  1. Attendees may start arriving at their caucus location at 6:30 PM. You must be in line by 7 PM in order to participate in the caucus.
  2. Although some precincts provide babysitting, it may be necessary to arrange childcare prior to the caucus. If you decide to bring your children, be sure you bring plenty of essentials, treats, and things to keep the kids entertained in case the process runs long. (My kids have attended two caucuses and will be with us this year as well.)
  3. If you caucus for a Democrat, it’s important to stay until the end of the presidential proceedings. If you leave early you won’t be tallied in the final count. And as they say, things can come down to just one person!  According to the Des Moines Register: “Once the presidential preference proceedings are done, the results are immediately reported to the state party, where they will be verified, then reported to the media and the public. For the first time, precinct captains will report results by smartphones or tablets using new secure, cloud-based apps that Microsoft has developed for each party. It’s possible for participants to leave at this point, but they’re encouraged to stay to take part in other important party business.” (Read the rest of the article here.)

While not as simple as a primary, the Iowa Caucus is a unique and personal opportunity to be a truly active participant in the democratic process. Through meetings with neighbors in churches and schools across our great state, Iowans have the chance to shape the course of nation’s history.

It’s not to late to get involved! You can find more information and your precinct location here (Democrat) or here (Republican).

Get out tonight and make your voice heard!
Meghann is the mom of 5 kids. She is a Lecturer at the University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Owner/Partner at Brand Driven Digital. Meghann was elected to the Coralville City Council in 2017 and is currently serving her first term. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Coralville Community Food Pantry (Vice-Chair) and on the DVIP Board of Directors. She is also a member of Johnson County's Juvenile Justice and Youth Development Policy Board. Meghann is passionate about her family, her community, and is a proud pop culture nerd.


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