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What Is a Caucus?

What the Heck Is a Caucus and Does It Actually Matter?

Iowa caucus this, Iowa caucus that. What's everyone talking about? The Iowa caucus is the first time in an election that people will vote for candidates. Sounds like a big deal, doesn't it? It is — but it's also confusing, so here's a breakdown.

1. What is a caucus?

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Think of a caucus similar to how you think of a primary; state residents vote on who they want to be the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees. What makes it unlike the primary, though, is that parties handle the voting process differently. Republicans use secret ballots, while Democrats literally gather into groups that represent the candidate they support. Each group (aka candidate) must have enough people in it to be eligible to continue in the process, which can lead to groups with fewer members to appeal to their neighbors or, if all else fails, people joining another group altogether. Delegates are then distributed based on the percentage of votes that each candidate gets.

2. Why Iowa?

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The Iowa caucus has been the first major voting event since 1972, when people believed the state of Iowa reflected the demographic makeup of the country as a whole. Now? Not so much. Still, according to The Washington Post, some people believe it makes sense for a smaller state to go first, "so that the first winners only take a few delegates with a victory, preserving the ability of runners-up to come from behind." Until our government listens to pleas to make California the first primary state, Iowa it is.

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3. What has Iowa predicted before?

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Since the '70s, the caucus has a pretty "meh" success rate. Only five of the Democratic winners and three of the Republican ones have ended up winning the party nomination. For example, in 2008, Mike Huckabee won the Republican caucus but lost the nomination to John McCain, who finished third in the Iowa balloting.

4. So, do the results actually matter?

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That's like asking if Donald Trump is going to win the Republican nomination; no one knows, but we can still speculate about it. Several helpful theories have been outlined by Nate Silver on FiveThirtyEight — for instance, the caucus matters because the outcome could create a "bandwagon effect," meaning the rest of the country will want to support candidates who already have a decent amount of support. Another reason? Influential members of a party could throw their support behind the winning candidate if they haven't made up their minds yet. But seeing its track record on predicting the winners, the caucus is probably a better indication of who's going to drop out because of lack of support.

5. What's next?

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The next big voting event comes with the New Hampshire primary, which takes place Feb. 9, followed by the Nevada caucus on Feb. 20 and the South Carolina primary on Feb. 27. We can't forget about Super Tuesday — March 1 — when a bunch of states hold their primaries on the same day. All other states can hold their voting between March and June, so get ready for campaign overdrive.

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