The countdown is finally over.
On Monday night, thousands of Iowans will head to elementary schools, churches and libraries to cast their votes in the Iowa caucuses. The caucuses mark the first votes of the 2016 election cycle, and could be the first true test to how well the candidates perform.
The caucuses could solidify the standing of frontrunners, and will likely whittle down the crowded Republican field. But in the Iowa caucuses, picking a winner isn’t as simple as casting as a ballot.
In Iowa, voters will head to a caucus site instead of the precinct where they would normally vote. Their votes will be reported to the state parties, instead of the state elections office.
But that’s about where the similarities between the Democratic and Republican caucuses end. As the Washington Post reported, the Republican caucus is like a mash-up of “a normal election and a PTA meeting,” while the Democratic caucus is a bit more complicated.
When Republicans head to their caucus sites Monday, they’ll hear speeches from campaigns’ precinct captains. Those speeches are meant to woo support, although the final Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll found 55 percent of likely GOP caucus goers said their mind was made up.
Republican caucus goers write down their choices and hand them in. Local party officials tally the votes, and then send them to state GOP headquarters who keep a running tally. The totals that are reported are just like any the vote tallies reported on a normal election night.
For Democrats, the process is a little more involved. When Democratic caucus goers show up at their caucus sites Monday, they’ll be asked to gather in groups supporting their preferred candidate. Voters who haven’t made up their mind are asked to join the uncommitted group.
According to the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, 69 percent of likely Democratic goers said they had made up their mind about who they were supporting.
The clusters are then counted. Candidates must get 15 percent of the caucus precinct turnout to be considered viable. Supporters in groups that aren’t considered viable after the first round of votes have the chance to go to another candidate who has been considered viable. Delegates are assigned after a second vote, based on how much support each remaining candidate has. Vote totals aren’t released, just projections; and the number of delegates are determined by the Democrat turnout in the precinct from the last two elections.
Only registered Republicans and Democrats can participate in the caucus, but voters can arrive at a caucus site early and switch their party affiliation that night or register to vote.
Since the process is more time consuming than a traditional primary, turnout can be lower than a traditional primary. The Washington Post reported that in 2012, 121,501 Iowans voted in the Republican presidential caucus; while 158,031 voters turned out for the Republican primary for Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.
There’s one more factor to consider — the weather. Winter weather could impact turnout, which could then have an effect on who is the ultimate winner. According to AccuWeather research, inclement weather could deter swing votes. A winter storm is expected to bring snow and a wintery mix over a large part of the central and northern plain Monday night and into Tuesday.
The Iowa caucuses start at 7 p.m., Central time. According to the Washington Post, campaign watchers could know the results around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. Central time.