Any good roleplaying game needs rules. The Iowa caucus is no different.
Ahh, Iowa, land of corn, soybeans and holder of the nation’s first electoral event. On February 1, Iowa kicks off the unofficial start of the 2016 general election. From this day forward Americans will be subjected to virtually wall-to-wall political coverage, election tickers, and wildly premature presidential predictions. But before any of this happens, the residents of Iowa will gather at schools, libraries and churches to play what is arguably the worst RPG of all time. Welcome to the Iowa Caucuses, I am your caucus master.
The Iowa Caucus roleplaying game is about pancake flipping and hand shaking. It shares elements with childhood games of make-believe. Like those games, the Iowa caucus process is driven by manufactured political importance and intrigue. It’s about picturing teaming hordes of undecided American voters under a clear blue sky and imagining how a candidate, thirty-points behind in the polls, might react to the challenges that scene presents.
Unlike a game of make-believe, the Iowa caucus gives structure to the presidential election, a way of determining the consequences of a candidate’s action. A candidate’s stump speech resolves whether their attacks hit or miss, or whether their opponents can obtain a poll-advantage in the weeks leading up to the caucus. Anything is possible, but the Iowa caucus rules make some outcomes more likely than others.
There are definitely winners and losers in the Iowa Caucus game — but not in the way those terms are generally understood. Together, the media and the candidates craft an exciting story of bold leaders who promise to confront this country’s mounting perils. Sometimes a candidate might come to a premature end, torn apart by their own ill-received enthusiasm, or done in by poor campaign management. Even so, fallen candidates might search for a powerful media narrative to revive their campaigns and carry on. Some candidates will fail to complete this first test of general election politics, but they will all pretend they had a good time and created a memorable story for the media; they all win.
An Incredibly Small World (of Very Little Adventure)
The world of the Iowa caucus exists within an incredibly small cosmos called retail politics, in which candidates connect to voters in strange and mysterious ways, such as the Iowa State Fair, town hall meetings, direct mail and unyielding campaign calls. For the candidates themselves, the weeks leading up to Iowa are a blur of endless meet and greets and staged photo-ops. Amid all the richness of retail politics candidates create a world of their own.
All campaigns share characteristics, but each candidate is set apart by their party affiliation, promised reforms, fund raising capabilities, field organization, debate performance and scheming villains. Some candidates have unusual traits in different states. In Iowa, a candidate may spend an inordinate amount of time discussing farm subsidies. Each campaign tries to tell one great story. Whether it’s the anti-establishment candidate or the inevitable one, campaigns play by largely the same rules.
Using These Rules
Chapter 1: What is a Caucus?
Many Americans are unfamiliar with the caucus system because most states use primary elections. A primary is a statewide election where residents cast secret ballots for the candidate of their choosing. Like other elections, primaries are organized and funded by the state government whereas caucuses are held by each party. Each party is able to adopt their own set of rules for how each caucus operates and the intended goals behind it.
The goal of the Iowa caucus is not to elect a presidential candidate. The real goal of the Iowa caucuses, since 1972 for the Democrats and more recently for Republicans, is to nominate precinct delegates to the county convention. These county delegates then embark on an adventure to the district convention, followed by the state convention and then, if all ability checks and advantages are applied, they may make it to the national nominating convention.
The national Republican party announced changes to its delegate and primary process after an embarrassing 2012 kerfuffle. Prior to this year, delegates were unbound, meaning they were not required to mirror the results of the Iowa caucus at the nominating convention. Unbound delegates then, may end up supporting a candidate other than the winner of the caucus or presumed nominee.
In 2012, Rick Santorum was the declared the winner of the Iowa caucuses. As the primary contests continued it became clear that Mitt Romney was the presumptive nominee. As part of the carefully orchestrated opera that is a nominating convention, delegates, even bound ones, are usually released in favor of corralling support behind the presumptive nominee. This gives everyone the impression that the party is united behind a single candidate.
In 2012, however, 79 percent of Iowa’s delegates cast their support for Ron Paul, despite Paul’s third place finish. While this didn’t result in a brokered convention — which is the kind of wet dream scenario Wolf Blitzer can only dream of — it did show discord within the party. The kind of discord the Republicans are not looking to repeat in 2016. This year, all 30 of Iowa’s delegates will be bound.
