Understanding the Iowa caucuses and why they’re important to the election

From left, Chris Christie, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis at the third Republican presidential debate in Miami on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post

Every four years, Iowa plays an important role in shaping the presidential race. Since the 1970s, the Midwestern state has held the nation’s first nominating contest, giving its voters outsize attention and the candidates who have bet big on Iowa an opportunity to shake up the race.

This year, the major question heading into Iowa is whether any Republican presidential candidate has the firepower to compete with former president Donald Trump, who is far ahead of his competitors in polls.

How Iowa Republicans vote for the presidential nominee is different than what happens in much of the rest of the United States. Most states host a primary where voters can cast ballots early or show up during a wide window of time on Election Day.

Iowa Republicans, however, hold a caucus, which requires voters to gather at their voting precinct at the same time – this year it is 7 p.m. Central time on Jan. 15 – to listen to speeches from campaign representatives, fill out ballots and, if they want, watch the votes get tallied.

Few people participate in a caucus, though, given the event’s time-intensive structure. Among those left out: people who work evening shifts; students enrolled at out-of-state colleges; elderly and disabled people who have difficulty getting out of the house; and those who can’t find child care. The weather could also keep some people home this year – daytime highs are expected to be in the single digits.

Low turnout is one reason critics have disparaged caucuses. Here are some others:

-Results can be hard to tally. It can be surprisingly hard to know who won a caucus, which is the last thing you want in an election. Technical problems marred Iowa’s Democratic caucus in 2020, and full results were not available for days. It’s a big reason why Iowa Democrats have ceded their initial vote this year to New Hampshire.

-Caucus winners don’t always get nominated. The Iowa caucuses are also not particularly good at picking the eventual nominee – especially on the GOP side. Iowa Republicans selected Ted Cruz in 2016, Rick Santorum in 2012 and Mike Huckabee in 2008 – none of whom went on to clinch the nomination.

Iowans, however, say their job is not to determine the nominee but to narrow the field for voters in other states.

-Iowa doesn’t reflect the whole country. Finally, Iowa is Whiter and older than many other states, so its population doesn’t reflect the country as a whole. That’s one of the reasons Iowa Democrats are not voting in caucuses this year and will instead hold a mail-in primary, with results released on Super Tuesday, March 5.

In 2022, 85 percent of Republican voters across the country were non-Hispanic Whites and 64 percent of Democrats were non-Hispanic Whites, according to the Pew Research Center. Iowa lines up with the Republican Party’s demographics, with 84 percent of the state’s population consisting of non-Hispanic Whites, according to the Census Bureau.

While Republicans are again kicking off the nomination contest with Iowa, the state’s role could continue to change. Already the Democrats have abandoned it as their starting point, and Trump has managed to dominate the polls without engaging in the kind of retail politicking that candidates have historically used to win.



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