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What You Need to Know About the Iowa Caucus

The first real votes of the 2016 presidential election will be cast in just four days in Iowa on Monday, February 1. Any interested observer of politics knows that Iowa comes first in this nearly year-long process. The Bipartisan Policy Center hosted three experts on the Iowa caucuses to explain the who, what, where, when, and why of Iowa and everything you need to know to impress your friends during caucus-night watch parties across America.

Panelists included Anita Dunn, White House director of communications in the Barack Obama administration; Sara Fagen, White House political director in the George W. Bush administration; and, David Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University and author of Why Iowa?. John Fortier, director of BPC’s Democracy Project, moderated the event.

The panel shared insights into the inner workings of each party’s caucus process that can impact outcomes. Dunn pointed out that the Democratic caucus, unlike the Republicans’, is a public voting event where people must be confortable standing in front of friends and neighbors to declare their support for a candidate. Fagen noted a change of rules for the 2016 Republican caucus in which delegates are now bound to candidates on the first ballot at the convention. An interesting factor that may impact the parties’ respective voter turnouts on February 1 is that Republican voters only have to stay at the caucus for around thirty minutes, a much shorter time than Democratic caucus goers who are forced to realign—by physically joining another candidate’s supporters in the room—if candidates do not meet threshold requirements for delegates.

Redlawsk provided a comprehensive history of how the Iowa caucuses went from a little-noticed event to one of outsized importance. Only since then-candidate Jimmy Carter used the caucus as a springboard for his campaign have candidates set up shop in Iowa months before voting ever begins.

Fortier asked each panelist if the Iowa caucuses is good for the nominating process, touching on concerns many have about the fairness and demography of having a small, mostly white state lead the process. The three panelists agreed that Iowa (and in Redlawsk’s case, a small state that does not have to be Iowa) is a good first contest, emphasizing that the Iowa caucuses gives voters a chance to talk with the candidate and the candidate a chance to talk with voters. They also stressed that the combination of the first four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—in total create a more representative slice of each party’s core voters. The panelists concurred that the Iowa caucuses continues to be an important part of the nominating contest leading up to the general election in November and expect it to continue capturing the country’s political imaginations every four years for the foreseeable future.

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