How to Play
The play of a caucus game unfolds according to the same basic pattern.
The state determines date and eligibility requirements of the caucus. For Iowans there is particular pride in being first-in-the-nation. It’s a combination of bragging rights and those sweet, sweet campaign dollars that flood in.
For a brief moment in time, Iowa becomes host to hundreds of temporary residents and the center of our collective national attention. The media, the candidates and campaign staff inject some serious dollars into the Iowa state economy. According to the Des Moines Register, the Carson campaign spent $2,184 on 3,500 ears of corn for attendees of a campaign event this past summer. That’s a pittance compared to how much money the campaigns will spend in total.
That money is part of why there’s a special carve out in Iowa state election laws which says it shall be the first state in the nation to hold a non-primary event. New Hampshire has a similar law. It’s a long-standing rivalry of sorts between the two states that plays out in semantics. New Hampshire gets to say it’s first-in-the-nation because it hosts the first primary, not a caucus like Iowa’s. See, now everyone’s happy.
Along with the date of the caucus, Iowa also determines who is eligible to participate. This is where Iowa departs from some electoral norms. Those who attend a caucus may be surprised to find high schoolers present. That’s because Iowans who are 17 1/2 years old may participate in a caucus as long as they will be 18 on or before Election Day.
Iowa is a closed primary state. This means to participate in a caucus a voter must be registered as either a Democrat or Republican. Non-party affiliated voters may not participate in a caucus unless they re-register as either a Democrat or Republican. Eligible would-be caucus attendees may register to vote at the door or change their party affiliation. That poses a problem for civic participation, because the plurality of Iowa voters identify as independents. (Note: 36.3 percent of active registered voters identified as independents, 31.0 percent of active registered voters identified as Republicans and 32.5 percent of active registered voters identified as Democrats.)
According to the Iowa Caucus Project predictions, roughly 20 percent of eligible caucus-goers actually participate on caucus night. This low voter turnout is on-par with national primary voter turnout rates which rests near 15.9 percent of eligible voters.
It’s not exactly the most friendly electoral system out there. It’s not easy to convince a lifelong independent to register under the name of Democrat or Republican. It’s even more difficult to get that individual to actually show up on caucus night. That’s where some good old-fashioned politicking comes in.
The candidates describe what they want to do. Sometimes one candidate speaks for the whole party, saying, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” Other times, different candidates do different things: one candidate might seek to raise funds for their war chest while a second examines the esoteric writing on the wall and a third keeps watch for their moment to shine. The candidates take turns trying to woo voters, who listen to the candidates stump speeches and decide how to vote in the caucus.
Sometimes convincing a voter is easy. If a candidate wants to walk across a room and say “Please Vote for Me” the voter might just say “Alright” and describe how they plan on assisting the candidate in their quest. But the voter may also be undecided, the candidate may underperform in a debate or some circumstance might make it difficult for a candidate to complete their task. In those cases, a campaign relies on field organization and the tireless work of underpaid staff and unpaid interns to determine the results of the caucus.
The media often refers to a campaign’s field presence by discussing how many ‘boots on the ground’ a candidate has. It’s a term outlets like FOX News and CNN will utter at least 2,000 more times in the lead-up to February 1. This refers to how many field staff, interns and volunteers are out there pounding the pavement and dialing those phones.
These more traditional elements of electoral politics lay the framework for a successful Get Out The Vote campaign (GOTV). This is all dependent on accurate data, targeted outreach and an agile field staff who can adjust to changing political or campaign spending winds at a moment’s notice. Without this, candidates may find themselves at risk of a Howard Dean-esque implosion.
A voter might be interested in a number of candidates but the campaign who reaches out to that voter, who has the most one-on-one contact with that voter, is likely the campaign who will win that voter over on caucus night. So for a campaign to a have a gravy boat’s chance in the Forgotten Realms, they better have a field presence.
The media narrates the results. In the run-up to a caucus, polling from a seemingly endless supply of sources is released. There’s Gallup, CNN/ORC, Gravis, CBS News/YouGov, Des Moines Register and so on. The media enjoys making speculative statements based on this polling, which they then ask the candidates to comment on and thus another 24-hour news cycle is filled again.
Iowans are historically late deciders and in the crowded Republican ticket it is taking voters more time than usual to make up their mind. In recent weeks, however, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have been fighting over the ever-precious resource of undecided voters.
