The Iowa Caucus: How it works

An explainer on caucuses (and primaries)

SAN ANTONIO – The lead-up to any election is full of buzzwords that fly around, often without any explanation. Some speak for themselves: “middle class,” “constitutional” and “the economy.”

Others are more obscure. And given their importance, it’s crucial that the concepts they represent are clearly understood.

One example is “caucus.” The Iowa caucuses are the opening bell for this year’s presidential race. But many people may not know exactly what they are or why they are so important.

What is a caucus?

A caucus is a noun or a verb that essentially means a gathering of like-minded people who decide something or elect a leader.

In one circumstance, a caucus could be a gathering by members of a legislative body -- who are members of the same political party -- to rally around an issue they want to support, or to select a representative to speak for them. The Texas House of Representatives has Republican and Democratic caucuses. Each of them band together on issues that they want to push and need full support of the whole party within the House.

Or, in the case of the upcoming presidential election, a caucus is a meeting or assembly of people to decide which candidate they like. The assembly will turn into delegates (people who will go forward to represent the caucus and its decision) for county and state conventions.

Eventually, these delegates will end up at the national party conventions to pledge their support for a candidate. The candidate with the most support there will go on to receive their party’s nomination to run for president.


For Iowa, a caucus is a major time commitment. It’s not just a vote cast in solitary. People invest lots of time, often on snowy nights, sitting down in basements, church halls or libraries, with other people to talk about the candidates.

In the last few weeks, Iowa has been on the lips of many a political commentator, reporters and candidate. But why, of all the states in the union, does Iowa -- with its population of 3.1 million, its mere 99 counties and very small number of delegates -- get all this attention?

For starters, it’s the first state to hold this nominating process that begins to pick nominees for president. Iowa gives the first indication of a candidate’s real standing with voters and may provide momentum as other states hold their caucuses.

What about primaries? How are they different?

A primary is sort of the same thing, but without all the meetings. But they aim to accomplish the same thing, which is narrowing the field of candidates before the election. Primary elections include several candidates of the same party running against one another in an effort to make it to a general election, where they will run against candidates of opposite parties.

Two types of primaries exist: open and closed.

In an open primary, registered voters are allowed to vote in any party’s primary, regardless of their party affiliation. This type of primary creates a bit of strategy. Someone from one party could vote in the opposite party’s primary to help choose the opposition candidate. This is known as raiding.

In a closed primary, voters may vote in a party’s primary only if they are registered members of that primary before election day. Independents cannot cast ballots in this scenario.

A semi-open primary is one where the voter doesn’t need to declare which party’s primary they will vote in. Voters will request a specific party’s ballot before voting, and the election official may record the information. A semi-open primary is a statement in front of the election official which primary ballot the voter is requesting.

A semi-closed primaries allow those voters that do not have a political affiliation to cast a ballot. Independents can either choose a party or change which party they are voting for privately -- while voting -- or by registering with the party.

The Texas primary

Texas is technically an open primary state. But since voters face some restrictions, many consider the state to be a semi-open primary state.

Texas voters do not have to declare themselves publicly as a member of a particular political party when they register to vote. And they can choose either Republican or Democrat when they arrive at the polling place.

“Our elections official have two questions they ask every voter: Have you moved, and what party will you be voting in?” Bexar County elections administrator Jacque Callanen said.

But they can’t cross party lines. Once a party is picked, the voter is restricted to candidates in that party. Texans do receive new voter registration cards each year so a voter isn’t required to always stick with the same party.

The Texas way is considered a little disadvantageous to Independents. The system requires voters to pick a side, but Independent voters by definition don’t stick strictly to one side or the other.

Callanen said Independents don’t participate in the primaries. Instead, they attend other groups’ conventions, including the Green and Libertarian parties, where they will have candidates who will run in the general election.

“When the rest of the world has their filing deadlines,” Callanen said, candidates in these other parties will “put in a letter of intent to run. So they file that and they can’t do anything else until the primaries are over.”


February and March

On Feb. 1, Iowa caucus-goers will head to their respective caucus locations and begin hashing out their picks for nominee. It’s a long-held tradition and all eyes will be on the Hawkeye State.

Primaries will begin following Iowa, with voters in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada participating in their state’s caucus or primary during the month of February.

Super Tuesday lands on March 1, where a vast number of states will hold their own caucuses or primaries. Texas is now a part of Super Tuesday, and many political scholars anticipate Texas to be a big voice in the 2016 presidential election.

It all adds up to selecting delegates who will convene in Cleveland and Philadelphia for July’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions, respectively. Delegates that are selected from the local level then move on to bigger conventions including the statewide convention, until finally they are picked for the national conventions.

“This thing keeps building and building,” Callanen said.

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