Taking Stock of Iowa’s Chaotic Caucus

Aditya Bhalla (PO ’23)

Last week’s Iowa caucus was supposed to be the emphatic beginning of a widely anticipated electoral cycle. However, as 25 candidates narrowed to a handful of legitimate contenders for the Democratic Party nomination, the caucuses went awry, as precincts had yet to report results late into the night. Final results from the caucuses hadn’t emerged until late in the week, and voters are still unclear as to who the clear winner in Iowa was. While the Iowa Caucus debacle occurred as a result of a new bug-littered app, last Monday’s catastrophe calls into question the effectiveness of caucusing as a form of voting. 


Iowa has used caucuses to determine party leaders and officials since the 1800s. However, the first caucuses for the Democratic party in a presidential election occurred in 1972. After the 1968 national convention, Democrats decided to spread out the nomination process across different dates, with certain states voting earlier and later than others.  Because Iowa had long had a tradition of caucusing, holding county and district conventions, as well as a state convention, Democrats decided that Iowa should vote the earlier than all other states. As put by Kathy O’Bradovich, a political columnist for The Des Moines Register, Iowa isn’t first because it is important, but rather, “it is important because it’s first.” 

The caucus process is a complicated one and differs between Democrats and Republicans. In the Democratic caucus, caucusgoers travel to their precinct sites, where different sections of the location are divided for specific candidates. Voters congregate in their respective candidate’s area. Candidates are required to receive at least 15% of their precinct’s attendees to remain viable. If a candidate is deemed not viable, then supporters of this candidate find a new candidate to support in a process called realignment. Supporters of viable candidates attempt to persuade these caucusgoers into supporting their candidate. Then, the final results are tallied and are used to determine the number of county delegates each viable candidate receives. These county delegates are then “weighted” to find the number of “state delegate equivalents” given to each candidate, which is reflected later in the national total. 

Republicans, on the other hand, follow a much simpler format. Voters secretly cast a straightforward vote, which is tallied up, and then delegates are given out proportionally. However, in the Republican caucus, there is no viability threshold, so relatively unpopular or unknown candidates can still receive delegates.  


The difference in caucusing between parties makes one wonder about the necessity of the more convoluted format the Democrats employ. Forced realignment prohibits many voters from voting for their first-choice candidate (if they do not meet the viability threshold), forcing them instead to compromise their ideals for a lesser-preferred candidate instead. With controversy surrounding today’s electoral politics, the voting process should be made more simple for everyone; forcing voters to choose from the other candidates if their preferred candidate doesn’t reach the viability threshold not only convolutes the process but results in lower overall turnout. In a state of over 3 million, just over 171,000 Iowans turned out to the Democratic caucus in 2016. By comparison, New Hampshire, a state of over 1.3 million people, less than half of Iowa, had over 250,000 voters come out in 2016. Because caucusing takes significantly longer, voters are less likely to turn out for this specific format of voting.

Typically, the Iowa caucus serves as a litmus test for the legitimacy of the remaining candidates in the field. Since 1972, the winner of the Democratic Iowa caucus has gone on to be the nominee 67 percent of the time, and winners of the Iowa caucus generally increase their median polling percentage in New Hampshire (the next state to vote) by 3 points. Yet the state of Iowa isn’t representative of America at large. According to the Census, 85 percent of Iowa consists of non-Hispanic whites, compared to 60.4 percent nationally. Additionally, only four percent of Iowa is black in comparison to 13 percent nationwide. Yet this lack of national representation isn’t only seen through a racial lens. Iowa is also significantly more rural than the general United States, with 64.3 percent of its population being urban and 35.7 percent being rural in 2016. Nationally, 80.7 percent of the country was rural in 2010 while 19.3 percent was rural. Thus, Iowa’s population is not only exceedingly white but also more rural than the nation as a whole. Thus, even though the winners of Iowa have a much higher chance of becoming the party’s nominee, Iowa’s population isn’t truly a microcosm of America. It more accurately represents the viewpoints of a more specific demographic and allows candidates who benefit from this demographic to have a better chance of becoming the eventual nominee. 

Furthermore, the Iowa Caucus has resulted in controversy in each of the last three election cycles. In 2012, Mitt Romney was named the winner of the caucus, receiving a polling bump in New Hampshire and the extensive media attention that comes with winning the caucus. 16 days later, however, it was found that former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum had won the caucus by 34 votes. However, at this point it was far too late; Romney went on to become the Republican nominee before losing the general election to Barack Obama. 

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the Iowa Caucus by only four state delegate equivalents. However, a number of caucusgoers cited irregularities, saying they were certain Senator Bernie Sanders had won the precincts but delegates were still awarded to Clinton. The close results in 2016, along with outrage from Sanders supporters, led to a more transparent caucus this year, in which the initial alignment, realignment standing, and state delegate equivalents were all released by the Iowa Democratic Party. However, this year, the Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Sanders campaigns have all reported irregularity claims to the Iowa Democratic Party, and both Sanders and Buttigieg have declared victory in the state after results showed the two were virtually tied. Thus, these consistent irregularities and the controversy that has clouded each of the past three Iowa caucuses forces us to question both the accuracy and integrity of this voting process.

Thus, over three straight election cycles, the Iowa caucus has been unable to yield clear, accurate results that provide voters with an idea of which candidates are truly legitimate (at least to a white, rural cross-section of the country). 

Going Forward

Overall, the Iowa caucus represents a convoluted voting system that has failed to yield accurate results in the past. While the caucus is rooted in tradition and history, contemporary electoral politics is more in need of transparency and accuracy than ever before. To see which candidates are truly legitimate, the first primary contest should be held in the state that most accurately serves as a microcosm of the United States in terms of racial and geographic demographics. Furthermore, the caucus format, being a complicated and outdated process, should be changed to something more accessible to voters, like a primary with normal voting procedures (as employed by New Hampshire). Doing so would increase turnout and allow voters’ true voices to be heard. Facing controversial results in three straight electoral cycles should at least force us to question the system by which people are voting. So perhaps it’s time to more closely examine the necessity and effectiveness of the Iowa caucus before we allow it to choose the Democratic nominee (at least 67 percent of the time) in 2024 and beyond.

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