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How the Iowa Caucuses Work, or Were Supposed To

Voting with their feet.

Voting with their feet.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Updated on

The Iowa caucuses start the process of anointing the Democrat who will take on President Donald Trump in November. A vestige of old-style organizing in an age when most political action has moved online, Iowa’s caucuses can seem obscure and anachronistic to outsiders. Changes this year in response to long-running criticism of Iowa’s importance and procedures have made things even more complicated. Some local officials had difficulty using a new smartphone app, and the state party, which runs the caucus, had no official results at the end of the night.

The state-by-state contests that the Democratic and Republican parties rely on to choose their presidential candidates come in two varieties: a primary election, in which voters select their preferences on ballots in private, or a caucus, where voting is public and participatory. Caucuses were once the norm, requiring more time and effort than merely casting a vote in a polling place. A decades-long movement toward greater participation has made them an endangered species. On the Democratic side, only Iowa and three other states -- Nevada, North Dakota and Wyoming -- will hold caucuses rather than primaries this year. And Republicans have canceled caucuses in many states as part of an effort to clear Trump’s path to re-nomination.