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Indivisible Guide to the Iowa Caucus

We have a small window to impact the primary. With voting officially starting, we have a closing opportunity to affect who wins the nomination. The Indivisible Scorecard is a great tool to see how the candidates stack up on Indivisible priorities and values. After assessing candidates on their policy platforms, their focus on building grassroots power and their day-one democracy reform agenda - Elizabeth Warren came out on top with Bernie Sanders in second. The Iowa caucus is coming up soon, so we have just a few weeks to make sure we have a nominee who will advance Indivisibles’ key priorities.    

Caucusing is fun. Caucusing is easy. Caucusing makes a big impact. On February 3rd, Iowa kicks off the presidential primary. While the primary has been in high gear for over a year now, Iowans will be the first to caucus and share their pick for the Democratic and Republican nominees with the rest of the country. 

Caucus night influences the rest of the primary. While Iowa may not have the largest number of delegates, it has a tremendous impact on the direction of the primary. Since 1972 the Iowa caucus has been the first primary and every Democratic caucus winner since 2000 has gone on to be the party’s nominee. 

Going to a caucus is like going to a neighborhood party, but better. The night of the caucus you come together with your precinct and get to make an impact on who our next president will be. There will be volunteers with the party and for the campaigns who will make sure everyone is clear on the process and results. 

It’s easy to get prepared to caucus. This guide will include all the key information you need to find your caucus location, understand how the caucus works and how to get involved in the lead up to the caucus. 

Iowa Caucus Overview 

The Iowa caucus became the first primary in 1972 as part of a DNC initiative to make the primary more inclusive. Then in 1976, Jimmy Carter hit the road to focus his campaign on Iowa like no one had before. Through his campaigns’ localized, relational organizing in the state, he invented the Iowa strategy that is now commonplace for candidates. While “uncommitted” came in first place (yep, uncommitted can win the caucus!), he did come in second place and successfully paved the way to the nomination and presidency. 

The events that happen on February 3rd are the Iowa Precinct Caucuses and are actually just the first step in state delegate selection. Each voting precinct has a specific number of delegates and the delegates are split up based on how many supporters show up for each candidate the night of the caucus. The caucus attendees decide who the delegates will be for their preferred candidates and then those delegates go on to the county convention. 

The process then continues on with delegates being awarded and selected at the county convention who go onto the district convention and at the district convention the delegates are determined for the state convention. The delegate breakdown for each candidate for the state is finalized at that State Democratic Convention. However, based on the number of delegates awarded at the precinct caucus, the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP) can project the delegate numbers for the state convention and that’s why there can be a winner announced the night of the precinct caucus. 

Before the Caucus 

Depending on how involved you want to get with the campaigns, preparing for the caucus can take just a few minutes or can be a large commitment. Here are the main things you need to do to make sure you’re ready on caucus night.  

Learn About the Candidates 

Like any election, the most important way to prepare before casting your vote is to research the candidates and see how they compare on the issues you care about. In Iowa, this is pretty easy since most candidates are in the state practically daily by the time the caucus is getting close. 

We also wanted to make sure Indivisibles could see how the candidates stack up on the priorities and issues the Indivisible network cares about. In collaboration with Indivisible leaders and partners, we developed a comprehensive candidate questionnaire and also invited candidates to do live candidate interviews. We wrote an extensive scorecard rubric to make sure the results were objective and transparent. Then in December, we released the results of the first ever Indivisible Scorecard. 

Check out the Scorecard to see how your favorite candidate stacks up -- and then make a plan to push them in the places they fell short. If you’re excited about the Scorecard, we recommend caucusing in Scorecard order on caucus night. Elizabeth Warren did the best on the Scorecard because she has both the progressive vision for our country and the day one democracy agenda to make that happen. Bernie Sanders came in second since he too has a strong policy platform, but we’d love to see him further prioritize democracy reform. Joe Biden scored the lowest - he declined to complete the questionnaire, but his public positions do not reflect a transformative progressive vision for the country. 

Get Involved with Your Favorite Campaign 

If you’ve already decided who you’re supporting, get involved with Get Out the Caucus efforts for your candidate. You can learn more about how to impact the primary here.   

Knocking on doors is one of the best ways you can make an impact. This is particularly important during the Iowa Caucus because if you’re knocking doors in your precinct, you’ll be talking to the folks that you’ll ultimately be caucusing with. Just think about how powerful that can be if you really make a connection with a voter and then see them at the caucus -- they’ll be that much more likely to support your candidate. Recruit your fellow Indivisibles and do this work together! 

If you have some extra time, consider being a volunteer leader. This can include training other folks to canvass or phone bank. Or in Iowa one thing local campaign organizers are looking for are volunteer leaders for caucus night. These are folks who make sure everything is running smoothly in their candidate’s group. 

There a ton of ways to be helpful in the lead up to the caucus. So if you’re not already connected, find your local field office (usually you can find these by going to the campaign website) and work out a plan with your local campaign organizer on the right fit for you. 

Learn About the Caucus/Figure Out Where You’re Caucusing 

Good news for this section! The night of the caucus there will be a Precinct Chair who runs the caucus location and walks the caucus goers through the whole process. So in theory you could show up at the caucus with no background on how it works and still caucus for your candidate. That said, we have some basic information below in the “During the Caucus” section, so if you want to know what to expect, that will give you the overview. 

It is important that you take a moment to look up your caucus location -- in many cases this is not the same as your regular polling location, so take care not to make assumptions since you need to be prompt for the caucus. You can find your caucus location here. Take note of your voting precinct as well since some large locations may have several precincts and it will make things easier when you arrive. 

