You may have heard that a caucus is happening on Monday night in Iowa. But what the actual f*ck is a caucus?
Aside from being a hilarious word prime for euphemisms and Tinder opening lines, a caucus is, in its simplest terms, a vote.
The Iowa caucus is considered a BFD because it’s the first time any state in the nation votes for its presidential nominee. Over the next few months, each state will host its own vote.
The rules change depending on state, but basically if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you go to vote for your choice of candidate to go into the general, national election for president.
People get hyped about the Iowa caucus because as the first vote in the nation, it’s the first time we can get an idea of how the election might go. Not to mention, in a year like this when every other Republican is running for the nomination, it might help to tighten up the field.
In most states, the primary vote happens like the regular vote -- you just hop into a voting booth and push a button on the ballot. But in 13 states, instead of having a primary vote, you have a caucus.
There’s a special terminology to it -- you say things like “I’m going to caucus for Barack Obama,” meaning you’re going to the caucus to put in a vote for Obama.
Caucuses are pretty weird things if, like me, you’re used to the voting booth. People can make speeches to encourage voting on one side or another, and they can go on for hours.
In Iowa, votes on the Republican side are secret, but on the Democrat side it can get a little heated with public displays of votes.
Yeah, that’s right, you have to publicly indicate who you’re voting for.
Picture this: You’re in your old middle school gym and you have to literally go stand in a certain corner if you want to vote for, say, Martin O’Malley. Meanwhile your uncle’s standing over in Bernie Sanders’ corner like, “Really?” and your aunt’s over in the Hillary Clinton corner like, “Come on.”
But it gets crazier because the Iowa caucus rules are hilariously complex. So you’re voting in a “precinct” to win “delegates.” The delegate is the person who will go on to cast an actual vote for the candidate on behalf of the state. The number of delegates your precinct gets depends on how many people showed up at the last two caucuses -- so it doesn’t really matter how many people show up that night.
On Monday, precincts are voting for delegates, who will then go on to pick delegates at the county conventions, who will then go on to pick delegates to the district conventions and then the state convention. But you can ignore all this information because, generally, whoever wins the most delegates in the precinct votes is who wins the state.
OK, that was complicated. Let’s get back to the fun stuff in the Democratic caucus. So you’re in your middle school gym, standing in your corner for O’Malley, and they start counting up how many people are standing in each corner.
Let’s say it turns out fewer than 15 percent of the people in the room are standing with you in O’Malley’s corner. According to the rules, that means you can’t cast a vote for O’Malley -- there aren't enough people there.
So now you have two choices: You can go home, or you can join another corner. This is when your uncle in the Bernie corner and your aunt in the Hillary corner start shouting at you to get your ass over to join them.
Really, this is what happens, I’m not making it up:
There’s a lot more strategy that goes into it, especially at this reorganizing stage. It’s kind of like in college when you get to housing selection with your group of seven friends only to find all the seven-person suites are taken and now you have to reorganize to find the best rooms for your squad.
There’s a ton of criticism directed at the Iowa caucus, the least of which is for how ridiculously confusing it is when you try to figure it out.
The caucus happens on a weekday night (starting at 7 pm) and can last for hours. For someone who’s not super pumped about a candidate, it could be hard to find the motivation to come out at all.
It’s also super inconvenient. What about older people who have short stamina or younger people who have evening work shifts? Not to mention, what do you do if you have kids? One man I spoke to in Des Moines said he’s not planning to caucus because his wife is more passionate than he is, and someone has to stay home to watch their baby.
Then there are the unexpected factors that show up. This year, Iowa’s on watch for a snowstorm that could start Monday night or early Tuesday. If it hits Monday night, people may not show up to avoid dangerous streets, altering the votes.
At the end of the day, how much does the Iowa caucus really matter? It’s just one state, after all, and it’s really not representative of the country -- it’s more conservative and largely white.
And the people Iowa picks often do not go on to be the parties’ nominees. A man I spoke with in Des Moines said it’s frustrating because he knows they’re going to pick someone who won’t go on to win, and then the media is going to turn around and call Iowans dumb.
There are frequent calls to change up the caucus system because it’s so bizarre, but for now it’s what we’ve got. With Iowa kicking things off, primary votes are going to be happening all around the country over the next few months. Find out when the vote is coming to your state and go vote. Otherwise, remember, you’re not allowed to complain about who becomes the nominee.
But if you go to caucus in Iowa, you can complain as much as you damn well please because this whole process is pretty endearing but also really f*cking odd.