Sunday, October 1, 2023

Caucus system makes Iowa special


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Story by Amanda Smith/ Seigenthaler News Service

Amanda Smith was one of six MTSU journalism students who recently spent four days in Iowa studying the caucus system. Funding for this reporting was provided by the Seigenthaler Center for Excellence in First Amendment Studies

When most Democrats and Republicans in America choose their candidates for president they do so in the privacy of a voting booth.

Not so in Iowa.

Iowa, as political pundits like to say, is special.

In the Hawkeye State, they caucus, which is to say that on a cold February night neighbors across the state will gather in churches, schools, even individual’s homes and publicly declare their choices for president. Hands are held and tallies are counted. Everybody in the room knows your preference.

It works like this. If you’re going to be an official participant of the caucus, you must check in before 7 p.m. Late comers aren’t allowed inside.  Those in attendance segregate themselves according to different candidates. Heads are counted. To stay viable, a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the votes of all persons present. If a candidate doesn’t reach the 15 percent threshold, the supporters of that candidate then have to choose another candidate to support. By the end of the evening, there’s consensus and the results are passed on the county, then regional and finally, the state level.

A Republican caucus is a little different. There are three steps. Ballots, paper ballots are distributed to each person and they will write their name down and who they think should be the nominee. Once counted, the results get called in to a central location. Delegates is the next step, those who are present at the caucus will elected a delegate, one person who will represent a group of people.

For the candidates on a tight budget, what’s their place in a caucus?

That will depend on what they are willing to spend. The Washington Post reported Beto O’Rourke fell victim to feeble fundraising, the day of the Liberty and Justice Celebration in Des Moines, the biggest political event of the Iowa campaigning season.

This is the problem for many of the lesser known candidates, and a reason many might say the caucus system is unfair and unrepresentative. Caucuses are not only time consuming for voters and candidates, but candidates have to make dozens of appearances in Iowa so the voters can meet them. Candidates with more financial support tend to see more positive results.

This year’s long slate of candidates is troublesome for Democratic voters, too.

“It’s interesting, the field is so large this time and its daunting,” Cynthia Hunafa of Des Moines said.

But the caucuses are also seen as an opportunity to see who is fully invested, together with better organizations.

“It’s amazing.” said Bob, from Ankeny, Iowa. “You can actually meet with the candidates up close and personal, it’s fun.”

To contact Editor-in-Chief Angele Latham, email

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