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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?

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