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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Columbia Barnard chapter.

What is a Caucus? 

I’ll give you some hints: it’s not a bone at the base of the spinal column (that’s a coccyx), a Renaissance-era astronomer (Copernicus), or a hub of the New Jersey Transit (Secaucus). Most generally, a caucus involves a group of people from the same political party meeting to decide on a candidate or a policy proposal. It can also be used as a verb, denoting the action of gathering at one of said meetings. In the coming weeks, the term will most frequently refer to the Iowa caucuses for choosing a Democratic presidential nominee, being held on February 3rd. These caucuses represent a significant moment in the election cycle, as Iowa is the first state to assign delegate votes to Democratic primary candidates.

Logistically, caucuses — caucii? — are complicated. Each caucus is run by the political party within that state, leading to discrepancies among these gatherings in terms of rules and protocol. For the Iowa Democratic caucus, registered party members gather at one of around 1,700 caucus locations and form groups based on their preferred candidate (undecided may also be a group). Only candidates who are represented by at least 15% of caucus-goers are considered “viable” and may receive delegates. Those who are part of non-viable groups — those with under 15% support — may choose to “realign” themselves with a viable group. All the viable candidates are then assigned delegates (to attend the Democratic National Convention in July) based on a handy-dandy formula devised by the Iowa Democratic party.

Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. If only the Iowa caucuses actually involved just grouping, realigning, and then delegate assigning. In reality, members of each group are invited to present the strengths of their respective candidate and to debate policy with other groups. Such a process could lead to productive discussion and more informed decision-making, but could also last all night. Caucuses frequently take hours to complete, especially when there is a large field of candidates (such as, I don’t know, twelve).


History of the Caucus System

In the 2020 election cycle, Iowa, Nevada, American Samoa, North Dakota, Wyoming, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands will be holding Democratic caucuses; all other states and territories will be conducting primaries, a caucus-to-primary ratio that has practically flipped from the mid-20th century. Caucuses largely fell out of favor following the 1968 presidential election in which Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey. In this election, only 14 states held primaries (with the others holding caucuses or other conventions), culminating in a violent and tumultuous Democratic National Convention framed by the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and mass opposition to the Vietnam War. The nomination of Humphrey, who had not participated in a single state primary, reflected fundamental defects within the election process. Subsequently, the McGovern–Fraser Commission was established to reform the selection of delegates and to establish the Convention as a more democratic process. The various restrictions the Commission placed on the assigning of delegates prompted many states to transition to a secret-vote primary. If most states switched, why does Iowa hold on? There is no real consensus, but probably for the clout. (Let’s be honest with ourselves — would I really be writing an article about Iowa sans caucus?)

Modern-Day Problems and Shortcomings

Critics of the Iowa caucuses argue that the population of the state fails to encapsulate the diversity of the Democratic party — or the American people — as a whole. While Iowa’s population is 90% white, the national average is around 60%. Only around 3% of Iowa residents identify as Black or African-American, though the national average is over 13%. Furthermore, in Iowa, Native American and Pacific Islander populations are almost entirely unrepresented. The Iowa population, in addition to that of New Hampshire (another early-voting state) is fundamentally different from that of the general electorate (see table). Therefore, many believe that the Iowa caucuses choose candidates based on the voices — and political leanings — of a select few while ignoring countless others’.

Voting rights activists also point out that the diversity problem extends beyond race or ethnicity. The nature of the caucuses — long, drawn out, and taking place on a weeknight — naturally excludes the low-income, the non-politically active, and those with disabilities or young children. Anyone who is unwilling or unable to stay in one place for hours to choose a political candidate has no avenue of voicing their opinion. Therefore, it can be argued that caucuses suppress an unknowable number of voters, many of whom are likely low-income, people of color, or immigrants. This mass disenfranchisement serves to magnify the power of the middle- to upper-class white Iowa electorate. The process, to many, is inherently undemocratic and must change.

Why You Should Care

Caucuses, especially the Iowa caucuses, highlight structural inequalities within the election system. Historically, United States elections have favored the white and politically active and disadvantaged the poor, people of color, and those who cannot easily leave their homes. When Iowa chooses its candidate, the country is watching. One’s performance in Iowa determines their media coverage, future donations, and endorsements. However, the population of caucus-goers hardly represents the larger Democratic party, or United States citizenship as a whole. Candidates gain crucial momentum or face insurmountable obstacles due to a skewed electorate. It is necessary to understand the history and process of caucuses in order to advocate for fairer, more representative elections. (It’s also slightly embarrassing to say you fractured your caucus after a nasty fall.)

Collier Curran

Columbia Barnard '20

Collier is a senior at Barnard College who enjoys brunch, playing with cats, and yelling at the TV during episodes of the Great British Baking Show. You can pry em dashes out of her cold, dead hands.