The Iowa caucuses are the first step in the nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties.  As a result, Iowa garners a vastly disproportionate number of candidate visits and amount of media attention.  A better than expected showing on caucus night can boost a candidacy, while a poor performance can spell the end of a candidate's hopes.


Iowa Code--Title II Chapter 43.4:

Delegates to county conventions of political parties and party committee members shall be elected at precinct caucuses held not later than the fourth Monday in February of each even-numbered year.  The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.  The state central committees of the political parties shall set the date for their caucuses...

Because Iowa's precinct caucuses are the first contests in the presidential nomination processes of both parties, the state attracts an inordinate amount of attention from candidates and the media.  In fact authors Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford describe the caucuses as a "media event."  Although there have been attempts in the past and present (+) to challenge the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa caucuses, supporters of the process argue that the precinct caucuses allow for retail politicking which simply would not be possible in larger states.  

The Iowa caucus campaign fulfills an important winnowing function.  The cliche is that there are three tickets out of Iowa, namely a first-, second- or third-place finish in the caucuses, and that if a candidate does not achieve top three finish his or her campaign is in deep trouble.  In fact it is not a candidate's showing, but the showing as it relates to expectations that is perhaps most important.  In the four most recent competitive Democratic caucus campaigns prior to 2020, the winner of the Iowa caucuses went on to win the party's nomination: Gore (2000), Kerry (2004), Obama (2008) and Clinton (2016).

For Iowa voters who choose to engage in the caucus campaign the experience can be intense.  Democratic candidates spent a lot of time in Iowa.  According to the Des Moines Register's candidate tracker, as of the end of January ten Democratic candidates had participated in 100 or more events.  Visits are only part of the picture; the campaigns invest significant resources in putting staff on the ground and opening offices around the state.  In the closing weeks the number of ads on the air, mailers in the mailbox and calls from the campaigns can become overwhelming.  Interest groups also weigh in.  Reporters and political tourists flock to Iowa.  The net result is a great economic boon to the state (>).

Dynamics of the Races

On the Democratic side, the race has been fluid right up to the time of the caucuses.  Starting out the 2019-20 caucus cycle, there was a very large field vying to take on Trump.  Some candidates could claim slight early advantages; for example Sen. Amy Klobuchar hailed from neighboring Minnesota; Sen. Bernie Sanders had a base from his 2015-16 run; Sen. Cory Booker's speech at the IDP Fall Gala in Oct. 2018 impressed many; former Rep. John Delaney hoped to benefit from his very early start; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren invested in a large field organization early on. 

By caucus time the field had thinned considerably; 14 major candidates who had made a show in Iowa had ended their campaigns leaving nine candidates ostensibly in the running.  Of those seven were competitive.  The Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Biden Klobuchar and Yang campaigns all entered caucus week with over one hundred staff on the ground; the Steyer campaign was also large.  Bennet and Gabbard shifted their focus to New Hampshire.  Two other active candidates, Patrick and Bloomberg, never engaged here.  Among the candidates who dropped out in the months and weeks leading up to the caucuses were several who had built up sizable operations, notably Harris, O'Rourke and Booker.  The impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate created a unique wrinkle in the closing weeks of the caucus campaign, forcing the four Senators Klobuchar, Sanders, Warren and Bennet to remain in Washington and rely on surrogates to carry their messages.  Turnout in the Democratic caucuses was expected to be high.  The record of 239,872 was set in 2008.  

Despite the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, President Trump appeared in full control of the Republican Party.  There were Republican caucuses, including a straw pol,l but they were not competitive.  By contrast in 2015-16 the large field of Republican candidates meant that Iowans saw intense activity on the Republican side, which energized and benefitted local Republican parties.  One challenge for Iowa Republicans in 2019-20 was to maintain interest and energy while Democratic candidates were swarming the state.  President Trump held a rally in Des Moines on January 30, just ahead of the caucuses. 

