The Iowa caucuses are the first step in the nominating processes of the Democratic and Republican parties.  As a result, Iowa garners a vastly disproportionate number of candidate visits and amount of media attention.  A better than expected showing on caucus night can boost a candidacy, while a poor performance can spell the end of a candidate's hopes.


Iowa Code--Title II Chapter 43.4:

Delegates to county conventions of political parties and party committee members shall be elected at precinct caucuses held not later than the fourth Monday in February of each even-numbered year.  The date shall be at least eight days earlier than the scheduled date for any meeting, caucus or primary which constitutes the first determining stage of the presidential nominating process in any other state, territory or any other group which has the authority to select delegates in the presidential nomination.  The state central committees of the political parties shall set the date for their caucuses...

Because Iowa's precinct caucuses are the first contests in the presidential nomination processes of both parties, the state attracts an inordinate amount of attention from candidates and the media.  In fact authors Hugh Winebrenner and Dennis J. Goldford describe the caucuses as a "media event."  Although there have been attempts in the past to challenge the first-in-the-nation status of the Iowa caucuses, supporters of the process argue that the precinct caucuses allow for retail politicking which simply would not be possible in larger states.  For Iowa voters who choose to engage in the caucus campaign the experience can be intense.  In the 2012 cycle, for example, from Nov. 2008 to Caucus Day Jan. 3, 2012 Republican prospective candidates, former candidates and candidates made over 240 visits to Iowa totaling more than 500 days.  With the large number of GOP candidates running in 2016, including several committing to the "full Grassley" (visiting all 99 counties), and the later caucus date, figures for the this cycle will no doubt eclipse those from 2012.  In addition to visits, campaigns invest significant resources in putting staff on the ground, ads on the air, and mailers in mailbox, interest groups weigh in, and reporters flock to the state. 

The Iowa caucus campaign fulfills an important winnowing function.  The cliche is that there are three tickets out of Iowa, namely a first-, second- or third-place finish in the caucuses, and that if a candidate does not achieve top three finish his or her campaign is in deep trouble.  In fact it is not a candidate's showing, but the showing as it relates to expectations that is perhaps most important.

Dynamics of the Races

The large field of Republican candidates meant that Iowans are seeing much more activity on the Republican side.  In August 2015, 16 major Republican candidates made 30 visits to the state totalling 72 days while five Democratic candidates made 13 visits totalling 25 days.  By December 2015 the field had thinned and 11 Republicans made 24 visits totalling 45 days, while the three Democrats made nine visits totalling 18 days.

All this activity by the GOP candidates energized and benefitted local Republican parties; how that will extend to the general election remains to be seen.  Of the 11 Republicans still competing by the time the caucuses arrived, some wre competing here very seriously and others were "showing the flag" and making occasional visits to the state.  Leading visitors to Iowa for the cycle thus far were former Sen. Rick Santorum, who achieved his second full Grassley on Sept. 1, 2015, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee; they needed do well in Iowa to continue.  Several candidates who made strong plays in Iowa bowed out well before the caucuses.  Former Gov. Rick Perry was first to go.  Gov. Scott Walker had been seen as something of a frontrunner in the first part of the year, but saw his star dim over the summer.  He vowed to do the full Grassley, but the money dried up and he suspended his campaign.  Gov. Bobby Jindal put over 70 days into the state before bowing out. 

On the Democratic side, the three final players were former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Gov. Martin O'Malley.  Clinton "flooded the zone" in Iowa; by Sept. 5 her campaign reported it had 79 organizers, bringing her total staff to around 100, and that did not include unpaid "organizing fellows."  Sanders, drew large crowds and put together a very credible organization.  O'Malley and his campaign worked the state as well.

