The Iowa caucus is so complicated, it can only be explained using Legos.

You may be hearing a lot about the Iowa caucus lately. If you are, you may be wondering just what the hell it is.

Or how it works. Or why it matters. Or where Iowa is. All good questions.


Iowa is right under Minnesota, by the way. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The Iowa Caucus is the first nominating event in a presidential election. It's the first time a candidate can actually win something, which makes it a pretty big deal.

Sure, winning the Iowa caucus doesn't mean you'll become the president (71% of Democrats and only 43% of Republicans who've won the caucus went on to win the nomination), but it is a landmark vote that carries a significant amount of weight and that people pay a lot of attention to.

Winning the Iowa caucus is like losing your virginity: It may not be the most important thing you ever do, and it's definitely not indicative of how things will go from now on, but you never forget your first.

Current GOP front-runner Donald Trump has been steadily campaigning in Iowa. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Have you ever asked how voting in the caucus even works? Because the answer is pretty weird.

On the Republican side, things are pretty simple. Everyone shows up at a caucus location for their district (like a school or public building) and listens to representatives for each candidate give a speech. After that, the voters cast a secret ballot and go home.

The process on the Democratic side is much more complicated.

So complicated, in fact, that it's nearly impossible to explain without Legos, Post-its, and some sticks. Thankfully, that's exactly what Vermont Public Radio did.

First, the campaigns find the most politically active Iowans. Then, those politically active Iowan voters stand in areas of the caucus room that indicate which candidate they support.


GIF from Vermont Public Radio/YouTube.

That's right, the Democratic caucus voting process involves citizens literally picking corners of the room and standing there.

Then there's a headcount. If a candidate has less than 15% of the crowd's support in their (literal) corner, they are considered "unviable" and are removed from contention.

Any voters who supported an unviable candidate go back into the center of the room, where the remaining candidate's supporters have to convince those people to join their corners of the room.


After that, another headcount. This process is repeated until a single winner emerges for that district.

For example: This year in Iowa, Martin O'Malley will most likely be the first candidate declared "unviable," at which point supporters of Sanders and Clinton will have to convince the O'Malley supporters to come to their sides of the room.

If that all sounds strange to you, that's because it is.

The caucus system is not a one-person/one-vote system at all. Instead, it's a strange focus-group-meets-reality-competition-show.

As you can imagine, the caucus system has received a fair amount of criticism over the years.

For one thing, the hours-long event is held at 7 p.m. on a cold weeknight in February.

Which isn't exactly a great time for the elderly, or working parents, or anyone who likes eating dinner at dinnertime. So certain demographics often don't get represented at the caucuses.

In fact, Iowa's population overall is very unrepresentative of the United States. It's mostly white and has a huge evangelical Christian population.

Basically, holding a caucus in Iowa is like trying to find out what America's favorite cereal is and only asking 8-year-olds.

"Seriously? Count Chocula is the winner? I didn't even know they still made that." Image from iStock.

Perhaps the most alarming flaw in the caucus system, though, is how undecided voters are convinced to support those who remain — it's a process that isn't always done with nuanced political discussion.

See, the highly local and town-hall-sized caucuses are often filled with people who know each other well. Like, really well. They know what favors everyone might need, or what bill might need another "yea" vote, or who might want the opportunity to delegate at the Democratic National Convention.

Some might call it "making compromises," but a lot of times the process sure does look a whole lot like straight-up bribery. For example, in 2008, when Iowa caucus attendee Phillip Ryan didn't know who to support, he was swayed by John Edwards supporters who serenaded him and massaged his shoulders.


Voters at a Rand Paul event in Iowa. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images.

Even at its least potentially corrupt, the Democratic Iowa caucus can come down to which candidate has the better snacks on their side of the room. Or which undecided voter is just tired of standing around and which corner of the room has a folding chair.

Despite Iowa being demographically unrepresentative and the caucus practices being bizarre, the results are very real.

Winning the caucus may not guarantee that a particular candidate will win the overall election or even get the nomination, but like receiving a $10 gift card on your birthday, it's slightly better than nothing.

After all, when Barrack Obama won the Iowa caucus back in 2008, the entire country had to turn around and say "Wait, who's this guy?"

I predict great things for that young senator. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Whoever wins the Democratic caucus in Iowa, keep in mind that they did so by successfully convincing people to show up to a high school gym ... or a gun shop or a grain elevator .. at 7 p.m. on a weeknight and sweet-talk other voters.

To put it simply, the caucus is old-fashioned, probably unfair, and definitely not the most democratic system in the world.

But...

The Iowa caucus does have one thing going for it: It still speaks to the power of the people.

Whether by ballot or negotiation, a candidate can only win the Iowa caucus if their supporters participate.

Bernie Sanders has had to mobilize young Iowans to stand a chance at winning the caucus. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

As infuriating as it is to read about all the games, shenanigans, and political horse trading that goes into the caucus process, just remember that at its core, individual voters are still the ultimate decider.

The caucus, like the entirety of the election, is all about voter turnout.

So, hey, while I have your attention. Why not register to vote?

via PeopleStanding / Instagram

One of the best things about social media is that there are some pages that deputize the general public to find great content and submit it to be published. It's like harnessing a mind-hive of funny to create a place where it can be enjoyed by everyone.

The People Standing page on Instagram is a great example of this type of crowdsourcing for comedy. The site has over 140,000 followers and features candid, user-submitted pictures of people standing awkwardly that were taken all over the globe.

Here are 17 of the best.

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via PeopleStanding / Instagram

One of the best things about social media is that there are some pages that deputize the general public to find great content and submit it to be published. It's like harnessing a mind-hive of funny to create a place where it can be enjoyed by everyone.

The People Standing page on Instagram is a great example of this type of crowdsourcing for comedy. The site has over 140,000 followers and features candid, user-submitted pictures of people standing awkwardly that were taken all over the globe.

Here are 17 of the best.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."