Early Groundwork (Pre-Campaign Period, 2017-18)

Within just a few weeks of the last presidential election the first visits by the next crop of potential candidates begins.  For the 2020 cycle, the first visits by presidential prospects as noted by Patrick Rynard's Iowa Starting Line were in Dec. 2016—former Gov. Martin O'Malley campaigned for Jim Lykam in the Senate special election in Davenport on Dec. 18 and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander spoke at a Progress Iowa fundraiser on Dec. 20; neither ended up running.  Starting with those first visits, Iowa Starting Line tracking shows 28 Democratic presidential prospects made 118 visits totaling 169 days through Election Day Nov. 6, 2018 and 127 visits totaling 180 days through Dec. 31, 2018 (+).  This is a huge increase from the same period in the 2016 cycle when the "inevitable Hillary" scenario markedly depressed activity on the Democratic side.  In addition to all the potential candidates, two candidates declared early and were active in Iowa: U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

President prospects sought to cultivate good will and build connections among local party officials and activists.  A good way to do that in Iowa was to help out candidates running in the 2018 mid-term elections (+).  Iowa is a closely divided state; active party registration for the Nov. 6, 2018 general election of 2,187,097 included 677,668 Democrats (30.98%), 688,245 Republicans (31.46%), 803,429 no party (36.73%), and 14,534 Libertarian (>).  There were a number of targeted and hotly contested races in 2018.

• The highest profile race was the governor's race.  Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) defeated businessman and philanthropist Fred Hubbell by 50.26% to 47.53% (2.73 percentage points) (+). 

• Republicans maintained control of both chambers in the Iowa legislature.  In the General Assembly, they lost a few seats, going from 58R, 41D, 1v to 54R, 46D.  In the Senate, where 25 seats were up, they gained several seats, balance going from 29R, 20D, 1I to 32R, 18D. 

• Democrats picked up two U.S. House seats on Nov. 6, taking the balance from 3R and 1D in the 115th Congress to 3D and 1R in the 116th Congress  In the 1st CD in the Northeast Abby Finkenauer (D) defeated Rod Blum (R) by 50.46% to 45.45% (5.01 percentage points or 16,900 votes out of 337,593 cast), and in the 3rd CD in the Southwest Cindy Axne (D) defeated David Young (R) by 48.71% to 46.57% (2.14 percentage points or 7,709 votes out of 360,604 cast).  Additionally JD Scholten (D) gave U.S. Rep. Steve King (R) a very strong challenge in the 4th CD; King won by 49.58% to 46.33% (3.25 percentage points or 10,430 votes out of 317,813 votes cast). 

Potential 2020 candidates put in plenty of appearances at fundraisers and events for state and local candidates and party committees. Their leadership PACs made donations, and in some cases provided staff for local campaigns or help with training and canvassing.  Behind the scenes activity counts as well; there are many ways that prospective candidates can engage Iowans without actually travelling to the state, for example in private calls to or meetings with local officials and influencers.  Sometimes they can address groups of Iowans travelling out of state for business meetings, and they may even send Christmas cards.

Some hopefuls made early efforts to attract talent.  The Delaney campaign built up a significant staff.  In July 2018 potential candidate U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (OH) signed up Pete D'Alessandro, who had served as campaign coordinator on Bernie 2016's Iowa caucus campaign, to advise him. 

Independent of a candidate or potential candidate's efforts, citizens and organized groups may start up efforts to build support for (or to criticize) one or another of the presidential hopefuls.  In the 2016 cycle for example, the Ready for Hillary super PAC, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Exploratory Committee super PAC, and the Run Warren Run effort organized by Political Action and Democracy for America were active in Iowa.  No significant activity of this type was noted in 2017-18. 

Play in Iowa?

The first decision a campaign faces on the Iowa caucuses is whether to compete.  Running an Iowa caucus campaign requires an intensive ground operation.  On the Democratic side, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg gave all four early states a miss, and former Gov. Deval Patrick (MA) did not engage here.  In past others have tried or considered this approach.  In 2004 ret. Gen. Wesley Clark opted not to compete in the Iowa caucuses.  In 2007 an internal memo by Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry suggested that Clinton bypass the Iowa caucuses to focus on later contests, but the campaign disavowed that notion and competed hard in the state.  On the Republican side, social conservatives carry significant weight, and this has prompted some more moderate candidates to skip Iowa.  Jon Huntsman as well as Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer tried bypassing Iowa in 2012 and John McCain tried it in 2000.  Most campaigns conclude that they must run in Iowa.

Mark in the Date

As in the 2016 cycle DNC rules state that "the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days beffore the first Tuesday in March" (Delegate Selection Rules, Rule 12A).  RNC rules are less specific, but also key off March 1 and set a general exception for the four early states, stating that "Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their processes no earlier than one month before the next earliest state" (Rules of the Republican Party, Rule 16(c)(1).