Early Groundwork (Pre-Campaign Period, 2013-14)

Within just a few weeks of the last presidential election the first visits by the next crop of potential candidates begins.  For the 2016 cycle, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared at a birthday fundraiser for Gov. Terry Branstad in Altoona on Nov. 18, 2012.  From Nov. 7, 2012 to Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, 17 potential Republican candidates made 61 visits totaling 81 days to Iowa (+).  This is a bit more than at the same point in the 2012 cycle, when 16 potential Republican candidates made 51 visits totaling 71 days through Nov. 2, 2010 (+), but less than in the 2008 cycle (to Election Day 2006) when 13 potential Republican candidates made 70 visits totaling 112 days (+).  Explanations for the lower amount of activity in 2013-14 and 2009-10 compared to 2005-06 include the possibility that open presidential contests in both parties in 2008 had a synergistic effect, upping the level of activity in that campaign; the difficult state of the economy in 2012 having a dampening effect; and the growth of social media lessening the need for actual visits.  The Democrats' 2013-14 visit numbers were very low due to the "inevitable Hillary" scenario.  From Nov. 7, 2012 to Election Day, Nov. 4, 2014, eight potential candidates made 18 visits totaling 28 days.  By comparison in the 2008 cycle through Election Day 2006, 11 potential Democratic candidates made 60 visits totaling 108 days.

Potential presidential candidates looking toward 2016 sought to cultivate good will and build connections among local party officials and activists in 2013-14.  A good way to do that was to help out Iowa candidates running in the 2014 mid-term elections.  Iowa was very much a swing state; active party registration as of Nov. 3, 2014 was 602,048 Democrats, 620,353 Republicans and 709,447 no party.  There were a number of targeted and hotly contested races.

• Iowa had a very high-profile U.S. Senate race, pitting U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D) against state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to fill the seat held by veteran Sen. Tom Harkin (D). +  Ernst prevailed by 52.1% to 43.8%.

• The U.S. House delegation had been evenly spliit 2D and 2R.  Two seats were open: the 1st CD in the Northeast, held by Braley, and the 3rd CD in the Southwest, where U.S. Rep. Tom Latham (R) was retiring.  Republicans won both those seats, bringing the balance for the 114th Congress to 3R and 1D. 

• Although Gov. Terry Branstad (R) easily fended off a challenge from state Sen. Jack Hatch (D), several of the other statewide offices were competitive, most notably the Secretary of State race, where Paul Pate (R) narrowly defeated Brad Anderson (D). 

• Both chambers in the Iowa legislature were close heading into Nov. 4.  In the General Assembly, Republicans increased their majority from 53R-47D to 57R-43D.  In the Senate, where 25 seats were up, the balance stayed at 26D-24R. 

Potential 2016 candidates put in plenty of appearances at fundraisers and events for state and local candidates and party committees, and their leadership PACs contributed as well.

There are many ways in addition to actually traveling to Iowa that prospective candidates can engage Iowans.  A candidate or potential candidate can make calls, hold low-key meetings in his or her office or home, send Christmas cards, do a fundraiser, or address groups of Iowans without traveling to the state.

Hopefuls also made early efforts to attract talent.  RAND PAC, Sen. Rand Paul's leadership PAC, signed up A.J. Spiker, who had been chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, as advisor in March 2014 and announced Steve Grubbs, a veteran consultant, as chief Iowa strategist at the end of June 2014.  Veteran operative Bob Haus is again advising Gov. Rick Perry.

Independent of a candidate or potential candidate's efforts, citizens and organized groups may start up efforts to build support for (or to criticize) one or another of the presidential hopefuls.  The Ready for Hillary super PAC announced Derek Eadon, Iowa general election director on Obama's re-election campaign, as its Midwest regional organizing director in April 2014.  By Sept. 14 RfH reported it had organized in all 99 counties, and it had a major presence at the Harkin Steak Fry that day.  The National Draft Ben Carson for President Exploratory Committee super PAC was quite active.  In April 2014, Tina Goff, who has experience on a number of Iowa campaigns, started as Midwest regional director for the super PAC, on Sept. 18 the super PAC announced co-chairs, and on Oct. 20 it announced county chairs in all 99 counties (+).  Finally, interest groups sought to leverage small media buys, events or actions criticizing one or another of the presidential prospects into a bit of free media attention.  Examples include the Judicial Crisis Network's digital ad buy in advance of Christie's July 17 visit to Iowa and several actions by the DREAM Action Coalition to draw attention to deportations (+).

