Chances are you’ve seen news coverage talking about the Iowa caucus over the last few weeks, but what is the Iowa caucus? How is it different from the primaries? How does it impact the general election?

We’ve got answers to all of that and more in our breakdown of the 2020 Iowa caucus.

What is a caucus?

The basic definition of a caucus is “a meeting at which local members of a political party register their preference among candidates running for office or select delegates to attend a convention.”

The Iowa caucus determines how many delegates in the national convention are appropriated to each candidate. All across Iowa, registered voters are allowed to vote for their preferred candidate. This includes those not yet 18, but who will be of age by election day in November.

This year’s caucus in on February 3, beginning at 7 pm (CT).

What is so special about the Iowa caucus?

The Iowa caucus is unique for two reasons.

It occurs just about a year following when most presidential nominees announce their campaigns.

As the first official voting event of the 2020 election cycle, the outcome has a large influence on which candidates will make it into the primary season.

Victory in Iowa does not guarantee a candidate official party nomination. However, candidates with the most delegates often gain enough momentum after the caucus to continue their campaign into the primary season.

How does it work?

Unlike a primary where party members cast their votes for their preferred candidate for the national party nomination, caucuses are a little more complicated.

Phase 1: First Alignment

Caucus-goers will arrive at their precinct location, and after remarks from candidates, they will physically move and stand with the fellow supporters of their preferred candidate. This is known as the “first alignment.”

Candidates must get at least 15% of the vote (of those in attendance) to receive delegates. If the candidate achieves 15% or greater, their supporters will write down their choice on a paper ballot and leave.

Phase 2: Realignment Stage

If a candidate receives less than 15% and is therefore not viable, their supporters are allowed to either switch and support another candidate, or remain with their initial candidate, hand in their paper ballot and leave. This second round is known as the “realignment stage”

After the actual voting ends the votes for each candidate are calculated into delegates. Viable candidates will be given “State Delegate Equivalents” (SDE) depending on the number of votes they received.

There is no official winner of the Iowa caucus, but the Iowa Democratic Party will announce which candidate received the most SDEs, as well as the statewide preference after the first and second alignments.

What does winning the Iowa caucus mean?

When a candidate wins in Iowa, it does not mean they automatically become the party’s official nominee. That decision doesn’t come until the convention in July.

Though the candidate who receives the most SDEs will get a boost in momentum and those who don’t perform as well may drop out of the race in the following weeks, winning in Iowa is not the end all be all.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa led to his eventual nomination and election. However, candidates that lose in Iowa are not automatically shut out of the election. Bill Clinton performed poorly in the caucus but still managed to achieve the nomination and win the election in 1992.

The Iowa caucus is only the beginning – we’ve got a long way to go until election day!

Beyond Iowa

After the caucus candidates will officially enter primary season with New Hampshire on February 11th, Nevada on the 22nd, and South Carolina on the 25th.

Those candidates that perform well in Iowa will no doubt receive a boost of momentum which will help their chances of success in the following primaries. Those who are unsuccessful may continue to campaign, but chances of maintaining support and influence are low.

We hope this information helps breakdown what the Iowa caucus is and how it works. Make sure to follow along on Monday, February 3rd and let’s help keep the blue wave going!

(Information collected from The Washington Post and NPR)

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Lily Doctoroff

Lily was raised in Medfield, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Boston. She currently lives in Chicago while she attends college at the University of Chicago studying Political Science and Religious Studies with a concentration in American Politics. She is a member of the Communications team at NDTC.