How do the Iowa caucuses work? How are they different from a primary

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The Iowa caucuses for the Democratic and Republican parties will be held Monday, Feb. 3, 2020

The caucuses begin at 7 p.m. at most locations (you have to be in line by 7 p.m. to participate). This year, some Democratic satellite caucus locations begin earlier. 

So just how does the caucus process work? Read on for a detailed description of both the Democratic and Republican caucuses.

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a gathering of party members to discuss presidential preferences, elect local party leaders and talk about policy positions that make up a party’s platform.

There are major differences between the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ way of caucusing in Iowa. The key one is that at a Democratic caucus participants separate into groups based on which presidential candidate they support. In a Republican caucus, participants simply cast a vote to indicate their support.

A caucus begins with a call to order, and other general business, including election of a chair for the night’s proceedings.

In both parties’ caucuses, candidates or their representatives may speak to caucusgoers before the preference selection begins.

Illustration of how the Iowa caucuses work.

How is a caucus different than a primary?

A primary resembles a general election in which registered voters cast a vote by secret ballot for their preferred candidate.

The Democratic caucus

1. PICKING A CANDIDATE

Caucusgoers show their president preference by standing in a section of the room devoted to their candidate.

2. BECOMING VIABLE

The people in each of those groups are counted. If the size of the group is at least 15% of the people attending, that group is considered viable and people in that group must fill out a Presidential Preference Card, sign it, and turn it in. After they fill out that card, those in a 15% group can leave or watch the rest of the caucus. They cannot vote again.

3. REALIGNING

Those in candidate groups that did not reach 15% in the first count can select a candidate again, either by joining a viable candidate group, earning support for their candidate group or another non-viable candidate group, or joining an uncommitted or other candidate group.

Illustration of how the Democratic version of the Iowa caucuses work.

4. FINAL COUNT

After realignment, the groups’ size will be counted again. That will be the final count.

5. DETERMINING DELEGATES

After the final count, delegates are awarded to the candidates, based on how many supporters those groups had.

Changes in the 2020 Democratic caucus

Two counts: In previous cycles, caucusgoers could realign multiple times. Starting this year, there is only one realignment and people who supported a viable candidate cannot vote again.

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