The Iowa Caucuses: Frequently Asked Questions

It's finally showtime in Iowa. At 7 p.m. Central time on Monday, Republican and Democratic caucuses will be called to order in 1,681 precincts around the state. NYT reporter Trip Gabriel, who has been in Iowa for last 12 months, explains how the caucuses will work.
  1. How will I know the results?
    The Democratic and Republican parties of Iowa are promising returns in almost-real time on their respective websites: www.iagopcaucuses.com and www.idpcaucuses.com.
  2. When do results come in?
    The state Republican Party says the first returns will be in around 7:30 p.m., and it promises to have results “fully reported back in just a few hours.” The Democratic results could take longer because Democrats caucus differently.
  3. Wait, what?
    Republicans declare their candidate preferences by a show of hands or by writing out a secret ballot. The Democratic process is complicated: Groups of supporters for each candidate (or undecided attendees) sit or stand together in “preference groups.” A head count is conducted. If any candidate (or the undecideds) don’t have enough supporters — in most cases, 15% of the caucusgoers — the group is ruled “nonviable.” Its members realign with other groups, and a final count is made.
  4. What are the Democrats thinking?
    Well, the fun comes when supporters of candidates try to persuade people in nonviable groups or undecideds to join their team. There are chants, debates about policy and electability, or maybe just the offer of a beer later on. As the state party puts it: “There is a lot of debating and moving around. It is democracy in action.”
  5. Do the Republicans get to argue for their candidates?
    Yes. Before voting, a supporter for each candidate can make a 2-minute speech to all the caucusgoers. Anyone can speak for a candidate. That includes 11-year-old Allisyn Shelley, who will speak for Donald Trump in one Davenport precinct. Some candidates will even visit caucuses to speak for themselves — because Iowans may not have fully memorized every stump speech.
  6. Can anyone caucus?
    Only registered voters who enroll as Republicans or Democrats. Voters can register for the first time at the caucus site or switch their affiliation.
  7. Doesn’t that slow things down?
    It can, if a wave of unregistered or unaffiliated supporters show up, especially for the two candidates drawing a lot of support from caucus newcomers, Trump and Sanders. Caucusgoers sign in on arrival and register at that time. Anyone not in line by 7 p.m. Central cannot participate.
  8. How many people are at each caucus?
    From as few as a dozen in some rural precincts to several hundred. John Tone, the chairman of Republican precinct 62 in Des Moines, is expecting more than 300 at his middle school caucus site, and the Democrats from precinct 62, who are also meeting at the school, expect more than 600.
  9. Pure democracy, one-person, one-vote, right?
    Only for the Republicans, who report the total vote counts for each candidate. The Democrats are electing delegates to county conventions, who in turn choose delegates to a state convention. The statewide winner on caucus night will be the candidate earning the most “state delegate equivalents,” which is reported as a percentage. That’s what you’ll see on the returns page for the Democratic Party.
  10. With all the hullabaloo that began a full year ago, Iowa must be sending lots of delegates to the national nominating conventions in July?
    Of course not. It’s a tiny state, in terms of population.
  11. So what does this all mean?
    You have a choice of how to interpret that: The caucuses are much ado about very little. Or, because these are the first votes cast, there is a lot at stake in terms of popular momentum, news media attention and donor love.