Your Iowa caucus questions, answered

Everything you need to know about one of the most confusing processes in American democracy

After the NBA All-Star Game voting rules and the plot of Donnie Darko, there are few things more deeply confusing than the Iowa caucuses. Still, what happens Monday in the Hawkeye State will likely set the tone for the rest of the primary season — and maybe even give us a hint as to which Democrat will take on President Trump in November.

But the Iowa caucuses don't have to be daunting. Here is our guide to everything you need to know about what will go down tonight.

Remind me who's running?

As of Monday morning, there are 11 Democrats vying for their party's presidential nomination. They are Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders; former Vice President Joe Biden; former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; entrepreneur Andrew Yang; former hedge fund executive Tom Steyer; Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick; and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

This isn't the first time the pool of candidates has been so large; by comparison, there were still 12 Republicans in the running ahead of the Iowa caucuses back in 2016. What is unusual is for the race to be this tight. "[W]e found that the 2020 contest not only has the largest number of contenders within 10 points of the polling leader [Sanders], but also is tied for the most candidates polling at or above 15 percent, with one candidate [Warren] polling just under that threshold," writes FiveThirtyEight.

Why are the Iowa caucuses so important?

In terms of numbers, it isn't at all. Iowa only has 41 pledged delegates, which accounts for just 1 percent of all the pledged delegates in the country.

But as the first state in the nation to actually select a candidate, Iowa sets the tone for the rest of the race. What the candidates are really fighting for, in other words, is momentum. Those who perform poorly in Iowa tend to drop out rather quickly; expect the Democratic race to narrow dramatically in the coming days.

What is the difference between a caucus and a primary?

The main difference is that while a primary is a private process, during which you vote for your preferred candidate on a secret ballot, caucuses are held alllll out in the open. Starting at 7 p.m. CT at 1,678 precinct locations across the state, Iowans will gather alongside their neighbors, relatives, colleagues, and friends to duke it out for their candidates in what has been described as "a glorified game of musical chairs (sans chairs)."

In short, you "vote" in a caucus by physically moving to stand alongside others who share your preferred candidate — all the while, trying to convince others to come along with you. Where all this gets especially fun and chaotic is that any voters who are still undecided, or who choose a candidate that ends up getting less than 15 percent of the total vote after the first "alignment," can then be coaxed to join one of the remaining "viable" candidates by means of cajoling, speeches, or bribes of baked goods.

Voters who backed "unviable" candidates could also, in theory, attempt to form a coalition by uniting behind a shared candidate and boosting him or her over the 15 percent threshold. A voter who backed an "unviable" candidate can also choose not to align with a "viable" candidate at all after the first round. Notably, new this year is a rule that makes it so that if you have backed a "viable" candidate who achieved more than 15 percent in the first round, you cannot switch away from them in the second round.

For the record, only Democrats do caucuses this way, with the hope being that communities will engage in healthy debate and that ardent supporters can have an opportunity to change the minds of their peers. Republican caucuses in Iowa look much more like a traditional primary.

I'm a visual person, is there a good video that explains that process?


So how long does a caucus take?

It usually lasts about an hour. New this year, in the interest of time, is a firm limit on only two rounds of voting. After the initial alignment, voters who backed "unviable" candidates have a chance to move to a viable candidate or remain uncommitted. After this second round, the results of the caucus are cemented.

And people actually do all this on a weeknight?

Not as many as one would hope! In 2016, which was the second-highest turn-out ever for the Iowa caucuses, fewer than 16 percent of people who were eligible to vote actually caucused, NPR reports. People at caucuses tend to be the most politically active and engaged supporters, although some experts are predicting a record turnout this year.

So how is the winner ultimately decided?

In years past, Iowa has only reported what is called the "state delegate equivalents," or SDEs. The SDEs, in essence, are a way of translating the results of the night's precinct winners into an estimate of how many delegates each candidate would get at the state convention.

How that's actually figured out is extremely confusing and complicated, but what you need to know is that whatever candidate has the most SDEs at the end of the night is the one who gets declared the "winner." In 2016, for example, Hillary Clinton earned 700.47 SDEs to Sanders' 696.92 SDEs, and therefore "won" the Iowa caucuses with 49.8 percent to his 49.6 percent.

Because Clinton and Sanders' numbers were excruciatingly close in 2016, the Iowa caucuses will be reporting two additional sets of numbers for the sake of transparency this year. In addition to the final SDE count, we will also learn the statewide totals for the pre-alignment vote. That number will represent the candidate who got the most votes right out of the starting gate, before the unviable candidates were eliminated and their free-agent voters were made to realign.

The other number we will learn is the statewide post-alignment vote, or which candidate had the most votes after the second round, once all the free-agent voters had picked a new candidate but before that number was "translated" into SDEs. You can read more in depth about the whole process and math behind determining the winner at Vox.

There can be multiple winners, then, correct?

Sort of — even though only the SDE total will ultimately "count," there could potentially be quibbling between campaigns over the different sets of numbers, especially if the pre-alignment winner differs from whoever ends up with the most SDEs.

Is it just me, or is all of that super confusing?

Yes! It's very confusing, so much so that even the people who are supposed to be experts on the process don't fully understand it.

If I'm following along in another state, when can I expect to start hearing the returns?

The first numbers can be expected starting around 8 p.m. CT; state officials told The Wall Street Journal that they expect the "the bulk of numbers to be reported by 10 p.m. [CT]" but depending on how close the race is, it could certainly go even later.

I remember hearing something about "coin tosses" in 2016. What was that about?

After each caucus site is finished voting, their local "county delegates" are divvied up between all the viable candidates based on the proportion of the votes. The county delegates are what are then weighted to determine the state delegate equivalents.

In rare situations, when there are an odd number of delegates and two candidates end up with an equal number of supporters, a coin toss is used to determine which candidate gets the extra delegate. For example, Des Moines Precinct 70 had five delegates to divvy up in 2016, but a 61-61 deadlock between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. As a result, Clinton and Sanders both earned two delegates while the fifth delegate ultimately went to Clinton after being determined randomly via coin toss.

There was a bit of a conspiracy at the time about Clinton allegedly winning a mathematically improbable number of coin tosses, and reports that the Iowa caucuses hinged on coin tosses alone. Ultimately, even if Clinton had won all of the coin tosses reported that night, the number of delegates would have still been so small it wouldn't have effected the statewide SDE totals.

How many Iowa caucus winners go on to become party nominees?

It depends on the party, but Iowa is a better indicator for Democrats than Republicans. Since the caucuses began in 1972, 70 percent of Democratic winners of the Iowa caucuses have gone on to win their party nomination. Only three over that period of time — Edmund Muskie in 1972, Dick Gephardt in 1988, Tom Harkin in 1992 — did not, Vocative found.

Who's going to win?

Based on the most recent poll numbers out of the state, Sanders and Biden seem to be neck-and-neck. But with all the candidates bunched so closely together, it isn't at all clear who voters will turn to when low-polling candidates are knocked out during the caucus process. As FiveThirtyEight wrote last week, "our forecast doesn't give anyone more than a 36 percent chance of winning the caucuses."

Only one thing at this point is for sure: It's bound to be an exciting night.


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