In past cycles there have been challenges to Iowa's first-in-the-nation status as well as considerable jockeying among other states to move earlier in the process, with the result that the date of the Iowa caucuses was a moving target.  For example Iowa's 2012 precinct caucuses were tentatively scheduled to take place on the evening of Feb. 6, but Florida Republicans set their primary date for Jan. 31, 2012, prompting Iowa Republicans to move their date forward to Jan. 3, and the Democrats to follow.  For 2016, both the DNC and the RNC held firm so that no contests took place before February, and the caucuses stuck to Feb. 1.  National party discipline held for 2020 as well.  Feb. 3, 2020 is the date of the Iowa caucuses.

Adjustments and Improvements

As a result of the Democratic National Committee's Unity Reform Commission (1, 2) there will be some notable changes to the Democratic caucuses.  A long-standing criticism of the caucus process is that it limits participation to those who can actually show up at the precinct location on Caucus Night.  For 2020, in addition to the 1,678 precinct caucuses, the party held 87 satellite caucuses (+).  Other changes to the caucus process include early check in, a streamlining of the realignment process during the precinct caucuses and changes in reporting of results including reporting of raw results.  Also of note, due to a change in state law 17-year-olds can vote in the Iowa Caucuses and the June primary if they will be 18 by November 3, 2020 (+).

Note that the state parties routinely make some tweaks to their caucuses processes; in 2016, before the Unity Reform Commission was even an idea, the Iowa Democratic Party itself conducted a review of the 2016 caucuses (+).  The changes set for 2020 at the behest of the DNC are more far-reaching and are designed to increase participation and transparency.  The IDP reported, "The new DNC mandates include a recount process, releasing the 1st expression of preference, and non-present participation."  Developing the mechanism for "non-present participation" proved to be a challenge.  The state party considered a number of options including absentee ballot, proxy voting, and remote voting.  Over a period of many months the IDP sought input and developed rules for the 2020 caucuses.  At its meeting on Feb. 9, 2019 the IDP state central committee (SCC) took up the caucus and delegate selection rules, and on Feb. 11 party leaders announced "the most historic changes to the caucus process since its creation in 1972 (+)." 

The solution the IDP came up, which took a lot of work to develop and would ultimately be rejected by the DNC due to security concerns, was a proposal to hold a series of six virtual caucuses in addition to the traditional caucus night meetings.  Democrats participating in the virtual caucuses would be able to select up to five choices in order of preference.  The results of the virtual caucuses would be aggregated by CD and delegates allocated by ranked choice voting with a 15 percent threshhold required.  The virtual caucuses would account for an additional 10-percent state delegate equivalents per congressional district.  (The effect would be somewhat like adding a county to each of the four congressional districts).  The 10-percent level was somewhat arbitrary since there was no way of telling how many people wouldparticipate in the virtual caucuses.  The SCC unanimously approved the delegate selection plan at its meeting on April 5 (Delegate Selection Plan [PDF], +), and it then went to the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC), where it was due by May 3, 2019, for approval.  The RBC conditionally approved Iowa's plan in June 2019.  As noted, security concerns arose abouut the virtual caucuses, and on Aug. 30, the RBC chairs recommended that that aspect of the plan not be approved (+).

The party settled on holding satellite caucuses including in work-related sites, on college campuses and in aging service centers.  Groups interested in holding a satellite caucus submitted applications by the Nov. 18, 2019 deadline.  On Dec. 18 the IDP announced its review committee had approved 99 applications, "including 71 in-state, 25 out-of-state, 11 combinations with other locations, and 3 international locations." (+)  In terms of delegate math, as outlined in the final Delegate Selection Plan [PDF], "Each congressional district will be granted one (1) satellite caucus county, and each satellite site in that congressional district will be treated as a precinct within the satellite caucus county."  Each congressional district will then be given an additional allotment of delegates based on attendance at their satellite caucuses; this could range from 2% to 10%.

Big Events on The Calendar

Among the biggest events on the Democratic calendar were several Democratic Party fundraisers: the Iowa Democratic Party Annual Hall of Fame Dinner in Cedar Rapids on June 9, 2019, the Polk County Democrats' Steak Fry in Des Moines on Sept. 21, 2019 and the Liberty and Justice Celebration, formerly known as the JJ Dinner, in Des Moines on Nov. 1, 2019.  These events afford the campaigns an opportunity to show off their organizational muscle.  Many other multi-candidate forums have been and are being held in Iowa (+)

(For Republicans, historically the mid-August Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll was the big pre-primary event; indeed it had assumed almost as much importance as the caucuses themselves.  However, the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee voted to cancel the 2015 Iowa Straw Poll "to strengthen our First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best chance possible to take back the White House in 2016").

