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How exactly do the Iowa caucuses work?

The state only offers 40 of the some 1,235 delegates needed to win the Republican nomination, but by being first in the country, it sets a tone.
Posted at 9:51 AM, Jan 12, 2024

Iowa in January. What it lacks in temperature it makes up for with political intrigue, and part of that intrigue is just how different the Iowa caucuses are from any other political event on the calendar.

Community centers, high school gymnasiums, even some restaurants are hosting caucuses in Iowa this year. And they all begin Monday at 7 p.m. CT.

Caucuses involve people who are assigned to a particular location. More than 180,000 Iowans participated the last time Republicans had a competitive caucus, but excitement for the candidates — or even the weather — can have an impact on turnout.

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One official of the Republican Party is in charge of every caucus site, as this is a political party event and not a state-run election. Caucuses typically start with speeches, and in many cases, the Republican presidential campaigns have designated local captains to speak on their behalf.

After the speeches, there is a secret-ballot vote. Then the person in charge submits the result to the state party via a smartphone app.

Across Iowa there are 1,657 precincts, so it can take some time to report results. At stake are 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention.

But it is not winner-take-all.

In 2016, Ted Cruz won 28% of the state but only received eight delegates. Former President Donald Trump finished second that year with 24% and received seven delegates.

You need about 1,235 delegates to win the Republican nomination, and Iowa only offers a small chunk of that. But because the state kicks off the election season, it's all about momentum. 

Win Iowa, and you're on a good path to your party's nomination. But historically bad showings in the state have outright ended many campaigns.