How the Iowa caucuses work

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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All eyes are on Iowa this evening, where Republicans will gather at 1,774 precinct locations to choose a Republican presidential nominee. But what exactly will be happening?

A caucus is different from a primary election. There are no polling places, and no ballots will be cast.

Instead, registered Republicans will gather in their precincts at an assigned location. Depending on how many people are expected, it could be a school cafeteria or gym, a hotel ballroom, or maybe a church. Caucuses begin at 7:00 p.m. Central Time statewide.

To be eligible, a caucusgoer must be a registered Republican — though unregistered voters can register at caucus sites — and they must be scheduled to turn 18 by election day: November 6, 2012.

Once gathered, Iowans undertake procedural business before anything interesting happens. Participants elect a caucus chair and a secretary, whose job it is to run the caucus. Then a surrogate for each of the candidates will speak, making a last-minute plea to caucus-goers.

In some locations where only a handful of caucus-goers gather, a show of hands is all that’s required to count each candidate’s supporters. But in most places, a secret-ballot vote is called.

In this case, the “ballots” are nothing more than blank slips of paper on which participants write a name: either Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Buddy Roemer, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, or Herman Cain (who is elegible even though he dropped out of the race). Alternatively, anyone can elect to write “no preference” or “other” — which would amount to a protest vote.

The chair and the secretary count the votes in front of the caucus-goers, and a representative from each campaign can watch the count to make sure there is no foul play. The results are then reported to the Republican Party of Iowa. Campaign surrogates accompany the reporter to ensure the accuracy of the numbers.

Caucus-goers also elect delegates who will attend county-wide conventions. Delegates to the state convention, and, in turn, the national convention will eventually be selected from this group.

The caucus results have almost no bearing on how delegates are allocated among the candidates because there is “no mechanism in place to bind any of these delegates,” explained Josh Putnam, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Davidson University and the author of the “Frontloading HQ” election blog.

“The actual [delegate] allocation will take place … at the state convention,” in May or June, Putnam said. “By that point we’ll know who the nominee is anyway.”

The knock-down, drag-out fights to place first in Iowa and New Hampshire, then, have nothing to do with the small number of delegates that the two states will send to the August national convention in Tampa.

“It’s the perception that matters coming out of both Iowa and New Hampshire … the win is what counts, or a candidate’s performance relative to expectations.”

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