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How Does the Caucus Work?

posted on December 31, 2007 at 10:16 AM


Caucuses demand not only the attention of the nation; attendees need to be cognizant of caucus machinery. For Republicans it's relatively easy. They show up and vote their preference. For Democrats, though, the mechanics of selecting a nominee are not for the mathematically challenged. For an explanation we turn to the head chef of the Political Kitchen, Bob Singer, who utilizes commodities to illustrate caucus math.

Hi there, voters. You know what's in the bag? Election '08, perhaps? In a matter of speaking, yes, but actually, it's potatoes. But not russets. That's another show. On this show, it's politics that's fun, hip, and easy to digest. So, are you ready to slice and dice our way through the Iowa Democratic Party caucus process? I am!

All right, our chips are on the board. And who's trying to get these chips to move in their direction? The presidential candidates, that's who. These guys. Could it be dangerous, being a Democratic presidential candidate in Iowa? Yes.

If you're not popular at the precinct level -- here's a precinct, that's a neighborhood or town holding their caucus -- you're out of the running. Your hat's out of the ring. There's nothing for you to see. You're cooked. Not viable, is the official term. Put a lid on it.

Being declared not viable will make a candidate boil. See? So how could this happen? Didn't pass the viability test, that's how.

What viability test? It says, right here, in the Political Kitchen Guide, Article Two, you've got to be at least 35 years old, born in the United States, and a resident for at least fourteen years to be elected president. But for a Democrat in Iowa, that's not enough. You also have to pass a math test to be viable and receive votes.

Good thing we've got our chips on the table, because we're going to get succinct in the precinct.

All right, it's caucus time. All of our chips -- the voters -- they gather, and they break into candidate preference groups. Let's say, over here for Hillary. Obama, you're over here. Edwards, you're over here. Richardson, Biden, and Dodd, you’re cornered -- make that "in the corners."

With our chips on the board, it's time to put our cards on the table. Recipe cards: you can't have a Democratic caucus without them. They tell the formulas for viability.

So what determines if a candidate can get votes or not? First, each precinct is assigned a particular number of delegates based on past voter turnout.

If a precinct is assigned one delegate, then everybody votes for their choice. There's no viability test. Now, the math test. If there are two delegates, 25 percent of attendees must support a candidate. Three delegates, the number of caucus attendees divided by six must support a candidate. If a precinct is to choose four or more delegates, 15 percent of the attendees must support the candidate.

So then, to compete at a precinct, a candidate must have enough chips to receive votes for delegates. This precinct here, we'll say it's allocated two delegates. We've got our six preference groups with a total of sixty participating. Clinton and Obama with 17 and 15 are viable. But the Edwards, Richardson, Biden, and Dodd groups, with 13, 9, 4, and 2, can't vote for their candidate because they're too small. Because they're less than 25 percent of the total at the caucus, their only option is to move to another group that comprises at least 25 percent.

You know what you call this situation? The caucus blues. It's a bad rap.

So the chips on the board have moved. And look what's happened. The Richardson, Biden, and Dodd voters have all moved to Edwards. Edwards wasn't viable before, but now he's got 28 on his side, more than Clinton's 17 and Obama's 15. Edwards is leading the caucus.

Meanwhile, the candidates who are non-viable? They're in hot water. They really are simmering. Maybe next time you'll be more appetizing. We'll check back with you later.

And now, let's count delegates. One potato, two potato, three potato, four. If only it were that easy. We need another recipe card.

Okay, preference groups. How many delegates do you get? The 28 Edwards voters? We multiply the 28 by number of delegates, two, and divide by the number of caucus attendees, sixty. Rules say we round up at .5, so at .93, you just won one delegate. Clinton voters, at 17 times two delegates, divided by sixty attendees, your .56 is rounded up and wins the other delegate. Your candidates can smile.

Remember our non-viable candidates? Well, the vote is in, and the heat they endured during the Iowa caucuses is over. Now, they're out of the boil and on their way to Nevada and New Hampshire. Will these candidates dress themselves up as winners? Might one of them become a seasoned winner? Or after being boiled in Iowa, will these candidates end up mashed?

The Iowa caucuses: it's a mathematical recipe. To win, you have to know you've got enough chips. Precinctly. Precinctly? Precisely. Here in the Political Kitchen, I'm Bob Singer.

Tags: campaign 2008 caucuses Democrats Iowa politics

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