clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Iowa Caucuses 101

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, Friday, Dec. 9, 2011, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

THE BEGINNING: In 1972 Iowa Democrats moved their caucuses to January, making them the first in the nation and a bellwether for the election cycle. Iowa Republicans followed suit in 1976.

HOW THEY WORK: On caucus night, both Democratic and Republican parties gather to conduct precinct caucuses – which include a discussion of issues, the selection of delegates to represent the precinct at the county conventions, and of most interest to the rest of the nation, a decision on presidential candidate preference. Republicans and Democrats differ in how they conduct caucuses, according to the Des Moines Register. About 119,000 Republicans voted in Iowa’s 2008 Caucuses – a record number. About 239,000 Democrats voted in 2008 – also a record.

“That was the year of Republican disappointment and discouragement, and in a sense it’s reversed this year,” caucus expert and Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford told the Sun-Times.

THE HISTORY: Winners of contested caucuses win their party’s nomination only about half the time. Here is a look at past winners (N designates candidates who went on to win party nomination; P those went on to win presidency):


Democrat: Barack Obama N,P

Republican: Mike Huckabee


Democrat: John Kerry N

Republican: President George W. Bush ran unopposed P


Democrat: Al Gore N

Republican: George W. Bush N,P


Democrat: President Bill Clinton ran unopposed P

Republican: Bob Dole N


Democrat: Tom Harkin

Republican: President George H.W. Bush ran unopposed N


Democrat: Dick Gephardt

Republican: Bob Dole


Democrat: Walter Mondale N

Republican: President Ronald Reagan ran unopposed P


Democrat: Jimmy Carter N

Republican: George H.W. Bush


Democrat: Jimmy Carter placed second – 9 percentage points behind “uncommitted” – but was later nominated. N,P

Republican: Gerald Ford N


Democrat: Edmund Muskie

Republican: Republicans had not yet moved their caucus date to January.


Putting the caucuses on the map: The modern Iowa Caucuses came into prominence in 1976 when little known peanut farmer Jimmy Carter vaulted from obscurity ahead of other candidates in Iowa.

The Dean Scream: In 2004, then Vermont Governor Howard Dean came in third and gave an enthusiastic concession speech that included an ear-splitting scream that was widely mocked – and replayed on CNN – as the candidate slid in the polls.

Favorite son: Tom Harkin, Iowa’s governor at the time and the state’s favorite son, was such a shoo-in for the 1992 caucuses that other Democrats griped about skipping the process completely. Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton came in third, with a fraction of the state’s votes, but went on to win the presidency.