The Iowa Caucuses: How it works, the results, and the controversies

Joanna Harlow
Online Editor

Photo by DonketHotey via

The Iowa Caucuses, the results of which were confirmed Tuesday afternoon, marked one of the first major political battles for presidential candidates. But do voters from states which do not use the caucus system fully understand it?


According to, one of the first uses of the term can be found in John Adam’s diary to describe a “small political gathering”, but the etymology of the word comes from the Algonquin people. The process can be described in layman’s terms as “a gathering of neighbors”. Most states, including Pennsylvania, use the primary system instead of the caucus system. Only 13 states and two US territories still use the caucus system. The rules of the caucus system vary by state and party, but can be reduced to a gathering of voters who are of the same party in a predetermined location to cast ballots.

Republican Iowans cast a ballot which remains secret to the other voters, but the Democratic caucuses have different, more complex rules. Once the Democrats are gathered, they form groups based on their preferred candidate and the group members are counted. If a group has less than 15 percent of the caucus, they are considered “unviable”. Voters from other groups are then free to convince those from the “unviable” group to join theirs. In the end, the voters in the groups that are “viable” are counted.


An caucus gathers Monday night. Photo by Stephan Cummings via

These numbers give candidates an idea what kind of support they can win from that state. Delegates are then chosen to represent candidates at their respective party conventions. The goal is to narrow down the candidates. The Iowa Caucus is important because it is the first chance for voters to cast a ballot in the country, and no candidate who finished lower than third place has ever gone on to win the presidency.


Ted Cruz won the Republican caucuses with  27.6 percent of statewide delegate equivalents and 8 delegates followed by Donald Trump with 24.3 percent and seven delegates and Marco Rubio with 23.1 percent and seven delegates. Republican Ben Carson came in fourth with  9.3 percent and three delegates followed by Rand Paul with 4.5 percent and one delegate and Jeb Bush 2.8 percent and one delegate.

Hillary Clinton had a narrow victory at the Democratic caucuses with 49.9 percent of statewide delegate equivalents and 23 delegates, Sanders 49.6 percent  and 21 delegates. O’Malley 0.6 percent and no delegates.

Clinton’s slim victory over Sanders has been a topic of some debate among Democrats across the nation. A popular source of this debate was the coin toss tiebreaker method which was employed by six different groups of voters Monday night. Clinton improbably won each coin toss.


Photo by Marc Nozell via

But NPR contributor Domenico Montanero disputes that “Coingate” is not as simple as some are painting it to be. Coin tosses are part of the system of other state caucuses and are used to divvy up odd delegates. Monday night was only step one in Iowa’s process of picking delegates. With over 1,683 caucuses happening Monday night, 11,065 delegates were selected. Those delegates will be whittled down to just 1,406 by the district and state conventions. The breakdown of the larger group of delegates ( some of whom were elected via coin toss) has not been reported yet. Instead, the estimates of how many of those 11,065 delegates will attend the state conventions is reported as the percentages mentioned above.


According to an article in the Des Moines Register,  “county-level delegates are so numerous that assigning a small number of them via coin toss “had an extremely small effect on the overall outcome.” The article goes on to say that “the delegates that were decided by coin flips were delegates to the party’s county conventions, of which, there are thousands selected across the state from 1,681 separate precincts. They were not the statewide delegate equivalents that are reported in the final results.”

The outcome of Monday night marked the closest Democratic result in 40 years of the Iowa Caucuses.


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