Play in Iowa?

The first decision a campaign faces on the Iowa caucuses is whether to compete.  Running an Iowa caucus campaign requires an intensive ground operation.  On the Republican side, social conservatives carry significant weight, and this has prompted some more moderate candidates to skip Iowa.  Jon Huntsman as well as Gary Johnson and Buddy Roemer tried this approach in 2012 and John McCain tried it in 2000.  On the Democratic side Wesley Clark gave the Iowa caucuses a miss in 2004.  In 2007 an internal memo by Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry suggested that Clinton bypass the Iowa caucuses to focus on later contests, but the campaign disavowed that notion and competed hard in the state.  Most campaigns conclude that they must run in Iowa.

Pencil in the Date

There were no significant challenges to Iowa's first-in-the-nation status during the RNC and DNC rules processes in 2013-14.  DNC rules state that "the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days beffore the first Tuesday in March" (Delegate Selection Rules, Rule 11).  RNC rules are less specific, but also key off March 1 and set a general exception for the four early states, stating that "Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may conduct their processes no earlier than one month before the next earliest state" (Rules of the Republican Party, Rule 16(c)(1).  Thus one could mark Feb. 1, 2016 as the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses. 

Based on recent election cycles, however, that date could have changed.  In both the 2012 (+) and 2008 (+) cycles the date was not set until October of the year before.  Iowa's 2012 precinct caucuses were tentatively scheduled to take place on the evening of February 6, but Florida Republicans set their primary date for Jan. 31, 2012, prompting Iowa Republicans to move their date forward to January 3.  In 2008 the Iowa caucuses were also held on January 3. 

For 2016, both parties held firm so that no contests took place before February, and the caucuses stuck to February 1.  One difference this cycle was that the RNC made changes to its rules including strong penalties for states that go earlier than proscribed (+). 

Adjustments and Improvements

Both the Democratic and Republican state parties looked at making some changes to their caucus processes.  Iowa Democrats are considered reforms to make the caucuses more accessible; they conducted a “listening tour” and on Aug. 1, 2014 the party chair presented five proposals at the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting (+).  [Even with such changes, Democrats will be hard pressed to achieve the high turnout level of 2008, when the historic campaigns of Obama and Clinton created a lot of excitement].  Iowa Republicans have indicated they would seek to work with Democrats on their proposals to increase accessibility.  Additionally on Nov. 22, 2014 members of the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee signed a pledge to remain neutral in the caucus process; the party noted that the move "is unprecedented and is intended to send a clear signal to potential presidential candidates: all are welcome in Iowa, and the caucus process will be a fair and impartial one" (+).  In Jan. 2015 Iowa Republicans announced hiring of four regional political directors (+); part of their responsibilities is to ensure that county parties are prepared for the caucuses.  The state party also took steps to avoid a results snafu in 2016 as happened in 2012 (+). 

The 2015 Iowa Republican Straw Poll: Cancelled

For Republicans, the mid-August Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll had assumed almost as much importance as the caucuses themselves.  This mega-event fundraiser for the party had the atmosphere of a three-ring circus.  Buses brought in supporters from around the state, and there was food, entertainment and speeches.  It was an important organizational test for the campaigns, and those participating planned their activities for months in advance.  Additionally, the Straw Poll coincided with the Iowa State Fair, another major draw for candidates of both parties. 

After Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Straw Poll in 2011, her campaign subsequently fizzled, and some questioned the merits of the event.  In a Nov. 20, 2012 interview with the Wall Street Journal Gov. Terry Branstad stated, "I think the straw poll has outlived its usefulness...  It has been a great fundraiser for the party but I think its days are over."  Branstad later said he would leave the fate of the straw poll up to the state party.  There was talk about holding a "straw poll-like event."  However, on Jan. 10, 2015, during their regularly scheduled first quarter meeting, members of the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee voted unanimously to hold a Straw Poll (+). 

