AP Explains: In Iowa, complex caucus now even more intricate

US & World
Mary Oldham, Kailyn Oldham

In this Jan. 24, 2020, photo, Mary Oldham, 27, a middle school science teacher from Knoxville, Iowa poses for a photograph with her daughter Kailyn, 6, at Smokey Row Coffee, in Pella, Iowa. Oldham was never much into politics but says her boyfriend has gotten her thinking: If you don’t vote, you don’t have a voice. So Oldham is planning to caucus Monday, Feb. 3 — for a Democrat. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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February 07 2021 06:00 pm
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Iowa caucuses, a staple of the early election season in a U.S. presidential election year, are never simple. And they’re going to seem even more intricate this year — especially if you’re on the outside looking in.

Three sets of results will be reported. And there is no guarantee that all three will show the same winner.

On Monday, voters who gather at more than 1,700 caucus sites begin their night by declaring support for their preferred presidential candidate. Only the candidates with the most support survive that round. After feverish lobbying, supporters of eliminated candidates can make a second choice.

This year, there’s a new wrinkle that could make the caucuses even more chaotic. For the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will report three sets of results — the Democratic National Committee’s attempt, it says, to make the process more transparent in an era of reduced trust.

In the past, the Midwestern state’s Democrats reported only one set of results: the number of state convention delegates won by each candidate in the end. Democrats choose their party’s eventual White House nominee based on national convention delegates, and state delegates are used to determine those totals in Iowa.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on and what it means, and what you can expect if you’re watching the process.


A: There will be three sets of results:

—tallies of the “first alignment” of caucus-goers;

—the caucus-goers’ “final alignment”;

—the total number of something called “state delegate equivalents” that each candidate receives.

The first and final alignment results aren’t new, but this is the first time the party has made them public.


A: Caucuses are different from primary elections. In a primary, voters go to the polls, cast ballots and leave. At a caucus, voters gather at local precincts and declare support for their chosen candidate. Then, some have an opportunity to switch sides.

Here, in four steps, is how it will unfold in Iowa.

1. THE FIRST ALIGNMENT. Voters arriving at their caucus site will fill out a card that lists their first choice, and those results will be tabulated and will determine the results of the “first alignment.”

2. SWITCHING IF NECESSARY. Caucus-goers whose first-choice candidate fails to get at least 15% of the vote can switch their support to a different candidate. The threshold can be higher at some precincts. If these voters don’t choose another candidate, their vote won’t count in the final alignment.

3. THE FINAL ALIGNMENT. The results of this stage will be tabulated to determine the caucuses’ “final alignment.” Only candidates who receive at least 15% of the vote at that precinct — the so-called viable candidates — will be counted in the final alignment. Non-viable candidates get zero votes in the final alignment.

4. CALCULATING DELEGATES. The final alignment votes are then used to calculate the number of state convention delegates — or “state delegate equivalents” — awarded to each candidate. Iowa will award 41 pledged delegates to the Democratic National Convention, based on the results of the party caucuses.


A: The AP will declare the winner of the Iowa caucuses based on the number of state delegate equivalents each candidate receives.

That’s because Democrats choose their overall nominee based on delegates. The other results will provide valuable insights into the process and the strength of the various candidates, but the state delegate equivalents have the most direct bearing on the metric Democrats use to pick their nominee. So that’s the number to watch.

However, the AP will report all three results as they emerge.


A: The new rules were mandated by the Democratic National Committee as part of a package of changes sought by Bernie Sanders following his loss to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential primaries. The changes were designed to make the caucus system more transparent and to make sure that even the lowest-performing candidates get public credit for all the votes they receive.


EDITOR’S NOTE — Stephen Ohlemacher is the AP’s Election Decision Editor.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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