From living rooms to the national conventions: how the caucuses work

The Iowa precinct caucuses that will be held Monday night are just the first step in a four-stage process that will determine the actual delegates the state will send to the two national nominating conventions this summer. For each party, participants in the approximately 2,500 precinct caucuses will elect delegates to county conventions to be held in March. At the county conventions, in turn, delegates will be chosen for congressional district conventions in May and June. The final delegates to the national conventions will be selected by the respective parties at their state conventions June 25.

The allocation of Iowa delegates to the national conventions among the various candidates thus may not precisely reflect the voter preferences indicated at the caucuses. Yet the caucuses nonetheless are significant as the first hard indication of voters' thinking in a state that has been actively contested by the major candidates.

At 7 p.m. Monday, caucus participants will assemble in schools, meeting halls, and living rooms to nominate delegates. The procedures followed by the two parties differ somewhat, but they share some similarities.

Before the participants get down to presidential business, they will sign petitions supporting candidates for various state races. Then they will discuss platform resolutions. (Participants say the dickering that goes on over platform resolutions can affect the subsequent candidate-preference votes.)

Only then do the caucus-goers vote for the delegates in the presidential process. This can be done by ballot, show of hands, or even the physical clustering of groups.

The Democrats follow a system of proportional representation in the allocation of delegates. But at each stage of the process a candidate must receive at least 15 percent of the vote to get any delegates at all. Lots of wheeling and dealing goes on among backers of trailing candidates to enable some of them to attain the 15 percent cutoff.

But if a voter backs a candidate who fails to reach the threshold, he must make another choice. As a result, the Democratic candidates, in addition to seeking their own supporters, have worked hard to become the second choice of voters who back a rival.

Iowa's Republican Party has less formal rules for allocating delegates to the various candidates, and the participants will determine their procedures.

The results that will be reported by the media after the caucuses also will differ between the parties. The Democrats will officially report only the actual numbers of delegates to the county conventions that are pledged to each candidate, weighted according to the size of each of the 99 county conventions (these are called ``county delegate equivalents''). However, some media are expected to try to learn the raw vote counts.

The Republicans do not report delegate commitments. Instead, the party will report the results of a nonbinding straw vote taken at the caucuses.

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