The Straw Poll had long been synomymous with Ames.  However, Iowa State University raised what it charged the party over the years, and party officials entertained bids from other venues (+).  On March 12, 2015 the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee, meeting by teleconference, approved the recommendation of the party's Straw Poll Committee that the Straw Poll be held at Central Iowa Expo in Boone on August 8, 2015 (+).

Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann emphasized the need to manage the expectations of what the Straw Poll is and what it is not.  In a May 7, 2015 article in Politico Magazine, Kaufmann outlined changes to the straw poll designed "to relegate the pay-to-play nature of the Iowa Straw Poll to the dustbin of history."  For example, no longer would there be an auction during which representatives of the campaigns bid for prime locations; instead spaces woud be provided for free and locations determined by lottery (>). 

A subcommittee of Central Committee members continued working out the logistics of the event.  Tickets for the event went on sale on May 8 (+).  The party held its first informational meeting with potential participants on May 28 [PDF].  However, several prominent candidates/potential candidates including Jeb Bush (May 12 >), Mike Huckabee (May 21 +) and Marco Rubio (May 30) indicated they would not be participating.  Iowa Republican leaders defended the Straw Poll as "a tradition worth supporting (+)"  However, on June 8 the Republican Party of Iowa’s State Central Committee voted to cancel the 2015 Iowa Straw Poll "to strengthen our First in the Nation status and ensure our future nominee has the best chance possible to take back the White House in 2016 (+).

Organize, Organize, Organize.

Iowa has a population of more than three million (July 2015 estimate 3,123,899), and its ninety-nine counties provide plenty of ground for candidates to cover.  Attention naturally focuses on the Des Moines area in the center of the state.  The Greater Des Moines region (eight central Iowa counties) had a 2014 estimated population of 726,452 (>). The population of Polk County itself is about 460,000.  At the other extreme is Adams County, in the Southwest part of the state, with a population of less than 4,000.

Potential candidates and candidates look for advantages as they seek to connect to Iowans.  Agriculture is obviously important issue, and a candidate must be able to speak to rural issues.  But there is more to Iowa than agriculture; the state has an increasingly diversified economy and leaders have sought to counter a one-dimensional stereotype of the state.  Social conservatives form an important constituency on the Republican side and organized labor is still important on the Democratic side.  Candidates who are making a second run in the Iowa caucuses before have some foundations to build upon from their previous campaigning. 

Once the campaigns staff up, their major job in 2015 was to identify committed supporters, likely supporters, and persuadables (1's, 2's and 3's as they are called).  The campaigns devoted much work to building a team of committed county chairs and precinct captains, and they also made considerable efforts to obtain endorsements from state and local officials, who might be able to sway neighbors and acquaintances.  Republican and Democratic campaigns take decidely different approaches to this task.  The campaigns of the leading major Democratic candidates had very large staffs and a dozen or more field offices around the state, while the Republican campaign organizations were much smaller and generally did not open multiple offices.  The air war has been going on for some time now.  The campaigns that have money are running TV and radio ads, in some cases lots of them, and several super PACs are filling the airwaves as well.  Caucus-goers were bombared with mail and phone calls as well.

Exchanges with a friend, neighbor, colleague or fellow Iowan can have an important effect on a caucus-goer's thinking.  Even more telling are first-hand impressions of the candidates.  Candidates ply the state with visits; for Republicans in 2011 visits were particularly intense in the weeks leading up to the August Straw Poll, then tailed off, and picked up in the closing weeks of the campaign.  In the 2012 cycle former Sen. Rick Santorum reached the "hundred days in Iowa club" and Santorum and Rep. Michele Bachmann achieved the "99-county club." 

