You've seen the TV ads with politicians bashing fellow candidates. You might even have been an unsuspecting diner chowing down at a Pizza Ranch or the Machine Shed Restaurant when a rugby scrum group of journalists followed a candidate around.
But, do you know the difference between a caucus, a primary and a general election? You've got less than a week to bone up before the Jan. 3 Iowa Caucus — and that's where Patch comes in.
I sat down with Bradley Dyke, political science department chairman at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, who explained exactly what a caucus is, how it affects the presidential election and the different processes used by each political party when holding a caucus.
Today is part one in our two-part guide to the Iowa Caucus.
Patch: So explain to us, what exactly is a caucus?
Bradley Dyke: A caucus is a form of political participation to try to get a consensus as to how voters in a particular state are trying to align their (political and candidate) preferences.
At a caucus, there’s more going on than just candidate selection. You sometimes select county committee chairs that in turn go to a state convention and, in some cases, a national convention. Also, if you, as a citizen, have an idea for a party platform plank — a particular idea (or candidate) you want your party to support this election cycle — the best way to get a chance to advocate for that is to attend a caucus.
Also, caucuses are party-driven. Both political parties have slight differences as to how they proceed with the format (of one).
Patch: So what is the difference between a caucus and a primary?
Dyke: What distinguishes a caucus from a primary is at a primary, you don’t have to be present at one particular location at a specific time. You just go to your polling place and cast a vote, the same as you would do at a general election. For a caucus you have to be physically present at wherever your designated caucus site will be, register, show your party affiliation and then participate in the process.
The caucus is very much a grassroots thing because it requires direct participation of those who are (attending it). Depending on your voter registration, you can either go to the Democratic caucus or Republican caucus. Each party has its own rules, its own set of guidelines they follow.
Patch: In other words, you have to be a registered Republican or Democrat to participate, right?
Dyke: Yes. You can, for that day, change your voter registration, then go back and switch it later. For example, I’m registered as an Independent, but will often go to the Democratic caucus because to me the process is more exciting. What I’ll do for the day of the caucus is change my affiliation to Democrat, then go back the next week and change it back to Independent.
Patch: So what happens the night of the Iowa Caucus?
Dyke: This is where you have to make a distinction between what the Republicans do and what the Democrats do.
Patch: What is it like at a Republican caucus during a presidential election year?
Dyke: The Republican process is a straightforward process. It’s what you call a "straw vote." Once you go to the caucus and show your (voter) credentials, they give you a ballot. Inside the caucus, there’s a lot of general discussion and politicking going on. Candidates will have tables set up and they will try to win your vote.
Ultimately, you cast a confidential ballot — a straw ballot. This means it has no official sanction and is kept confidential. Republicans don’t want you to feel pressured — they just want you to come in and cast a vote for which candidate you think they should support. They tend to be tame affairs. You don’t see as much of the active interchange the Democrats are seeking and they also tend to be more in the hands of the organizers. They want a quick, streamlined process.
When it’s over, the votes are tallied and we see statewide who it is the Republicans are choosing (as their presidential candidate).
Tomorrow: Find out when and where the Iowa Caucus is held, why Iowa has the first say in presidential elections, how much influence it has on the outcome of a presidential election and why voters should be involved in the process.
The Basics of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses
- All caucuses begin at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 3. Members of the Republican Party of Iowa recommend you be at your precinct prior to 7 p.m. You don't have to be 18 to vote in the Caucus. So long as you will be 18 by election day (Nov. 6, 2012), you can take part in the caucus.
- Not a Republican? No worries, you can switch teams at the caucus site. You can register as a Republican by bringing a valid photo ID with your current address. If your ID does not display the current address, make sure to bring a document, such as a utility bill, that proves where you live.
- Now you need to find your caucus location. Already registered to vote? Find your precinct on your voter registration card then visit the state party's caucus website to find your caucus location. Go to “Find My Caucus” and click the “View by County” option. Select the county you live in, then find your caucus location. Not registered? Before following the steps above, visit the Iowa Secretary of State’s precinct finder.