Organize, Organize, Organize.

Iowa has a population of more than three million (July 2018 estimate 3,156,145) (>), and its ninety-nine counties provide plenty of ground for candidates to cover.  Attention naturally focuses on the Des Moines area in the center of the state.  The population of Polk County itself is more than 480,000 (>).  Extending further, the Des Moines-West Des Moines Metropolitan Statistical Area encompasses six counties (Dallas, Guthrie, Jasper, Madison, Polk and Warren) (>).  There are also very rural and sparsely populated areas; Adams County, in the Southwest part of the state, has a population of less than 4,000.

Potential candidates and candidates look for advantages as they seek to connect to Iowans.  Agriculture is obviously important issue, and a candidate must be able to speak to rural issues.  But there is more to Iowa than agriculture; Iowa has an increasingly diversified economy and leaders have sought to counter a one-dimensional stereotype of the state.  Organized labor is still important on the Democratic side, while social conservatives form an important constituency on the Republican side. 

Once the campaigns staffed up, their major job in 2019 was to identify committed supporters, likely supporters, and persuadables (1's, 2's and 3's as they are called).  Pledge cards are the "currency of the realm."  As the caucuses draw nearer, potential caucus-goers are bombarded with mail and phone calls.  Behond just identifying supporters campaigns devote much work to lining up precinct captains, and they also make considerable efforts to obtain endorsements from state and local officials, who might be able to sway neighbors and acquaintances.  Republican and Democratic campaigns take decidedly different approaches to the caucus campaign.  The campaigns of the leading major Democratic candidates typically have very large staffs and a dozen or more field offices around the state.  (Republican campaign organizations have been much smaller and generally do not open multiple offices; of course there is not a Republican contest in 2020).  The air war ratchets up as well.  The early-starting Delaney campaign was first on the airwaves, running its first ad in Iowa on Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, and it spent about $1 million on advertising in the state in 2018.  However, in the closing months of the campaign it was the Steyer campaign that dominated the airwaves. Campaigns that have money run lots of TV ads, and there are also digital ads and radio ads in the mix.  Interest groups and super PACs add their messages as well. 

Exchanges with a friend, neighbor, colleague or fellow Iowan can have an important effect on a caucus-goer's thinking.  Even more telling are first-hand impressions of the candidates.  Candidates ply the state with visits.  Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, who launched his campaign in July 2017, was the first candidate in the 2020 cycle to achieve the "99-county club."  Sen. Amy Klobuchar also achieved that mark.  Another milestone is the "hundred days in Iowa club."

Much organizing activity occurs around candidate visits.  If a campaign has any kind of organization, a field organizer or field organizers bearing supporter cards will approach attendees after an event.  Major multi-candidate events often generate sign-waving battles.  Having a staff that can translate the energy and interest generated by the candidate into actual Iowans willing to volunteer time and effort and to head out on a Monday evening in February to spend an hour or two in a caucus meeting is essential.

Although attention focuses on the activities of the candidates and their campaigns, other players will be at work.  Given the huge amount of media attention various interest groups organize on-the-ground or media campaigns to inject their issues into the race.  The state parties work to ensure a level playing field for their candidates, and, at the same time are ever ready point out the foibles and faults of the opposing party's candidates.

The Day Arrives

After all the activity, the millions spent, the pundits' pontificating and the meaningless polls, matters are finally in the hands of Iowans.  Despite all the attention lavished on their state, not that many people actually participate in the precinct caucuses.  The record for the Democrats occurred in 2008 when there were 239,872 participants in part because of excitement about Obama; the Republican record of 186,932 was set in 2016 in part because of Trump's unorthodox candidacy.

The state parties spend countless hours preparing for the caucuses.  Iowa has 1,678 precincts.  That means a lot of work for the state parties in keeping the county chairs up to speed, lining up temporary caucus chairs, and identifying caucus sites.  In addition Democrats have added 99 satellite caucuses.  Cybersecurity and ensuring the integrity of the results was a major concern.

After all the visits, organizers' work, the calls and canvassing, ads, mail, planning and preparation at 7 p.m. on the evening of Feb. 3, 2020 neighbors gathered in precinct caucuses around the state in an example of democracy in action.  The Republican and Democratic caucus systems are quite different.  Republicans do their caucus by secret ballot, while Democrats divide up into groups.  But attention this cycle focused on the Democrats.

