DES MOINES – The day you’ve been hearing about for months is finally upon us: the Iowa caucuses.
Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses on Monday kick off the start of the primary election season, and many Democratic presidential candidates have been zig-zagging across the state in the week leading up to the big night.
But the Iowa caucuses are different than other primaries, and there is some specific terminology you might hear Monday that seems sort of … odd. Well we’re here to help.
Here are some common questions about the Iowa caucuses, and what you need to know while waiting for the results:
What is a caucus?
First things first.
A caucus is a party-organized gathering of members to discuss their presidential preferences, elect local party leadership and discuss issues that make up the party’s platform.
The Republican and Democratic parties each hold their own caucuses, but they don’t use the same process.
In a Republican caucus, participants simply cast a vote of support, the votes are added up and delegates are allocated proportionately to those results.
The Democratic caucus, on the other hand, has quite a few more steps.
Democratic caucusgoers gather in groups to pick their preferred candidate. They are counted up, and it’s determined whether a candidate group is viable or not viable.
If a candidate is not viable, caucusgoers have a couple options: Join another group, convince people to come to your group, or caucus in the uncommitted group. (Don’t laugh: The uncommitted group technically won the Iowa caucuses in 1972 and 1976.)
Then a final tally is counted. From there, delegates are awarded to the candidates, based proportionally on how many supporters those groups had.
Wait, what? How does caucus viability work?
Let’s break it down further.
A candidate is viable if the size of their group of supporters is at least 15% of the people attending that specific caucus. If a candidate is not viable, then their supporters must find a new candidate to support or they can choose not to support anyone.
Caucusgoers that are part of a viable candidate group cannot move. So if you’re in a group that hits viability on the first round, you’re locked in. No changing for you.
After supporters of nonviable candidates have realigned, then the final votes are counted and the state delegate equivalents are awarded.
Um, OK. What is a state delegate equivalent?
State delegate equivalents (or SDEs) are the number of delegates a candidate has earned for the party’s state convention in June. It will also determine the number of national convention delegates each candidate receives.
Iowa has 41 pledged delegates that will go to the 2020 Democratic National Convention, and they must support specific candidates based on the caucus results.
But how will I know if my candidate wins?
That answer can also be a little complicated, since the Iowa Democratic Party changed some things this time around. Previously, the party released just SDE totals at the end of the night.
But this year, the party will release the total number of votes from the first grouping, as well as the final vote total after realignment.
All of these numbers can be used by campaigns and pundits to determine who the winners are. But when it’s all said and done, delegates are what earn a candidate the eventual nomination and a lot of people view SDEs as the number that really matters.
This sounds like a lot. Why are the caucuses so important?
Although Iowa’s pledged delegate count is about 1 percent of the national total, the Iowa caucuses aren’t just about the delegate number.
The first-in-the-nation event is looked at as a way to foreshadow how well a candidate might do going forward. Campaigns, pundits and even voters look at the results to see who has a chance of continuing to the New Hampshire primary or should call it quits.
Campaigns who are seen as winners could see an influx of fundraising dollars and media attention that could help push them forward as the primary season continues. If a candidate underperforms, they could possibly see fundraising dry up and have to battle a negative narrative around their campaign.
But are the caucuses predictive? Well, since 2000, every single winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses has gone on to win the Democratic nomination. So Monday night has some high stakes.
Contributing: The Des Moines Register