To participate in the Democratic Caucus, you do need to be a registered Democrat. If you’re not already, you can change your registration in advance of the caucus or you also have the option to register or change your registration when you arrive at the caucus. Keep in mind, you can only participate in one caucus, either Democrat or Republican (they happen at the same time).

Make a plan to get to the caucus. Can you walk? Will you go together with a neighbor? Do you need to set an alarm for the time you need to leave? It’s important to be early for the caucus because if you’re just a few minutes late you may miss the opportunity to be counted and to caucus. 

This year the Iowa Democratic Party for the first time is introducing Satellite Caucus locations! For Iowans who can’t attend their precinct caucus, they’re offering 99 additional satellite locations. There’s more information about those locations on their website. 

During the Caucus 

It’s February 3rd -- caucus night is finally here! This is when things get really fun. The following runs through a brief overview of how the caucus works. A quick note: the Democratic Caucus and Republican Caucus work differently. This guide includes just an overview of the Democratic Caucus. 

Show Up On Time 

The first part of caucusing is showing up on time! You need to arrive at the caucus by 7 pm CST and if you arrive late, you may not be able to participate. Make sure to leave plenty of time for traffic and parking -- a lot of people will be caucusing that night, so you can expect your community to be more busy than a typical Monday night. 

Once you arrive, you check in or if you’re not registered as a Democrat, register to vote. If your location is hosting several precincts, find where your precinct is caucusing. 

When you get to the area, you can chat with friends or fellow supporters or just play a game on your phone until things get started. If the locations for each candidate are already clear, you can get together with your preference group. 

The Caucus Begins 

The Precinct Chair (volunteer with the party who is running the caucus) will announce that the caucus begins! They’ll give some directions and do some counting. 

They’ll start by determining what’s called the viability threshold. This is the percent of caucus goers a candidate needs to receive delegates. The percentage is based on the number of delegates the precinct is electing. In most cases it’s 15% (unless the precinct is electing less than four delegates...then it starts to go up). 

The Precinct Chair will also count how many caucus goers there are at the location and share how many caucus goers are needed for a candidate to be “viable.” They’ll share the location for each presidential preference group and caucus goers will go into those preference groups based on their first choice candidate (or they can caucus as “uncommitted” if they do not have a first choice). 

Preference groups will likely have a Precinct Captain or other volunteer Precinct Team members -- volunteers who are assigned by the campaign -- who will help corral the preference group. The preference group will also elect a “Chair” who may be that pre-selected Precinct Captain. 

Realignment 

Once everyone has divided up into preference groups, the Precinct Chair will count up the number of people in each preference group. The Chair will announce that it’s time for “realignment,” meaning that folks in those unviable preference groups can go into another preference group (to their second choice) during realignment.

An interesting new rule this year is that you can only realign if your candidate is not viable. Previously, caucus goers could realign even if their candidate was viable - which sometimes campaigns would use to take advantage of tricky caucus math. Another new rule is that there is only one round of realignment, while in the past the caucus goers could realign as many times as necessary. That said, it’s still important that you know who your second choice is in case your candidate is not viable. Check out our Scorecard as you’re considering your second choice. 

Delegate Selection and Party Business

Each candidate is then awarded a specific number of delegates proportional to the amount of delegates for the whole caucus location (if you’re curious about this math and the other caucus math mentioned in this guide, check out the IDPs full overview here). This sometimes gets a bit complicated if rounding leads to more or less delegates combined than the caucus has, but you don’t really need to worry about all those scenarios unless you’re the Precinct Chair or on the leadership team for a campaign -- in either case, you’d have sufficient training. 

The preference groups will then elect their delegates and alternate delegates who will go on to the county convention. In large caucus locations this may be competitive, while in smaller caucus locations it may be tough to fill the slots. Make sure if you’re volunteering that you’ll be able to attend the county convention. The entire caucus will then ratify the results and the delegates. 

After the presidential preference portion of the caucus is done, it’s time for the party stuff! Well, not a “party,” but business related to the Democratic party. This includes the opportunity for folks to discuss resolutions to be submitted to the county platform committee and the election of precinct level committee members. This portion of the caucus may be really quick or rather long depending on how many resolutions the attendees want to discuss. 

After the Caucus 

The fun is not done after the caucus -- both because as explained in the overview section there are still several steps before the state convention and because the primary is just getting started across the country. Here are some ideas of ways to stay involved after the caucus.

Be a Delegate 

As mentioned above, at the end of the presidential preference portion of the caucus, each preference group will elect delegates. This is a fun way to stay engaged with the primary process, but just make sure you’re really committed. If you’re elected as a delegate and don’t show up to the county convention, other candidates can steal that delegate spot! 

Keep Volunteering

In the lead up to the primary, supporters from all over the country flood to Iowa to help knock doors, make calls and get out the caucus. Now it’s time to return the favor! You can check out your favorite campaigns’ website to figure out how to make calls or send texts from home or to take a trip to another early primary or Super Tuesday state. Maybe event take a road trip with some of your fellow Indivisible group members? Could be a lot of fun! 

Keep Pushing the Candidates 

As the primary goes on, it’s also important to keep pushing the candidates on the issues we care about. Keep an eye on the Indivisible Scorecard to see how your favorite candidate is doing and hold them accountable in places where they can improve. 

Don’t forget, caucusing is easy and fun! Once you’ve committed to caucus, recruit your neighbors, friends and family. Feel free to share this guide with anyone who wants to learn more.