Over the first six weeks of 2020, Iowa became the centerpiece of the 2020 election for Democrats and Republicans alike. Iowa has an Open Primary so candidates all across the board campaigned throughout the state in preparation for the Iowa Caucuses on February 4, the first step in gauging how much support a candidate has.
What are the Iowa Caucuses?
The Iowa Caucuses act as a candidate’s, and the nation’s, first true look at the amount of support certain candidates have over others. All Iowa residents who are at least eighteen years old by election day are able to participate, as long as they have registered beforehand, by promoting their candidate at various locations, including schools and churches, in each of the state’s 99 counties. This ‘promotion’ typically consists of a candidate’s supporters wearing their merchandise, holding up their signs, and trying to convince other caucus-goers to vote for their candidate. Essentially, these caucuses are a way for voters to get a sense of who is most likely to win their party’s nomination, and therefore play a significant role in gaining delegates, and during the November election, hopefully votes.
How do the Iowa Caucuses work?
The Republican Party uses a ‘secret ballot’ system, similar to actual voting. Votes are counted, and delegates–who will later be elected by the precinct to attend the county convention–are distributed according to who received the most votes.
The Democratic Party runs things differently, with a more complicated structure. Upon arrival at a venue, attendees stand in different parts of the room depending on who they are supporting as their top choice for the first round of voting. For instance, all Bernie Sanders supporters stand in the back left corner while Elizabeth Warren supporters stand in the front right corner. The number of people at each ‘section’ ise tallied and then converted to percentages based on the total amount of caucus attendees at that specific location. This then leads to the next step: viability.
To put it simply, a candidate is viable, or eligible for the next round of voting, only if they have reached 15% of votes at a location. Voters that supported a candidate who lasted through the first round are now ‘locked into’ their vote, meaning they cannot switch to another candidate, which is a rule change in 2020 from years prior.
This raises the question: what happens if a candidate is not viable? In this scenario, an unviable candidate’s supporters have two choices: they can either begin supporting another candidate who was viable the first round or they can form an uncommitted group. In the time between the first vote count, known as the pre-realignment vote, and the second vote count, or the final vote, locations are swarming with people trying to pick new candidates to support, and others acting as champions, trying to gain the support of those voters. After this period, the final vote count is taken.
Based on these numbers, county delegates are awarded to each candidate. For example, if Joe Biden received 60% of votes in the final vote count at Location A, and that location was allotted 10 county delegates, Biden would be assigned six delegates for the county convention. This all depends on the number of county delegates each specific location has available to pledge, however, so 60% at one location is not necessarily equivalent to 60% at another location, which often leads to confusion. To put it simply, if Location B had been allotted 20 county delegates, Biden’s 60% would make him eligible for 12 county delegates. State delegates are divvied up more evenly; a number of county delegates would count for a proportionate number of state delegates, and candidates would, once again, acquire representation for the state convention. For example, 10 county delegates could’ve been equal to 0.78 state delegates, a number found by dividing Iowa’s number of allotted state delegates by its number of allotted county delegates, which basically signifies what fraction of a state delegate is one county delegate. Biden’s six county delegates are our theoretical location would’ve gotten him 0.468 state delegates. This number is obviously miniscule, but can have a serious impact when added up to the state delegate equivalents from Iowa’s 1,678 precincts in almost one hundred counties. The decimal numbers of state delegates from each location are usually rounded to three decimal places, and final sums of the entire state contain two decimal places, as seen by the 2016 Iowa Caucuses when Hillary Clinton received 49.84% of state delegates compared to Bernie Sanders’ 49.59%.
Why the controversy?
The big scandal, of course, is the delay of definitive Democratic results, which incited tremendous amounts of backlash from both parties. The problem was due to inconsistencies with a mobile app, which was supposed to transmit the results of each precinct, but with which many caucus volunteers had negative experiences. Technical glitches with the app caused only partial or no results to be shared by precincts, so caucus sites had to turn to the paper trail–physical copies of votes–either through pictures of results or paper cards. Hence, votes had to be counted manually, which took much longer than expected. All across the country, people are citing this incident as a failure and a disappointment to American democracy.
More broadly, putting the severe delay of Democratic results to the side for now, the Iowa Caucuses have been under fire for quite some time, the main reason being the state’s lack of diversity. Former candidate Julian Castro claimed that Iowa simply is not representative enough of the country, being 90% white, rendering it not the best place to hold the first caucuses. The issue of race in this election was also brought up by Andrew Yang, who was the last candidate of color before he too dropped out on February 11th. Yang specifically mentioned how voters of color faced the most neglect from the American government, an issue that would be nearly completely overlooked during the Iowa Caucuses due to its racial demographics. A report by NPR showed that Illinois would be a much better place to start, as its population is most representative of the entire nation based on various factors such as household income and importance of religion.
Another significant source of controversy is the accessibility of the caucuses for eligible voters who are unable to sacrifice the time necessary to attend these caucuses. Various groups of people have verbalized their issues with the need to be physically present at precincts for multiple hours in order to participate, including those with disabilities, jobs with long hours, parents who cannot leave their children at home, and hundreds of others who simply cannot spend hours at a location caucusing. Many argue that this inconvenience prevents the nation from seeing a true representation of a state’s voting population, denying underprivileged groups the chance to get their voices heard by prospective candidates. A common suggestion to combat this issue has been to get rid of the caucuses entirely and simply hold a primary, but it seems unlikely that Iowa would want to lose their title of being ‘first’ anytime soon. It is important to note, however, that there is always the opportunity for Iowa to hold a primary instead of their caucuses and remain first, but growing annoyance with the state makes it improbable that any major changes would be made to election organization without knocking Iowa down a few pegs.
Who won the Iowa Caucuses?
For the Republicans, that’s an easy answer: Donald Trump, who won in a landslide with 97.1% of votes.
The Democratic winner is not as clear-cut of an answer yet. Pete Buttigieg won with 26.2%, a razor-thin margin over Bernie Sanders at 26.1%, prompting discussion of recanvassing–that is, a recalculation of vote counts to see if delegate allocation differs. All results, including demographic data, can be seen here.
The next state was New Hampshire, which held their caucuses on Tuesday, February 11. The state supported Clinton over Trump by just 2,700 votes in 2016, so Trump is looking to flip the state with rallies and campaigning as the Democratic candidates simply hoped to get their feet in the door.
Iowa has since tried to recover after the embarrassment of their caucuses; Tom Perez, the current Democratic National Committee Chairman has stated that he will review Iowa’s status as first-in-nation for caucuses, and claims that he had to make ‘tough decisions‘ regarding Caucus infrastructure. Despite being urged to step down from his position from politicians such as Tulsi Gabbard, Perez has shown no sign of doing so unlike Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party Chairman, who resigned under the premise that severe changes are needed to fix caucus organization and he is too compromised to direct those changes.
As we move forward with primaries and caucuses, we can only hope that Iowa’s fiasco isn’t contagious. Next up is the Nevada Caucuses on February 22, and the South Carolina Primary on February 29, states that are much more diverse than Iowa. In this upcoming election, the opinions of minorities and underrepresented demographic groups will be especially important as voters begin to narrow their Democratic Nominee choices. As the democracy of the election process becomes a hot topic, caucus and primary officials, as well as candidates, will undoubtedly have to adapt to shifting opinions on political inclusivity as November approaches. As our nation–hopefully!– is able to learn from this year’s mistakes, we shall see if American politics evolve to become more diverse and accessible as time goes on.