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Primaries, Caucuses and What Happened In Iowa

We all know by now that here in the U.S., we’re electing a new President in November of 2020 (or maybe the same one).

So let’s talk about what’s happening leading up to the Presidential election.

I assume you’ve heard of these elusive, mysterious things called primaries and caucuses. If you’re under the age of 24 there’s a very good chance you’ve never voted in one. Even if you’re over 24, there’s still a decent chance that you’ve never voted in one.

Vote for what? Aren’t the elections in November?

Yes and no.

Primaries and caucuses basically help decide who will be the nominated candidate on the ballot for each party. This process is especially important for this election because the Democratic pool of candidates started with over 20 presidential hopefuls.

However, when you vote in a primary or caucus you are, in practice, not actually voting for an actual candidate. We’ll get more into the different types of primaries later – some have candidate names on the ballots and some don’t, but you are technically voting for delegates who will then get together and vote for a single candidate to represent the party at the Democratic or Republican National Convention.

This election cycle, Republicans don’t have that many options and it is very unlikely that any Republican will be selected over Donald Trump for the nomination, but Democrats have a lot of choices. As of right now, 20 Democrats have dropped out, leaving only 8 candidates. Note the sarcasm on only.

Many states hold their primaries on “Super Tuesday,” which is this upcoming March 3rd, or throughout March and April, but Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have already held their votes.

If you are already a registered voter (which I hope you are) and want to vote in primaries, you can check your state’s rules and voting dates by clicking here.

To see the dates of ALL caucuses and primaries for both the Republican and Democratic candidates, click here.

So what’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?

I’m glad you asked.

Caucuses came first but have been steadily replaced since primaries were created in the early 1900’s. Today, Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming are the only 3 contiguous states to perform caucuses.

Instead of voting privately in voting booths, voters physically meet in precinct meeting places (there are about 1,700 across Iowa, for example). Before voting, there is informal discussion and debate as people make up their minds. Then, people physically gather into groups supporting candidates. If a group gets below a certain percentage of support, that group must disband and those members can join another candidate’s group of supporters. The requirement to not be disbanded is determined by the number of delegates that precinct is given, which is based on the population of the precinct and amount of elected officials in that precinct.

  • For precincts with only two delegates, each group needs 25 percent to be viable.
  • For precincts with three delegates, each group needs at least one-sixth of all caucus participants (which is about 16.6%)
  • Precincts with four or more delegates need at least 15 percent of the caucus participants.

For the candidates whose groups of supporters reach the threshold, the number of delegates they receive must be calculated after voting is complete. This is done by multiplying the number of people in that group by the number of delegates for the precinct and then dividing that by the number of caucus-goers.

Primaries are a little less confusing

For primaries, you’re voting on a ballot. There are open and closed primaries, which are pretty simple. In an open primary, you can vote in the Democratic or Republican primary, regardless of your party affiliation. In a closed primary, you can only vote if you are registered with that party.

Some primaries are “presidential preference” primaries, where you are directly voting for the candidates. In other cases, you might be voting for delegates that have expressed support for a candidate. Either way, you will end up with delegates who vote for you in the Democratic/Republican National Convention.

One difference between Democratic and Republican primaries is that the Republican party allows states to do a “winner takes all” method for assigning delegates. This means that instead of winning 6 of 10 delegates, for example, if a candidate gets the most votes, he or she would get all of the delegates.

What happens after the primaries and caucuses?

After all states have held a primary or caucus (including territories like Guam and Puerto Rico that are not part of the 50 states), there is a National Convention held for each party.

At this convention, the delegates that each candidate won vote for that candidate. Delegates are not actually required to vote for the candidate that they “pledged” to support, so winning delegates early on does not necessarily ensure you the nomination. The candidates must keep the support of the delegates.

If a candidate gets 50% of the votes at the convention. they are selected as the candidate for that party. If no candidate gets 50%, which is likely in a field this large, there is a second vote with the super delegates who have not pledged to support anyone.

So what went wrong in Iowa?

Oh, Iowa.

Iowa is the very first voting state and has historically been considered to “set the precedence” for the race. It does not actually determine the outcome any more than another state, but there are certain key states, including Iowa, that boost morale for a candidate if they do well there. The better a candidate does in certain states (and the more states they do well in), the more likely they are to gain supporters and funding.

What Iowa did differently this year was introduce an app to help count votes. This went horribly wrong.

First, the app failed. There was some sort of coding error that made it impossible to report results using the app. So, they turned to the phone lines to report manually.

But because of the chaos already created by the app failure, the phone lines got backed up.

All of this caused a major delay in reporting and just plainly a lot of mass confusion and inconvenience. It was a mess.

Slowly the results came in, showing Sanders and Buttigieg teetering around the same numbers. As of now, the New York Times is reporting 100% of votes counted. The results show Buttigieg barely ahead of Sanders with 26.2% of the vote. This gives him 13 delegates as compared to Bernie’s 12 delegates. In contrast, the AP is still saying that it cannot declare a winner. Either way, the caucus in Iowa put Sanders and Buttigieg at the head of the pack.

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