The Iowa Republican Caucuses: Questions and Answers

The caucuses in Iowa on Jan. 3 kick off the voting that will determine the Republican opponent for President Barack Obama in November’s election. Here’s a look at how they work:

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a meeting of local political activists to discuss party business. It differs from a primary election, in which voters go to polling places to cast ballots for candidates between early morning and evening hours.

What will happen at the gatherings on Jan. 3?

At 7 p.m. Iowa time, the state’s Republicans will participate in 1,774 precinct caucuses at about 800 locations -- schools, community centers, churches and other public places -- to discuss the party platform, elect delegates to county conventions and cast a presidential preference vote. State Republican officials in Des Moines, the state’s capital, collect the vote totals from the precinct caucuses and announce the results.

The non-binding vote doesn’t award delegates to presidential candidates. Delegates to the national party’s nominating convention aren’t selected until district and state meetings in June. Still, the Jan. 3 preference vote draws attention because it’s the first balloting of the Republican campaign.

Democratic caucuses run under different procedures. Participants don’t directly vote for a presidential favorite and instead organize into preference groups that must meet viability thresholds to secure delegate support for candidates. The 2012 Democratic caucuses aren’t competitive because Obama doesn’t face opposition for renomination.

Who may participate in the caucuses?

The Republican gatherings are open to registered party voters who will be at least 18 years old by next November’s election. Caucus-night registration is permitted.

The 2008 Iowa caucuses drew about 119,000 Republicans, or about 21 percent of the 576,000 active registered Republicans at that time. There were about 614,000 active registered Republicans in Iowa as of Dec. 1, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.

Where do the Republican voters live?

About 79,000 Iowa Republicans, 13 percent of the statewide total, live in Polk County in and around Des Moines. About 31,000 Republicans live in either Dallas County, a fast-growing area just west of Des Moines, or in Story County, which includes Ames and other communities just north of Polk.

After Polk, the largest concentrations of Republican voters are in Linn County, where 38,000 live in the Cedar Rapids area, and in Scott County, where 31,000 Republicans live in the Davenport area.

Northwestern Iowa may be the state’s most Republican-friendly area, so it will wield influence disproportionate to its population. Sioux County, located on the Nebraska border, has 36 percent of the population of Dubuque County, a Democratic-leaning area in the east, yet has more registered Republicans.

Why does Iowa vote first?

Iowa’s primacy in the presidential selection process dates to the 1972 election, when Democrats revised the multi-step caucus schedule to allow at least 30 days between each event. Iowa’s prominence owes more to accident than political savvy: because the venue for the 1972 Democratic state convention was available only on May 20, party officials scheduled the first-round caucuses for Jan. 24, much earlier than their normal March or April date and ahead of the New Hampshire primary.

Forty years ago, Iowa officials never anticipated that the precinct caucuses would attract such a high profile. They now guard their first-in-the-nation status for the national attention the caucuses attract and on the grounds that voters in the nation’s 30th most-populous state are responsive to one-on-one “retail” campaigning. The national political parties have allowed Iowa to leapfrog other states.

Why do the caucuses receive so much national attention?

George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1976 performed well in the Iowa caucuses, presaging their victories for the Democratic presidential nomination. White House hopefuls ever since have made repeated trips to Iowa, hoping for a boost in a state where the caucuses are an early test of candidates’ organizational strength and viability.

The caucuses can reveal candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Those who perform well or exceed expectations often gain momentum and fundraising at the expense of candidates who don’t.

In 2008, the Republican caucuses wounded the candidacy of Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who spent heavily on the caucuses and lost to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Obama’s win in the Democratic caucuses boosted his campaign and demonstrated his ability to win white voters ten months before he was elected as the nation’s first black president.

How many national convention delegates does Iowa have and when will they be selected?

Iowa will send 28 delegates to the Republicans’ national convention in Tampa, Florida, next August. There are 12 delegates who will be elected at congressional district conventions -- three for each of the four districts -- and 13 more who are elected at-large at the state convention. Three party activists -- the state chairman, the national committeeman and national committeewoman -- automatically are delegates.

(Corrects date of the Iowa caucuses in first and fourth paragraphs. The date of the caucuses is Jan. 3)
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