Cruz, reports the New York Times, is now capitalizing on the palpable disdain for anything evocative of the Washington Establishment. In the past few days, people have begun to refer to Cruz as the front runner, a moniker very few candidates wish to have ahead of caucus night.
Chapter 2: Caucusing
A visit to one of the great precinct caucuses in the worlds of Iowa — Polk County, Johnson County, Story County — overwhelms the senses. Voices chatter in winter weather about candidates. The smell of victory mingles with the odors of crowded libraries and community centers.
And the people themselves — people of varying sizes, shapes and color dressed in a dazzling spectrum of puffer vests, Wrangler jeans and sneakers — represent many different voter constituencies, from Christian values voters and stout college students, to majestically beautiful undecideds, mingling among a variety of the party loyal.
Caucus locations are determined by the Iowa Secretary of State. There are 1,681 precinct locations for 99 counties. Republicans and Democrats establish different goals and rules for the caucus process. Attending a caucus not only influences the outcome of party platform priorities, but also provides presidential hopefuls with the foundation for unlocking their parties nomination.
Time & Eligibility
Each caucus attendee must be in line for their precinct caucus by 7:00 pm on February 1, 2016
Must be registered to vote as a Republican or re-register as a Republican
Order of Events
Participate in obligatory Pledge of Allegiance
Caucus is called to order by temporary chair and secretary, followed by the election of a permanent chair and secretary
Campaign representatives may make short speeches on behalf of their candidate
The caucus conducts a Presidential preference poll via secret ballot, votes are then counted and reported
Delegates, alternate delegates and junior delegates are elected to the county convention
The Platform planks are discussed, submitted and voted on for further consideration at the county convention
There are 30 delegates up for grabs in the Republican Iowa caucuses. Delegates are awarded proportionally based on the statewide vote. Here’s the Republican delegate breakdown:
15 At-Large: Statewide delegates selected at large
12 Congressional District: Residents selected by the congressional district they represent
3 Republican National Committee Members: Automatic convention delegates
If you haven’t caught on by now, caucusing is a community endeavor. You are out there with your neighbors with all your bits and bobs hanging out for everyone to see, metaphorically speaking that is. The process can take hours, making it particularly difficult for those of voting age who have other responsibilities to participate.
Time & Eligibility
Arrive at their designated caucus location, must be in line by 7:00pm
Must be registered Democrat or re-register as Democrats at the door
Democrats also have tele-caucus and satellite caucus sites for 2016
Order of Events
The caucus is called to order by the temporary chair, followed by the election of a permanent chair and secretary
Candidate nomination papers are made available and everyone is encouraged to talk and communicate with their neighbors
And the rest requires a slightly longer explanation…
Viability Score Increase
Most Iowa precincts have between two and four delegates. Unlike the Presidential preference poll the Republican caucus uses, the Democratic party uses Presidential preference groups — which sounds more dignified than it is.
Breaking into a preference group is as simple as going to stand with the people who support the candidate of the attendees choosing. At this point, caucus-goers may still declare themselves as uncommitted. Now everyone is counted and group viability is determined.
In order for a group to reach viability, the group must meet the threshold determined at the beginning of the caucus. The Democratic party of Iowa uses the following formulas to determine viability:
If caucus elects 1 delegate: No preference group is formed and delegate is elected by simple majority
If caucus elects 2 delegates: Total eligible caucus attendees x .25 = viability
If caucus elects 3 delegates: Total eligible caucus attendees divided by 6 = viability
If caucus elects 4 or more delegates: Total eligible caucus attendees x 0.15 = viability
If a group is determined to be non-viable, all hell breaks loose.
Though it’s unlikely to happen in the small Democratic presidential field, if a group is determined to be non-viable, that group has a few choices. They may realign with a viable group, disband and form a new group made up of non-viable group members or use good old fashioned charisma and peer pressure to pull members from other groups.
This is the noisy bit of democracy in action. It’s loud, it’s intimidating and it’s not for the introverted. Though I’m speaking mostly from personal experience with caucus simulations. Who you vote for is out in public for everyone to see and you’re expected to defend your caucus group with your life. Okay, not really.
