Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
American democracy, in a nutshell: Every four years, a bunch of Iowans gather in public schools, libraries, and homes across their great state to decide who will get to be the most powerful person on Earth.
Okay, not quite, but it’s something like that. Since 1972, Iowa has had first dibs on picking the names that will appear on presidential ballots across the nation come November.
A caucus is a way for the population of a state to decide who they’d most like to vote for in a presidential election. A field of hopeful candidates spends millions of dollars and hundreds if not thousands of hours in Iowa (a state with only seven electoral college votes out of 538), inundating the population with their messages. Iowans decide which politician they like the most, lending them enough votes to emerge as their party’s early front-runner and the candidate most deserving of the at-large nomination later in the year.
The word “caucus” literally means a gathering, and one takes place in each of Iowa’s 1,774 precincts, usually at a public institution such as a library or school. Democrats and Republicans have slightly different rules for how caucuses happen, but they are largely the same in character: these are small gatherings that take place in communities; discussion and debate abound. Supporters who have already aligned themselves with a candidate attempt to sway their neighbors, who either support someone else or remain undecided, before it actually comes time to vote. Lest you doubt the relevance of the caucus, ask yourself if there is anything more democratic than neighbors arguing with one another. No, there isn’t.
Next year, the Republican caucus will be the only caucus that matters, since Democrats already know who they’re voting for (President Obama will "run" unopposed). Everyone at a Republican caucus gets a blank sheet of paper with none of the candidates’ names on it. Those who know how they will vote make their case to the rest of the room, hoping for some last-minute stragglers to swing their way. Then everyone writes their vote down. The Republican Party of Iowa tallies the results in each precinct before reporting them to the media. At the end of the day, these results go on TV and everyone in America knows which candidate has the most Iowans behind them, which is what really steers the rest of the campaign season.
And each and every Iowan who shows up has the potential for a major impact. Take a look at the state’s track record of selecting eventual nominees. In nine of the 15 presidential caucuses that have been held in Iowa since 1972—not counting years when an incumbent ran unopposed—the candidate with the most votes went on to secure his party’s nomination.
Its track record of selecting eventual presidents, however, is less impressive. Of those nine caucus winners who would receive their party’s nomination, only two went on to win the presidency: Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Bill Clinton famously pulled just three percent of Iowa Democrats in the 1992 caucus before…well, you know what happened.
According to 2010 numbers, there are about 650,000 registered Republican voters in Iowa. In 2008, only 120,000 of these Republicans attended caucuses, mostly voting for Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee by a healthy margin; Mitt Romney and John McCain trailed by double digits, in that order. A number of surveys released over the past year and as recently as January show Huckabee again polling strongest of all 2012 hopefuls in Iowa—not entirely surprising given Huckabee's evangelical slant, which finds footing among Iowa Republicans.
But of course, the polls don’t mean too much. It wasn’t a Huckabee-Obama contest in 2008, so a Huckabee victory in Iowa next winter won’t be entirely credible. Really, the Iowa caucuses offer only a snapshot of the national mood; they influence elections and campaigns, but don’t always dictate them. The weeks following the caucuses allow a chance for candidates to correct mistakes, refine messages, and exploit opponents’ weaknesses. That might be what where Iowa really defines the campaign, as opposed to the results themselves.