How The Republican & Democratic Caucuses Differ In The Hawkeye State

Iowa, Iowa, Iowa. It's all anybody can talk about as months of campaigning, debates, and handshaking by 2016 presidential candidates come to a head Monday at small political meetings held across the Hawkeye State known as the Iowa caucuses. Celebrated as the first real step taken toward nominating a single candidate from each party for the general election, the Iowa caucuses can be hard to understand. While their archaic structure is a throwback to the grassroots democracy our nation was built upon, the caucuses look nothing like the primaries held by the majority of the states and are thus often misunderstood. Monday's caucuses in Iowa will not result in the state deciding on a Democratic and Republican presidential candidate, rather they enable both political parties to gauge their constituents' opinion. Further complicating matters is the fact Republicans and Democrats don't play by the same rules at the caucuses. In fact, Iowa's Republican and Democratic caucuses unfold in significantly different ways.

The Republican Iowa caucus rulebook is fairly straightforward, meaning voters registered with the Grand Old Party often cast their vote and get home well before their Democratic counterparts come caucus day. Caucuses are called to order at the same time in every precinct throughout Iowa by a temporary chair who then leads the group in electing a permanent chair and secretary to oversee the meeting. A previously selected representative from each candidates' campaign is allowed to make a last-minute pitch to caucus goers before a secret vote is conducted.

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The secret ballot allows voters to cast their choice anonymously, similar to the nationwide general election. According to CNN, there are no hard and fast rules on how votes are cast or collected. A precinct may decide to draw up printed ballots or resort to votes written on scraps of paper and collected in a hat. Results are then sent to the state's Republican headquarters to determine the number of delegates each candidate will have sent on to county conventions to vote on behalf of voters back home in their precinct.

Across the aisle (figuratively speaking), Democrats run a more complicated caucus. The most significant difference between the Republican and Democratic caucuses is the GOP's use of a secret ballot. In Democratic caucuses, Iowans physically gather in a corner of the room marked for their candidate of choice after listening to candidates' representatives speak.

A head count is taken and candidates who failed to meet a threshold of 15 percent of the caucus' participants are cut from the ranks. Any still undecided voters and fans of any cut candidates are then aggressively wooed by supporters of the remaining candidates in an intense session of political negotiations reminiscent of a game of tug of war. A final vote is taken and the results are reported to the Iowa Democratic Party.

The number of supporters a candidate is recorded to have at an Iowa caucus Monday determines the percentage of delegates that will be sent to represent them at the county convention caucus. A caucus held in a heavily populated precinct may get to elect four or more delegates while less populated areas might vie for just one or two delegates. This year the party will rely on a mobile app to quickly tally votes from the 1,681 precincts and rank the candidates in order according to their number of caucus delegates, they announced on their website.

Significant attention is paid to the Iowa caucuses by the media and politicians alike because they produce the first taste of official numbers and may potentially influence later votes in other states or even the generosity of candidates' financial donors. But Monday's event is only the first step in the state's four-step process of electing delegates to the national convention. Delegates elected Monday will convene at county conventions to elect delegates for the state and district conventions, which is where Iowa's national convention delegates will be decided, so it's actually totally OK if you've opted to tune out all things Iowa-related next month.