Once realignment occurs and all groups are viable, delegates may be awarded. Delegates are awarded proportionally based on the size of the Presidential preference group. The caucus chair may have to round the number of delegates a preference group is awarded either up or down depending on the total number of delegates available for that precinct.
(If you’re feeling adventurous you can read the 51-page delegate selection guide here.)
Each preference group elects a chair followed by the nomination and election of delegates and alternates. To become a delegate, those long-time party players, who have above an 11 charisma score, find themselves with better chances at being selected for this prodigious title.
There are 54 delegates up for grabs in the Iowa democratic causes. Here’s the Democrat delegate breakdown:
30 District Level: Residents selected by the congressional district they represent
8 Unpledged Party Leader and Elected Official: Former or current party office holders and officials, not bound by the results of the caucus — these people are often referred to as superdelegates and both parties have these kind of delegates
6 Pledged Party Leader and Elected Official (PLEO): Bound delegates are awarded based on the results of the caucuses
10 At Large: Statewide delegates selected at large
Finally, and presumably before someone falls asleep, the elected caucus chair reports the outcome. The Republican party submits vote totals, whereas the Democrats report the weighted vote to the Iowa state Democratic party agent who then verifies the outcome and reports the numbers to the Democratic National Committee.
This year, both Republicans and Democrats will be submitting the results of the caucuses electronically using an app Microsoft has created. To allow for the differences in how Republicans and Democrats caucus, Microsoft has created a separate app for each party. The app replaces the previous method used of calling in precinct totals using a telephone.
Chapter 3: Winning
Magic permeates the world of the Iowa caucuses. The candidates and their respective campaigns have cast their spells over the weary Iowa voters who have endured months of tireless campaign outreach and now, the only thing to do is sit back and await the outcome of the dice roll
In these early stages of the 2016 election, being the underdog is a better position than being the front runner. This entire quest is about momentum and expectation management. There is about a week between the Iowa and New Hampshire contests and the bump a candidate can receive from beating out expectations is sometimes better than any early delegate advantage (see Rick Santorum’s 2012 campaign). This bump is why candidates like Jeb Bush will remain in Iowa despite having no reasonable chance of winning. For candidates like Jeb, it’s an opportunity to craft a new media narrative for a fledgling campaign.
For presidential hopeful Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, winning in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps represents his best chance at reducing the Clinton inevitability factor. Iowa and New Hampshire are friendly shores, filled with like-minded trusted allies.
If the Sanders campaign can turn out a large number of first-time caucus goers and non-party affiliated voters, then he has a good chance at the upset. But as described in the previous section, the way delegates are awarded in each precinct may make it difficult for either Clinton or Sanders to come away with a major victory.
Winning a few early battles does not win the war. Doing well in early states is no indication of securing the party nomination.
Super Tuesday falls on March 1, 2016. It’s where candidates can rack up huge experience points and increase their delegate count. Competing in Super Tuesday involves an incredibly robust and costly campaign machine, which may invariably preclude some candidates. Some Super Tuesday states favor candidates with certain character attributes, backgrounds and personality traits. This can have a negative impact on other candidates advancement beyond these initial early levels.
Every presidential hopeful is fighting a battle. A battle against expectations, foes and villains, dark money, financing and procuring the most able staff to help in their quest.
What Comes Next?
Having delved into the depths of caucus creation and voting, it’s time to consider the next steps. With relatively low populations and a mostly homogenous demographic make-up, should the lands of Iowa and New Hampshire have such a disproportionate influence on the political system? Ay, it is not for the caucus master to decide.
Surely, the rules could be simplified. Encouraging more participation by eligible caucus-goers could go a long way towards improving the view that Iowa unfairly influences electoral outcomes.
Still, states like Iowa and New Hampshire, both parties agree, help ensure that candidates are out there pounding the pavement, talking to voters, and not just relying on large ad-buys to unduly influence voters. By having smaller states vote early in the election cycle, the American public can learn about each candidate. It also provides the candidates, albeit very little, breathing room to make adjustments to their campaigns.
Every few years new rules and players enter the game. New campaigns and scenarios challenge the American electorate to get involved, participate, to pay attention. The Iowa caucuses is simply the place the saga begins.
Andrea Ayres lives in Palo Alto where she writes HUD, a monthly column on the intersection of politics and games, for Unwinnable. She likes cats, coffee and sweating to the oldies. Follow her on Twitter @missafayres