The Careful Choreography of the Caucus

The precinct doors swing shut at 7 p.m. And that's when the fun begins.

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Voters in Early, Iowa, size up a candidate: It isn't just whom you prefer; it's who turns out to be viable.

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On caucus night in 2004, 251 residents of Iowa City, Iowa, filed into the gym at Roosevelt Elementary School. Their loyalties were divided. Of the five delegate spots the precinct could award, two went to John Kerry, one to Howard Dean, one to John Edwards, and one to Dennis Kucinich.

From Roosevelt, it's a short drive to Horn Elementary School, where on the same night 271 people showed up. With six delegates up for grabs, they gave three to Kerry, two to Dean, and one to Edwards.

Two miles away, at the Johnson County courthouse, 111 people gave one delegate each to Kerry, Dean, and Edwards.

By night's end, the counts from those and other Johnson County precincts had been combined with tallies from the state's 98 remaining counties. The result was duly recorded: Kerry "won" Iowa with 38 percent of the delegates, Edwards took second, and Dean finished a weak third.

Balancing act. According to a video on Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign website, "Caucusing is easy." If only it were so simple. In truth, Iowa's method of picking winners is esoteric and unique. The act of caucusing is part dodge ball (don't get eliminated), part tug of war (bring opponents to your side), and part high school popularity contest (have the most followers).

The opening minutes are usually straightforward. Doors close at 7 p.m. Voters separate into "preference groups," one per candidate and one for the uncommitted. Organizers count heads.

But matters quickly get more complicated.

First, for a preference group to win delegates for a candidate, it must be "viable." That means having a minimum number of people. Viability is usually measured in percentages, often 15 percent of everyone attending. (For precincts that elect three delegates or fewer, the bar is set higher.) For example, at the Roosevelt precinct in 2004, 251 people attended. Fifteen percent of 251 is 38, so any group with fewer people in it would have been cut.

The guillotining of undersized groups is followed by a realignment. Individuals in a nonviable group must disband and join up with a group that is still alive or resurrect their candidate by recruiting more members. Strategy is important, and so is ingenuity. "There are always stories of 'I'll shovel your walk the next time it snows,' " says Iowa Democratic Party Political Director Norm Sterzenbach.

When every group is viable, delegates are awarded. Each viable group usually gets at least one; the formula tends to underreward strong pockets of support. And there's a twist: Precincts award county delegates, but the results for the state are announced in "state delegate equivalents." Think of it like currency: County delegates are like dollars, state delegates like euros. The latter are calculated from the former, which are worth significantly less. In 2004, 300 Johnson County delegates equaled 141 state delegate equivalents. At that rate, dollars to pounds might be a closer match.