Democratic precinct caucuses have a 15-percent threshhold (in most precincts) to achieve viability; this means that if a caucus-goer's candidate fails to achieve that level, he or she must align with another group or go home.  Attendees select delegates to county conventions (and thence to district conventions and the state convention in June 2020) and vote on platform issues.  

For the candidates, what matters is what happens on caucus night and how these results are interpreted in the headlines the next day.  The candidates who  exceed expectations will jet off to New Hampshire claiming momentum (+).  Those who fare poorly may drop out of the race, if not on caucus night itself in the days after the caucuses.

There had been concerns that the Iowa Democratic Party's new reporting of results, comprising not just state delegate equivalent numbers as in past, but raw votes at the beginning of the night and raw votes at the end of the night to provide more transparency could lead to a lack of clarity, but what happened amounted to a debacle. The delay in reporting results of the caucuses (+) brought a disappointing end to the long, intense campaign, and the story dominated headlines on Caucus Night and over the next several days.  Ultimately Buttigieg and Sanders effectively tied, each claiming a win.  All told five candidates did well enough to earn national delegates, but the results were underwhelming for Warren, who had seemed best organized, for Biden, who was after all the former vice president, and for Klobuchar, who hailed from neighboring Minnesota. 

Looking ahead to the 2024 cycle, the complexity of the Iowa Democratic caucuses, the DNC's position favoring primaries over caucuses, pressure for a more diverse state to start off their process, and the results reporting delay in 2020 will likely lead to a strong challenge to thevery existence of the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses.

Historical Perspective

Democrats held their first Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24, 1972; top finishers were uncommitted, Ed Muskie and George McGovern.  (Although McGovern finished behind Muskie, his surprising showing provided a significant boost heading into New Hampshire). 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent Iowa Democratic Caucuses
Feb. 3, 2020
Sanders (26.5%), Buttigieg (25.1%), Warren (20.3%), Biden (13.7%), Klobuchar (12.2%)

Feb. 1, 2016
Clinton (49.84%),  Sanders (49.59%),  O'Malley (0.54%),  Uncomm. (0.03%).

Jan. 3, 2008 Obama (37.6%),  Edwards (29.7%),  Clinton (29.4%),  Others (3.2%). 239,872

Jan. 19, 2004 Kerry (37.6%),  Edwards (31.8%),  Dean (18.0%),  Gephardt (10.6%),  Others (1.8%).

Jan. 24, 2000
Gore (63.4%),  Bradley (34.9%),  Others (1.6%). 60,760

In 1976 Republicans moved their caucuses to the same day as the Democrats, thereby boosting the significance of the event; that year there was a contest between President Gerald Ford and Gov. Ronald Reagan.  The 1980 caucuses marked the first of the multi-candidate GOP contests seen in recent cycles.  Of the six multi-candidate competitive Iowa Republican caucuses from 1980 to 2012, the Iowa caucus winner went on to win the party's nomination two and a half times: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.  In 2012 Mitt Romney appeared to have won by eight votes and received an Iowa bump, but two weeks later Rick Santorum was declared to have won by 34 votes in certified results. 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent Iowa Republican Caucuses
Feb. 1, 2016 Cruz 51,666 (27.6%),  Trump 45,429 (24.3%),  Rubio 43,228 (23.1%),  Carson 17,394 (9.3%), Paul 8,481 (4.5%), Bush 5,238 (2.8%), Others 15,495 (8.2%).

Jan. 3, 2012 Santorum 29,839 (24.5%),  Romney 29,805 (24.5%),  Paul 26,036 (21.4%),  Gingrich 16,163 (13.3%),  Perry 12,557 (10.3%),  Others 7,103 (5.8%). 121,503

Jan. 3, 2008 Huckabee 40,954 (34.4%),  Romney 30,021 (25.2%),  F.Thompson 15,960 (13.4%),  McCain 15,536 (13.0%),  Paul 11,841 (9.9%),  Others 4,888 (4.1%).

Jan. 24, 2000
Bush 35,948 (40.9%),  Forbes 26,744 (30.5%),  Keyes 12,496 (14.2%),  Bauer 7,487 (8.5%),  Others 4,991 (5.7%) 87,666

Feb. 12, 1996
Dole 25,461 (26.3%),  Buchanan 22,578 (23.3%),  Alexander 17,052 (17.6%),  Forbes 9,861 (10.2%),  Gramm 9,055 (9.4%),  Keyes 7,219 (7.5%),  Others 5,536 (5.7%).