Next Monday, January 15th, the starter’s gun will officially set off the race for the White House.
As candidates sit in the starting blocks, many onlookers are asking themselves, “So, what about Iowa?”.
Since 1972, Iowa’s first-in-the-nation voting event has played an outsized role in presidential politics. However, the details of how the Iowa caucuses actual work have long mystified even hardcore political junkies…a former longtime CNN host included.
In modern politics, a caucus is a gathering of party members to make policy decisions or select candidates.
It’s a holdover from the days when powerbrokers (men) would gather behind closed doors to debate and decide on their party nominee. Though some of the traditional elements remain, today’s caucus is markedly more inclusive, transparent, and democratic.
Caucuses are run by the state’s political parties. Voters must show up in person at a specific time and place to vote. This differs from primaries, which are run and funded by state governments, and where voting is available over a full day, with mail-in and early voting options available.
With incumbent Joe Biden standing for reelection, Democrats have nothing at stake in Iowa. Their caucus will be rather perfunctory.
For Republicans though, Monday’s caucuses will prove pivotal as challengers to heavy frontrunner, Donald Trump, look for a quick opening out of the gates.
It’s like a student body election. You have to respect the absurdity of it or it’ll drive you crazy.”—2012 Mitt Romney campaign strategist, Stuart Stevens.
Wonky though it might be, on Monday at 7pm local time, registered Republicans in Iowa will gather in one of the state’s almost 1,700 precincts (church halls, school gymnasiums, fire halls, even people’s homes) to debate politics with friends and neighbors.
Caucus goers are expected to be in the door by 7pm, or they may be locked out. Those with mobility issues who can’t leave home are out of luck. If there’s a snowstorm (it’s the dead of winter in Iowa) turnout may be low.
Caucus goers may only participate in their home precinct. They may register or change party affiliation on caucus day. And they must turn 18 by November 5th, 2024—the date of the general election.
In 2016, when the race was last competitive, 30% of registered Republican Iowans came out to caucus.
Generally, each caucus entails some administrative party business before the candidates’ proxies—a campaign staffer or community influencer—deliver speeches. Caucus goers then vote by secret ballot for their preferred candidate by writing their name on a blank slip of paper.
There are 40 delegates up for grabs in Iowa.
Candidates are awarded delegates—who will elect the party nominee at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this summer—based on their percentage of the statewide caucus vote. There is no minimum threshold required to qualify for delegates.
With only 40 delegates available out of an estimated 2,460 total delegates nationwide, the real prize in Iowa is Momentum.
The “Big Mo” (coined by George H.W. Bush after his victory in the 1980 Iowa caucuses) can provide a helpful easternly tailwind to propel a candidate onto the next contest in New Hampshire.
Momentum in politics is not to be underestimated. And one of the Republican challengers to Trump will need to come out of Iowa with some modicum of it, if they hope to overcome an early hurdle in this long presidential track meet.
It’s not even about winning in Iowa either.
Between 1976 and 2016 only three of eight Iowa caucus winners went on to win the Republican nomination. More important is the boost that outperforming expectations can give a candidate.
Can Ron DeSantis—who received the endorsement of Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds in November—narrow the 30-point gap between he and Trump? He’ll need a strong kick between now and Monday to do so.
If his legs fail him, he may not even make it a full lap around.
Commentators, candidates, and political communicators may quibble over the actual v. perceived importance of Iowa, pointing selectively to historical data to make their point. No doubt we’ll hear similar spin from Monday’s winners, losers, overperformers and underachievers.
“It’s a long race.” “It’s not a sprint.” “We’ve got to keep going until the finish line.”
Expect to hear it.