Five Things to Know About the Iowa Caucuses — Before It’s Too Late

To voters outside of a caucus state, the concept of the Iowa caucus and why it holds an outsized say in picking the next president is at the least a curiosity if not a full blown mystery.

This focus of this year’s caucus is on the Democrats and a very interesting race between outsiders and insiders, socialists and moderates, men and women and those from the coasts versus those from fly-over land.

As for me, I’m from Iowa and I have either managed or worked as staff on six presidential campaigns — all Republicans. Those races included Senator Bob Dole in the early days, Steve Forbes during the 2000 campaign and most recently, Senator Rand Paul.

While Republicans and Democrats have a process that is a bit different, the general concept of the process is largely the same — and it’s good for democracy.

So, if you are a newbie to the Iowa caucuses, here are five things to know about the mysterious process that has a big impact on who our next President will be.

  1. NO VOTING BOOTHS. In a caucus, there are no voting booths, no absentee ballots, no vote by mail and no machine tally’s. Instead, voters gather in homes, churches, fire houses and schools across the state to debate — in fairly small groups — the issues of the day and cast a vote for a candidate. Think back to the early days of democracy when people gathered in town square’s or small groups to hear soapbox speakers and discuss issues among themselves, yeah, it’s kind of like that. It’s democracy in it’s purest sense. Unemployed welders sit in the same room as a banker and hammer out a platform that the party — theoretically — will follow. At some point during the night — usually right at the beginning — the caucus will begin the process of choosing a candidate. But, it doesn’t happen in a voting booth.
  2. HUMBLING FOR CANDIDATES. The Iowa Caucus process is good for American democracy. Because Iowa is a state with a small population — roughly 3 million people — it’s an inexpensive state to campaign. The cost for television, radio and cable are dramatically lower than if the first election was held in the Northeast or in California. Even more, a candidate with dedication can reach most of the state and speak in front of groups of key voters. In all, turnout for caucuses usually runs between 100,000 and 200,000 voters, the size of a couple precincts in New York. Iowa serves a unique role in forcing candidates to step out from behind senate offices, governor’s offices or even the Oval Office and answer questions that come directly from farmers, teachers, machinists and small business people. Posing with livestock is not unusual and summer picnics surrounded by average people is almost a retirement.
  3. BARACK OBAMA’S SECRET WEAPON. In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s nomination in the Democratic Party was almost a given. The powerful Clinton machine with all the money necessary, combined with a smart, articulate candidate made the other candidates in the race almost an after though — at first. But a first term US Senator from Illinois had other ideas. It’s hard to remember when Barack Obama was not the rock star international leader that he is now viewed, but when he started his campaign, he was well-respected, but certainly not expected to upend Hillary Clinton. Barack Obama and the voters in Iowa had other ideas. Today, we know that Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in Iowa. Clinton went on to win New Hampshire with South Carolina giving Obama a very slight victory in the third contest. It was this combination of victories in the first three races that set the state for the future President Obama. However, If Clinton had won Iowa, then won New Hampshire, she almost certainly would have won the nomination. It was Iowa — 95% white — that put a stake in the ground for the United States’ first African-American president.
  4. IOWA IS A STATE OF SWINGERS. Despite being in the Midwest, Iowa is full of independent-minded voters beholden to no party. It would be hard to find a state more purple than Iowa. Obama won the state in both 2008 and 2012 while Trump won in 2016. Bush and Bill Clinton both won the state before that. While these general election results have little to do with the caucus process, it’s important to note that voters can choose which caucus they go to and that means, one can register to change party affiliation the night of the caucus. Recently a voter explained that she was probably voting for Bernie, despite the fact that she supported Trump last time — but she might go back to Trump. While that might initially seem schizophrenic in nature, for those far away from Washington, outside disruption is sometimes the most important characteristic in a candidate.
  5. FREEZING YOUR ASS OFF IS PART OF THE PROCESS. Ask any reporter what they think about the Iowa caucus process and they will generally tell you that Iowans are a friendly lot, while Iowa weather is nothing less than a brutal experience. Summer is hot and humid, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees in July and August. And January, well, in 2019, the temperature — without windchill — was an arctic 31 degrees BELOW zero (that’s Farenheit for my international readers, but ironically, 31 below is roughly the same for Farenheit and Celsius). Because the local caucus is held in the evening — usually at 7 PM — it’s cold. Really cold. And windy. It almost always cuts deep. Before voting, most voters have finished a nice, home-cooked meal and have sunk down into their recliner trying to figure out the Wheel of Fortune puzzle when they realize it’s 6 PM and it’s time to head out to debate and vote for 2–3 hours. This is the point when a commitment to democracy and our country and core beliefs must overcome the temptation to settle back in and let someone else take up the flag and carry it down the battlefield.

Every four years there are rumblings from the disgruntled that the process needs to be changed. Some suggest several large regional primaries, others suggest rotating which state goes first. On their face, these sound reasonable and fair, but with some closer inspection, I hope readers will realize the value of starting in Iowa and the value of the Iowa voter. In a democracy such as ours, it’s important to have an initial contest that is potentially competitive for all candidates, despite the initial bankroll they may begin with.

It was Jimmy Carter who put Iowa on the map in 1976, followed by George HW Bush in 1980. I once went back to the newspapers the week before the 1976 Democrat caucus to read about the rise of Carter. I was shocked. This former peanut farmer and Georgia governor, was absent from the news coverage. Bigger names had squeezed him out from most coverage. Humphrey and Muskie and Udall were the names I read the most. But on caucus night, it wasn’t the luminaries that won the night. It was the outsider who had traveled the state and developed deep relationships with average voters. That win in Iowa — more than anything else — created the path for Jimmy Carter to become president. That’s the potential for our small caucus state — giving candidates a chance no matter who may want to pre-ordain a winner in the blogs or talkshow ramblings.

So, before the caucus naysayers gain too much influence, let’s keep in mind the value of the Iowa Caucuses and take this spirit of hearty, independent voting to all corners of our American democracy.

Steve Grubbs is a fomer Iowa state legislator and GOP Chairman. He considers himself a recovering politician and now spends his days working to solve the great problems of the world through entrepreneurship. You can reach Steve at