David P. Redlawsk: The Iowa Caucuses Aren't THAT Complicated

Roundup: Historians' Take

[David P. Redlawsk is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa and Director of the University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll. ]

As we get closer to the Iowa Caucuses, the volume here in Iowa continues to grow. Candidates all over the place, complaints about attacks, polls showing dead heats, and so on, are making things interesting. None of that, however, is much different from the last time around, or the time before that, etc…

What is different, at least it seems to me, is the focus by the media on how HARD it is to caucus in Iowa. Well, at least that’s the subtext for the stories coming out about the confusing, complicated process that caucus goers have to endure on a cold winter night. What’s more interesting, however, is that campaigns are working very hard to assure everyone that caucusing is actually EASY, it’s no trouble at all. Just go to your local school, library, government building, or whatever, and find the [insert candidate name here] leader, who will show you what to do. What to do mostly involves (according to the campaigns) moving to the correct corner when told to do so. For a great example of this effort, see Obama’s “Caucusing Made Easy” website at http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/ia_caucus_center/.

As it turns out most of this focus is on the Democrats, for good reason. The Democratic caucus IS more complex than the Republican one. For one thing, Republicans simply cast a secret ballot – they actually VOTE for their choice and their votes are counted. They’ll do other business too – presumably discuss the candidates before they vote, elect delegates to the county convention and the county central committee, and debate and vote on resolutions to be forwarded to the county platform committee. As it turns out, it really IS easy to caucus if you are a Republican.

But if you are a Democrat, don’t listen to the media claims that the caucus is confusing and arcane. It IS these things, but only for those who are actually running it! There IS math involved, but only for those actually running it. For all other caucus goers it is a great opportunity to come out and chat with friends and neighbors and be counted. You do have to pay some attention, listen to instructions to move to the area designated for your candidate, and be awake enough to be counted, but otherwise it actually isn’t hard. Just like the Republicans, Democrats will discuss the candidates, indicate their preferences (though by publicly standing up for their candidate, not by secret ballot) and then elect convention delegates, county central committee members, and debate platform resolutions. None of that is all that hard for anyone to do.

Where does it get tricky? Well, Democrats talk about “alignment” and “re-alignment” and “preference groups,” and “caucus math” so the language gets tricky. But when they talk about “alignment” into “preference groups” it just means “stand up, move to the corner for your preferred candidate and be counted”. Once you move to your candidate’s area, you can just chat some more while the precinct captain is counting you and reporting the count to the caucus chair. If there are enough of you in your candidate’s corner, you can just stay put while someone announces it is time for “re-alignment.” Re-alignment simply means you can change your mind and be counted for a different candidate or you can stay where you are. Most people stay where they are and get counted again. The only trick comes if your candidate is not “viable” – that is if not enough of your friends and neighbors support your candidate. Again, the caucus leaders need to know how to calculate this – the caucus goer does not. But if your candidate does not have enough support, you may be forced to pick a second choice – or not be counted at all. And you may also be subject to people from other candidate groups coming over and trying to convince you to join them. But if you don’t want to join them (and you probably don’t) just smile, point to the button or sticker you are probably wearing, and say “that’s my [guy/gal].” It’s Iowa, so you DO have to smile!

Finally, it’s over – that is, a final count is made and the delegates are divided up in proportion to the support each candidate has (more or less; again, someone else will do the math!) Your preference group will then elect people (from your group) to be delegates to the county convention for your candidate.

Whew! That’s not so hard, is it? OK, maybe as I re-read this it doesn’t sound as easy as I thought. But it really is. Honest. Just go, pay attention, move to the right spot, elect your delegates, and that’s pretty much it. But stay for other party business, too. After all, you’re already out of the house.

So no more talk about how complicated it all is. OK?
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