The Republican presidential primary field is barnstorming Iowa with just weeks to go ahead of the state’s presidential caucuses.
With former President Trump leading the polls in Iowa and beyond, the state could play an early role in determining the 2024 Republican nominee.
However, the caucus process itself is largely foreign to voters outside of Iowa and other caucus states and even varies from state party to state party.
Here is everything you need to know about the Iowa Republican Party caucus process.
What is a caucus?
Mariam Webster defines a caucus as “a closed meeting of a group of persons belonging to the same political party or faction usually to select candidates or to decide on policy.”
Most Americans are likely more familiar with a primary, which resembles most elections where voters have the option of casting their ballots early, voting at a polling center early in person, or showing up on election day to vote in person. Caucusing is arguably less convenient.
In a caucus, attendees must attend a caucus location, such as a church, school, or community center in person to participate. Additionally, caucusgoers are required to arrive on time and stay until the caucus is over.
“It is a bigger commitment to caucus than to vote in a primary. You have to show up at a specific place at a specific time and spend a couple of hours there,” said Ann Selzer, a veteran Iowa pollster. “It’s not so easy that you drive by your regular voting place, stop by, cast your ballot and walk out.”
To take part in Iowa’s Republican or Democratic caucuses, a participant must be a registered member of the party’s caucus that they are attending. It is possible to switch party registration on the day of or before the caucus. There’s also some leeway when it comes to the age of participants. To participate, someone must be 18 years old by Nov. 5, 2024, which is Election Day, meaning 17-year-olds who will be 18 years old by Nov. 5 can take part in the caucuses.
The 2024 Iowa Republican Caucuses will take place on Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.
What happens in the room at a caucus?
There is less privacy in a caucus compared with a primary. In a primary, voters normally cast their ballot in a voting booth or at a table where it is difficult for others to see what someone is writing on the ballot. A caucus on the other hand is more of a public affair.
“There’s politicking in the room as people are getting organized, a chance to talk to your neighbors and try to convince them one-on-one about supporting the candidate that you like if they don’t already,” Selzer said.
At a Republican caucus precinct in Iowa, the meeting will be called to order and participants will be invited to speak in support of the candidate they are supporting. Once the speeches are wrapped up, participants will fill out a secret ballot. The ballots will be counted and announced before the precincts of a county are collected by local party leadership and given directly to the Iowa Republican Party, and the state results will be tabulated.
“That’s usually the part that media folks care the most about, and that’s why it gets taken care of very quickly,” Hagel said. “For the Republican side, a lot of people are done in like an hour, so it’s not taking up your whole evening.”
And even though the Republican caucus in Iowa is conducted through a secret ballot, the process leading up to the ballot itself is public.
“People are going to ask you who you’re going to vote for, and even though the Republicans do have a secret ballot, you’re going to feel some pressure to let people know so that they can try to persuade you,” Selzer said.
“If that isn’t your cup of tea, you could easily say, ‘I prefer not to talk.’ You can make yourself a little sign saying, ‘Don’t talk to me,’” she said. “There’s lots of ways to handle that.”
Much of what happens on caucus night can also hinge on a campaign’s strategy. Selzer pointed out that this was a prime factor for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) in his 2016 Iowa caucus victory.
“It’s expected once you get in the room and things do change in the room, which in my observation, my opinion is how Ted Cruz won the caucuses in 2016, because he was very well organized and his people knew what to do in the room on caucus night,” Selzer said.
What’s the difference between the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Iowa?
The primary difference between the Republican and Democratic caucuses in Iowa this cycle is the date. The Democratic National Committee changed its primary calendar to allow more racially diverse states such as South Carolina and Nevada to go first in the party’s primary.
In October, Iowa’s Democratic Party announced that it would still be holding an in-person caucus on Jan. 15, but that event would be reserved for specific party business. There will not be an in-person option for the presidential preference contest. The window for registering for the state party’s mail-in caucus opened on Nov. 1 and will run until Feb. 19. The results will be announced on March 5, which is Super Tuesday.
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