Much organizing activity occurs around candidate visits.  If a campaign has any kind of organization, a field organizer or field organizers bearing supporter cards will approach attendees after an event.  There are also the multi-candidate debates and forums which often generate sign-waving battles.  Having a staff that can translate the energy and interest generated by the candidate into actual Iowans willing to volunteer time and effort and to head out on a Monday evening in February to spend an hour or two in a caucus meeting is essential.

Although attention focuses on the activities of the candidates and their campaigns, other players will be at work.  Given the huge amount of media attention various interest groups organize on-the-ground or media campaigns to inject their issues into the race.  The state parties work to ensure a level playing field for their candidates, and, at the same time are ever ready point out the foibles and faults of the opposing party's candidates.

The Day Arrives

After all the activity, the millions spent, the pundits' pontificating and the meaningless polls, matters are finally in the hands of Iowans.  Despite all the attention lavished on their state, not that many people actually participate in the precinct caucuses.  In the 2012 Republican caucuses, 121,503 votes were tallied, and Santorum's winning tally was 29,839 votes (24.56%) and in the 2008 Republican caucuses 119,200 votes were tallied and Huckabee's winning tally was 40,054 votes (34.36%).  The 2008 Democratic caucuses marked a high point, drawing 239,872 participants; Obama, Edwards and Clinton finished top three.  124,331 people attended the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, in which Kerry, Edwards and Dean finished top three. 

The state parties have spent countless hours preparing for the caucuses.  Iowa has 1,681 precincts.  That meant a lot of work for the state parties in keeping the county chairs up to speed, lining up temporary caucus chairs, and identifying caucus sites (1, 2).  

The Republican and Democratic caucus systems are quite different.  Republicans do their caucus by secret ballot, while Democrats divide up into groups.

Through 2012, Iowa Republican caucuses were actually straw polls; candidates were simply trying to get the most total votes, but the outcome had no bearing on the selection of delegates.  That has changed.  On June 27, 2015, the Republican State Central Committee of Iowa amended its bylaws so that, "The Iowa delegation to the Republican National Convention shall be bound on the first ballot to vote proportionally in accordance with the outcome of the Iowa Caucuses."

Democratic precinct caucuses have a 15-percent threshhold (in most precincts) to achieve viability; this means that if a caucus-goer's candidate fails to achieve that level, he or she must align with another group or go home.  Attendees select delegates to county conventions (and thence to district conventions and the state convention in June 2016) and vote on platform issues. 

In June 2015 the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties jointly announced that, "The 2016 Iowa caucus results will be delivered via a new, mobile-enabled, cloud-based platform that will allow for accurate, efficient and secure reporting on caucus night (+)."

For the candidates, what matters is what happens on caucus night (+) and how these results are interpreted in the headlines the next day.  The candidates who exceed expectations will jet off to New Hampshire claiming momentum.  Those who fare poorly may drop out of the race, if not on caucus night itself in the days after the caucuses.

After all the visits, calls and canvassing, ad, mail, planning and preparation, Hillary Clinton edged Bernie Sanders in "an historically close" caucus on the Democratic side, while Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio finished one, two and three on the Republican side amid record turnout.  The precinct caucuses, an example of democracy in action, look set to continue four years hence in the next presidential cycle (+).

Historical Perspective

Democrats held their first Iowa caucuses on Jan. 24, 1972; top finishers were uncommitted, Ed Muskie and George McGovern.  (Although McGovern finished behind Muskie, his surprising showing provided a significant boost heading into New Hampshire).  In the three most recent competitive caucuses, the winner has gone on to win the party's nomination.  On Jan. 24, 2000, Vice President Al Gore (63%) defeated former Sen. Bill Bradley (37%).  On Jan. 19, 2004 Sen. John Kerry (38%) finished ahead of Sen. John Edwards (32%) and former Gov Howard Dean (18%).  On Jan. 3, 2008 Sen. Barack Obama (38%) finished ahead of former Sen. John Edwards (30%) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (29%). 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent Iowa Democratic Caucuses
Feb. 1, 2016 +
Clinton (49.84%),  Sanders (49.59%),  O'Malley (0.54%),  Uncomm. (0.03%).

