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What the Hell is a Caucus, Anyway?

Caucuses are different than straight secret ballot primary voting—at least for the Democrats. The Republican caucuses do cast a secret ballot and apportion delegates to the state convention that way. The Democratic process is more of a headache and yet has an interesting twist to it—it includes second choices as well as first choices. But it isn’t quite as simple as ranking the candidates based on your preference.

The Iowa caucuses are held January 3rd, at 6:30 PM. Everything happens in a group and out in the open—so you not only have to know who you support, you have to be willing to say so to others.

Each precinct will have a precinct captain for each candidate on the ballot. The captains will make their pitch for their candidate, and then all caucusgoers will line up with the candidate of their choice. This is called ‘alignment.’ Confused yet?

To make it past the first round, a candidate must earn 15% of the delegates present. All the candidates who don’t get to 15% drop out—and the voters who chose those candidates have to decide to align themselves with another candidate who did make the cut, or go home. The delegates are then apportioned to the top two candidates by the percentage of people aligned with them.

Yes, it sounds complicated. It takes up several hours of your time, and you have to actually talk to people. This means that even fewer people turn up in caucus states than do for primaries. Those who do tend to be older, more well-off, and more educated.

On the plus side, the caucus system provides for real political conversation among people. It gets them involved in a way that just voting by secret ballot does not. And most importantly, it allows voters to show their support for the candidate they truly care about and not have to worry about being a spoiler, because if their first choice doesn’t make the cut, they can choose again. It’s kind of like an instant runoff.

Why should you care about caucuses? If you live in Iowa, Nevada, Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico, North Dakota, Nebraska, Washington, Maine, Hawaii, Wyoming, D.C., American Samoa, Puerto Rico, or Kaffeine Buzz’s home state of Colorado, caucuses are how your state chooses its presidential candidate. Iowa’s are the first in the nation, and John Kerry’s victory in the Democratic caucus in Iowa in 2004 set the tone for his sweeping victories nationwide.

Those 57 delegates may not be enough to win an election, but with states moving their primaries earlier and earlier, the parties are looking to have their candidate chosen well before their August and September conventions. For all intents and purposes, the candidates will be known after the February 5th “Super Tuesday” primaries. So, unfortunately, if your state votes after February 5th, your primary vote doesn’t count for much.

Primary Guide –

Table on candidates and where they stand:































*Michigan and Florida moved their primaries ahead of the February 5th date without permission from the Democratic National Committee and were stripped of their delegates to the convention. This may not have been a good move by the Democrats, as especially Florida is a pivotal state in the presidential election next November.


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