No matter who’s still lined up in the cold to get in, the doors to caucus sites—1,681 Republican, and 1,681 Democratic—across the state of Iowa will close at 7 PM on Monday, February 1. Thus begins an evening of participatory democracy quite unlike the casting of a simple ballot. 

The process differs for each party, but in both cases, says Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer, “a caucus is a commitment of time.” And Iowans take it seriously. “It is something you don’t do for laughs—it’s a meaningful commitment of time, energy, and, in some cases, your soul,” says Selzer. 

Here’s how it works for each party.

Republicans

1. Candidate representatives give speeches.

 

2. A straw poll is taken. The results are sent to the Republican Party of Iowa using an app.

 

3. State party officials declare a winner: the candidate with the plurality of votes in Iowa. 

 

4. After the straw poll, caucusgoers vote on the party platform and other party business. (Campaigns are instructing supporters not to leave until this is done so they have a say in electing convention delegates.)

 

5. At the end of the evening, caucusgoers elect delegates to county conventions held in March.

 

6. In April, county delegates attend congressional district conventions to elect 12 national delegates.

 

7. A state convention is held in May to elect another 15 delegates to the national convention.

 

8. At the national convention, delegates vote proportionally according to the caucus-night straw poll.

 

9. If no majority is reached on the first ballot, Iowa’s delegates are then free to vote for whomever they want. Iowa’s convention delegates make up 30 of the total 2,472 who will pick the nominee at the Republican National Convention in July.

 

Democrats

1. Candidate representatives give speeches.

 

2. Caucusgoers gather in groups according to their candidate preference. Uncommitted voters get a corner, too.

 

3. Supporters of candidates who don't meet a minimum threshold (usually 15 percent) can join another group or leave.

 

4. Some candidates make their corner of the room more inviting by offering refreshments.

 

5. Delegates to county conventions are awarded proportionally, based on how many caucusgoers are standing in their corner.

 

6. The size of each preference group is counted. The candidate with the plurality of statewide delegates wins.

 

7. County delegates vote for delegates to congressional district conventions, where 29 national delegates are chosen.

 

8. A state convention is held in June to elect an additional 15 national delegates who must declare candidate loyalties.

 

9. At the national convention, delegates are free to vote for whomever they want. Iowa’s convention delegates make up 52 of the total 4,764 who will pick the nominee at the Democratic National Convention in July.

Text by Steven Yaccino and Dorothy Gambrell. Illustrations by 731.