Eric Davis: All eyes shift to caucus, primary
National attention will be focused on Iowa and New Hampshire over the next two weeks, as Democratic voters begin to select the candidate who will oppose President Trump in November. How does delegate selection in those states work?
Iowans will vote in an evening-long caucus on Feb. 3, not a primary where they simply go to a polling place and cast a secret ballot. Separate Democratic and Republican caucuses will be held in 1,681 precincts. Participation in these caucuses is limited to voters who have registered in advance as Democrats or as Republicans.
National Democratic Party rules require that all national convention delegates awarded on the basis of primary and caucus results be allocated using proportional representation. In other words, winner-take-all rules, where the candidate who finishes first receives all the delegates at stake, do not apply. Rather, candidates receive delegates in rough proportion to their share of the votes cast. National Democratic rules also require that a candidate receive at least 15 percent of the vote in the constituency selecting delegates in order to receive any delegates at all.
How do these rules apply to the Iowa caucuses? Each precinct in Iowa will elect delegates to a county convention. The purpose of next Monday’s caucuses is to determine how the delegates from a precinct will be distributed among the candidates.
At the beginning of the evening, voters divide up into candidate groups, with an undecided group also permitted. Electioneering may take place for 30 minutes, during which supporters of one candidate will try to persuade supporters of other candidates, and the undecided group, to join their candidate group.
At the end of the 30 minutes, the supporters of each candidate are counted. In order to receive any delegates from the precinct, a candidate must have the support of at least 15 percent of those present. Once the initial count is taken, a 30-minute “realignment period” begins. During this period, supporters of those candidates who did not reach the 15 percent threshold, and voters who still remain undecided, will be encouraged to join up with supporters of the candidates who had more than 15 percent in the initial count.
When time for the realignment period has expired, a second count of voters according to candidate preference is taken. This count is used to determine the allocation of delegates from the precinct to the county convention, using proportional representation rules. This year, the Iowa Democratic Party will report the results of these vote counts to the local and national media along with the allocation of delegates to candidates.
The New Hampshire primary, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, will be a more straightforward election, with voters casting secret ballots for one presidential candidate. New Hampshire law allows voters to declare themselves as either Republicans or Democrats when they register to vote. Declared voters must vote in their own party’s primary, and cannot vote in the other primary. Undeclared voters may vote in either party’s primary, and will be added to that party’s registered voter list unless they fill out a form at the polling place indicating that they want to retain undeclared status.
In the New Hampshire Democratic Primary, proportional representation will be used to award delegates to all candidates receiving at least 15 percent of the total Democratic Primary vote. Of the 24 delegates at stake in the primary, eight will be allocated proportionally in each of New Hampshire’s two congressional districts, with the remaining eight allocated on the basis of the statewide results.
In 2016, turnout in both Iowa and New Hampshire was higher than in most other states’ presidential primaries and caucuses. Turnout in the 2016 Iowa Democratic caucuses was about 171,000 voters, or about 29% of the state’s registered Democrats. In New Hampshire, about 250,000 voters, about 40% of the Democratic and undeclared registered voters, turned out for the 2016 presidential primary.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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