A voter shows off a hat covered in signatures from presidential candidates after a rally at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa

A voter shows off a hat covered in signatures from presidential candidates after a rally at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa 

Credit:

 Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters  

The Iowa Caucus baffles many Americans. It’s the first "vote" of a presidential campaign. But its processes are a little mysterious.

There’s some kind of poll by both parties for each of the 99 counties and 1681 precincts in the Hawkeye state. Some precincts pool their efforts, so that, in all, there are about 900 separate community Caucus meetings.

And that’s one of the most unusual things: That people actually have to go out in the evening on Caucus day and listen to an hour or two of speeches before making their choice.

“People come together in their communities, at gymnasiums, school halls, churches,” explains David Taylor, head of news for The Guardian, who has been in Des Moines for the 2016 Caucus. He’s been trying to figure it all out for the Guardian’s British and international audience.

“There’s a very different process on either side,” Taylor continues. “So for the Republicans, it’s quite straightforward, in the sense that you hear what people have got to say, and then it’s a secret ballot where you write down on a bit of paper who you want to be the nominee and the world learns in a couple of hours what’s going to go on.”

“The Democrats have a far more fiendish, more complicated dance,” says Taylor, “where people gravitate toward different corners of the room where there will be, as it were, a sort of captain for [each] candidate.”

“Everyone can see which camp you’re in. You’re standing there and it’s a head-count.”

A candidate has to have support from 15 percent of the people in the room to have a chance of getting any delegates. If someone doesn’t make the 15 percent threshhold, then his or her supporters are invited to switch sides or go home.

“So there’s potential for a bit of gamesmanship,” says Taylor. “People can expect some shenanigans.” 

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