Hello and welcome back to FairVote’s quadrennial series Primary Focus. This series explores the presidential nomination process to understand how it works, how the systems and institutions used to select the nominee affect the outcome, and if it could be improved.1 This election cycle is particularly exciting for us at FairVote because four states will be using ranked choice voting (RCV) in the Democratic primaries. We’ll be discussing those states later but for now let’s start at the beginning: Iowa.
The Iowa Caucuses have held the distinction of being the first contest in the presidential nomination process since 1972 and since then presidential hopefuls make regular pilgrimage to the state to woo its voters, eat its fried foods, and admire its butter sculptures.2 Being first, the Iowa Caucuses are a crucial test of a candidate’s viability. Some candidates stake their entire campaigns on them. A strong finish in Iowa is seen as evidence of a candidate’s strength and those candidates will enter the next primary states cloaked by the media in a narrative of momentum. Those who perform poorly will reevaluate their candidacy and many will likely drop out soon after.3
So the Iowa Caucuses are important but what are they? Unlike a primary, where voters show up to a polling place and fill out a ballot for their preferred candidate, just like in the general election, Iowa conducts something called a “walking caucus.” On caucus night, participants will show up at one of over a thousand locations. At the beginning of the process, party officials and campaign representatives will address the voters and make their final pitches and then each voter goes to stand in the part of the room designated for their preferred candidate. The number of votes (or people, in this case) for each candidate will be counted and all candidates whose support is below the viability threshold (generally 15%) are eliminated and the voters who had supported eliminated candidates will walk over to support their next-choice candidate. Then the votes are counted one final time, with the final count used to determine how many delegates each candidate receives.
In past years, the only result the Iowa Democratic Party would release is the final number of delegates awarded to candidates. This year, however, they will also release the number of voters supporting each candidate in the first and second rounds, causing some outlets to warn about public confusion over the results. While seeing three different numbers reported may seem confusing at first, it makes sense if you think about in terms of RCV. (If you need a reminder on how RCV works, you can find an explainer here).
Think of the first candidate a caucus-goer stands with as their first-choice ranking. If that candidate is eliminated for not meeting the viability threshold then caucus-goers can walk to another candidate, who would be their second-choice ranking in an RCV election. Just like in RCV elections, voters’ second choices matter in caucuses.
For a real-world example of how similar a walking caucus is to RCV, let’s look at Papua New Guinea, a country that you could call “the Iowa of the Pacific.” Papua New Guinea began using RCV in elections in the 1960s. These early RCV elections didn’t use ballots at all. Instead, candidates would stand in a row and voters would line up behind their preferred candidate. “If, on a count, no candidate had an absolute majority, i.e. more than half the voters present lined up behind him, then the candidate with the least number of voters behind him moved away and his supporters redistributed themselves amongst other candidates[.]” Rather than casting a vote on a paper ballot, which moved from candidate to candidate until a winner was chosen, the voters themselves moved, physically standing behind their choices. Ranking candidates on a ballot is just an efficient way to get the same result without forcing voters to spend a lot of time standing around as votes are counted and voters move to their next choices or forcing voters to give up ballot secrecy.
The Iowa Caucuses look a lot like this process. The first count (called the “pre-realignment vote total” in the Iowa Caucus) would be the first round tally in an RCV election. It won’t necessarily tell you what the final outcome will be but does show how much support each candidate starts out with. The second count (called the “final vote total”) is the equivalent of the final round tally in an RCV election. It shows which candidates are able to expand their base of support and whose supporters are drawn to them when their own first-choice candidate isn’t an option. Crucially, the final round will also determine how many delegates each candidate will receive. Since party nominations are won on the basis of delegates rather than direct vote totals, the delegate count is the number that will tell you how each candidate is doing in the nomination process and matters the most in terms of winning the nomination. The pre-alignment vote total and the final vote total will be interesting to watch but the delegate count, which often isn’t announced until days later, is the number to pay attention to.
Caucuses like Iowa’s give voters the freedom to support another candidate if their first choice doesn’t win a critical mass of support. It allows voters to support underdog candidates without wasting their vote and encourages campaigns to engage with as many voters as possible. The downside is that caucusing requires voters to commit several hours of time on a weeknight, burdening groups like those who work evenings, parents of young children, people without reliable transportation, and people with disabilities. While the Iowa Democratic Party has worked hard to accommodate all voters and allow some to caucus remotely, caucus attendance is generally much lower than turnout in primaries. In 2016, just over 170,000 voters turned out for the Iowa Democratic Caucus, a tiny number considering the influence it exerts over the nomination process. RCV offers many of the same benefits of a caucus without the drawbacks, something that many voters will get to experience firsthand this year.
Thanks for joining us on this journey through the primaries. It will be a long process but we look forward to watching with you.
1 Spoiler: yes.
2 This isn’t snark. I genuinely love the Iowa State Fair and encourage everyone to go.
3 Those readers struggling to sift through the current field should take comfort in knowing that after Iowa the number of candidates could be culled from “overwhelming” to merely “excessive.”
4 Why yes, this blog series will be making everything about RCV. Why do you ask?
5 You would be wrong.
6 Reilly, Ben. Democracy in Divided Societies: Electoral Engineering for Conflict Management. Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 69, quoting Report of the Chief Electoral Officer on the House Assembly Election 1968, Government Printer, Port Moresby, 1968, p. 32.