Jan. 3, 2008 Obama (37.6%),  Edwards (29.7%),  Clinton (29.4%),  Others (3.2%). 239,872

Jan. 19, 2004 Kerry (37.6%),  Edwards (31.8%),  Dean (18.0%),  Gephardt (10.6%),  Others (1.8%).

Jan. 24, 2000
Gore (63.4%),  Bradley (34.9%),  Others (1.6%). 60,760

In 1976 Republicans moved their caucuses to the same day as the Democrats, thereby boosting the significance of the event; that year there was a contest between President Gerald Ford and Gov. Ronald Reagan.  The 1980 caucuses marked the first of the multi-candidate GOP contests seen in recent cycles.  Of the six multi-candidate competitive Iowa Republican caucuses from 1980 to 2012, the Iowa caucus winner went on to win the party's nomination two and a half times: Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.  In 2012 Mitt Romney appeared to have won by eight votes and received an Iowa bump, but two weeks later Rick Santorum was declared to have won by 34 votes in certified results. 

Top Finishers and Turnout in Recent Iowa Republican Caucuses
Feb. 1, 2016 + Cruz 51,666 (27.6%),  Trump 45,429 (24.3%),  Rubio 43,228 (23.1%),  Carson 17,394 (9.3%), Paul 8,481 (4.5%), Bush 5,238 (2.8%), Others 15,495 (8.2%).

Jan. 3, 2012 Santorum 29,839 (24.5%),  Romney 29,805 (24.5%),  Paul 26,036 (21.4%),  Gingrich 16,163 (13.3%),  Perry 12,557 (10.3%),  Others 7,103 (5.8%). 121,503

Jan. 3, 2008 Huckabee 40,954 (34.4%),  Romney 30,021 (25.2%),  F.Thompson 15,960 (13.4%),  McCain 15,536 (13.0%),  Paul 11,841 (9.9%),  Others 4,888 (4.1%).

Jan. 24, 2000
Bush 35,948 (40.9%),  Forbes 26,744 (30.5%),  Keyes 12,496 (14.2%),  Bauer 7,487 (8.5%),  Others 4,991 (5.7%) 87,666

Feb. 12, 1996
Dole 25,461 (26.3%),  Buchanan 22,578 (23.3%),  Alexander 17,052 (17.6%),  Forbes 9,861 (10.2%),  Gramm 9,055 (9.4%),  Keyes 7,219 (7.5%),  Others 5,536 (5.7%).

Results and Reactions

Dem. Visits
  |  Rep. Visits


Rep. Endorse

The Ad Campaign

Interest Groups


Key Dates


graphic for link to Iowa Freedom Summit coverage
Jan. 24 - Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines.

Mar. 7 - Iowa Ag Summit in Des Moines

Apr. 25 - Iowa FFC Spring Kick-Off in Waukee.

May 16 - Republican Party of Iowa Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines.

Jun. 6 - Joni's 1st Annual Roast and Ride.

July 18 - FAM Leader: The Family Leadership Summit in Ames.

Aug. 8 -
Republican Party of Iowa Straw Poll in Boone.

Aug. 13-23, 2015 - Iowa Sta.te Fair

Nov. 21 - FAM Leader Presidential
Family Forum in Des Moines.

Oct. 31 - Republican Party of Iowa "Growth and Opportunity Party" in Des Moines.

Dec. 3 - Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines.

Dec. 5 - Rising Tide Summit in Cedar Rapids.

Jan.28 - RNC-sanctioned debate (Fox News). (+)

July 17 - Annual Hall of Fame Dinner in Cedar Rapids.

Aug. 13-23, 2015 - Iowa Sta.te Fair

Nov. 14- DNC-sanctioned debate at Drake University in Des Moines (CBS / KCCI / DMRegister).

Oct. 24- Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Des Moines.

Jan. 11 - Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines.

Jan. 25 - CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines.