The Iowa Caucus: Where to Go + What to Expect

Iowans: we are in the home stretch! The final days of the Iowa 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 will be sad to see the circus pack up and leave town.

I truly enjoy caucus season.

I believe we are privileged as Iowans to have the opportunity to see and meet so many of our presidential candidates and their surrogates during the caucus season.

Plus, it’s a great educational opportunity for our kids!

The Iowa Caucus: Where to go and what to do

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. The process is different depending on which party you’re caucusing with. In addition, the Iowa Democratic Party has implemented some changes to the rules in order to increase transparency and reduce confusion about how results are tabulated.

What to Expect at the Iowa Caucus

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.

Republican Caucus

The Republicans’ process is fairly simple. The caucus will be called to order promptly at 7:00 p.m. 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.

Democratic Caucus

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

1. Check In

In order to participate in the caucus, attendees must be in line by 7:00 p.m. This doesn’t mean you have to be checked in by 7:00, you just need to be in line by that time. If you arrive after 7:00, you will not be allowed to participate. Doors will be open by 6:30 (although most sites begin line-up and check-in as early as 5:00.) Be sure to allow plenty of time to arrive and get checked in.

2. Preliminary Candidate Preference

Upon arrival, caucus-goers will divide into preliminary candidate preference groups. The caucus chairs will conduct a count of how many attendees are in the room to determine the viability threshold for candidates. Getting an accurate count of attendees is extremely important as it determines candidate viability. The candidate viability threshold is set at 15% of the eligible attendees in the room.

3. Preference Cards

One of the new procedures this year involves candidate preference cards. The caucus chairs will distribute the cards to all the participants in the room. Participants will write down their first choice on the front of the card. The caucus chairs will collect the cards and tally the numbers.

4. Candidate Viability

If a participant’s first candidate choice meets the viability threshold, the results are locked in place. (This is another big change from previous years. In the past, members of larger preference groups could move to non-viable group in order to help less viable candidates earn more delegates.) Anyone in a viable group on the first alignment is done and is free to go if they choose. If a participant’s first choice is NOT viable on the first alignment, they have the choice of joining one of the viable groups. The participant would then note their second choice on the card and move to the viable group. (This is why it’s wise to have a first and a second candidate in mind before you attend).

5. Delegates

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. Participants are free to leave at this point, unless they are interested in participating in the county party business that follows.

6. Other Business

After the results are tabulated, the caucus chairs will move on to other party business. This includes electing members to the county central committee as well as electing individuals to committees relevant to the county nominating convention. These activities are optional.

Can I Bring Kids?

Kids are absolutely welcome at Iowa caucus sites. Most sites are relatively kid-friendly–schools, churches, public buildings, etc. Some sites even have special rooms or areas set aside for kids. If you’re not at a site with a designated kids’ area, be sure to bring plenty of toys, snacks and supplies to keep the kids entertained. It might even be a good idea to bring your kids in their pajamas if the caucus is close to their bedtime.

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).


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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