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Monday, January 2, 2012

Iowa Caucus

Map Courtesy of 

Though we've been learning a lot about the candidates through debates, interviews and other activities throughout 2011, Election 2012 really begins on January 3rd - the Iowa Caucus.

What's a caucus?

A caucus is one way a political party selects its nominee. Registered voters attend meetings held in locations across the state. Candidates are allowed to make a short speech to encourage people to vote for them. Since the caucus meetings are held at the same time, candidates can't attend each one. They are allowed to have someone else speak on their behalf.

After the voters assemble, get organized and hear from the candidates, it is time to vote by secret ballot. It is a straw poll, meaning the results are not official or subject to the rules of official elections. However, the votes are counted and reported. Each caucus location selects a winner. The results of each caucus in a county are combined at a county convention. County delegates go to the state convention on behalf of the candidates who won in their counties. Eventually, a final candidate is nominated at the state convention, which then determines the delegates for the national convention some time later.

This is different than a political primary, the form of election conducted in most states. In a primary, voters in a a political party cast ballots to determine their party's nominee for elected office. More on primaries soon.

Why is the Iowa Caucus a big deal?

One of the reasons the Iowa Caucus receives a lot of national attention is that it is the first major activity in the presidential election year. Sometimes it helps to make clear which candidates have widespread support, and which do not.

Both parties hold a poll to determine their nominees. In 2012, several Republican candidates are running for office and will participate in the Republican poll. On the Democratic side, President Obama does not face a challenger so a primary is not necessary.

Learning opportunity

Read about and watch the news coverage of the Iowa Caucus. Some things to watch, think and talk about:
  • Which candidates are campaigning in Iowa? Why might a candidate decide to spend more, or less, time in the state?
  • How much money have the candidates spent to campaign? Does the amount of money relate to the candidate's popularity? What does a candidate need money to do?
  • What are the benefits of having a caucus, where the voters can hear directly from the candidates or their campaigns immediately before voting? What are the disadvantages?
  • Where is Iowa located?
  • Why is the Iowa election the first in the country?
  • Which issues are important to Iowa voters? Are they the same issues that are important to voters in NC and other parts of the country? Why or why not?
  • In your opinion, which candidate will win/lose the Iowa Caucus? Why?
  • What kinds of impacts do the elections have on the local and state governments? For example, if the candidates and media spend several weeks or months in Iowa, do they spend money in cities and towns? Do they buy campaign ads? Do they employ local residents?
  • If you were creating an ad about one of the candidates, what would it say? Which qualities or positions do you think are most important to emphasize?
  • If you were a candidate's campaign advisor, what advice would you give him/her about speaking to voters? What kinds of skills and attitudes do the candidates need to have to be persuasive, confident, a good communicator, etc.?
  • How does the media cover the candidates and the Iowa Caucus? Does each media organization report the same story the same way? Why or why not? 
  • If you were a voting in this election, how would you prepare to vote?
  • Predict the headlines on January 4. Follow the media coverage...were you right?
  • Does the foreign press cover this story? How is the perspective the same, or different?
  • How many times in prior elections has the winner of the Iowa Caucus been the candidate who the party nominated at the national convention? Won the presidential election?

Learn more

Iowa Republican Party
Iowa Democratic Party
Presidential Primary Calendar
FOX News
New York Times
Wall Street Journal
Des Moines Register