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Monday, December 17, 2007
By Steven L. Taylor

I meant to deal with this in response to a comment a few days back, but now I forget where the comment is, but this Reuters story reminded me: Second votes could sway Iowa Democratic race.

It seemed as if there was confusion over the rules and whether those rules were the same for Republican and Democratic caucus attenders in Iowa. In fact, the two parties function under different rules, with the second choices of Democratic voters being of potentially great significance, while in the GOP contests, it is just a straight vote.

In regards to the Demcrats:

Under the arcane rules in Iowa’s January 3 contest, which opens the state-by-state race to choose candidates for the November 2008 election, Democratic contenders are required to muster support from at least 15 percent of the attendees in each precinct to be considered viable.

If a candidate cannot reach that threshold, his backers can switch to a second choice.

For the Republicans, it is simply a case of voting for one’s first choice. As such, the Democratic contest is harder to poll and predict, while the Republican process is more straight-forward.

Dan Balz, writing at WaPo‘s The Trail has a lengthy piece on the topic as well (The Iowa Rules), which includes this summary:

The Democratic results you’ll see reported on Jan. 3 may approximate the percentage of people who turned out for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or John Edwards or any of the other Democrats, but it will not necessarily be a close approximation. (Republicans report what is essentially a straw poll of those who show up on caucus night.)

The gap between the number of people who show up ready to support one candidate or another and the percentages you’ll see reported grows out of what happens once the caucus begins. In each precinct, a candidate must reach a threshold in order to qualify for any of the delegates being awarded there that night (known in the jargon of the Iowa Democratic Party as SDEs, or “state delegate equivalents.”)

If a candidate falls short of that threshold, say 15 percent or 20 percent of the total number of people in the room, his or her supporters can redistribute themselves with another candidate.

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3 Responses to “Point of Clarification on Iowa Caucus Rules (Rep Rules v. Dem Rules)”

  1. MSS Says:

    That the Republican process is “more straight-forward” is hardly a virtue in a field where the “winner” may have a quarter of the (first-preference) votes.

    In any event, thanks for the info, and this now means my point the other day in one of your Huckabee threads was partly incorrect. I thought both parties operated under the same general rules in Iowa.

    (Also note that the threshold of “viability” for Dems varies by precinct. Your first quoted passage says 15%, but the other notes, “say, 15 percent or 20 percent,” correctly noting that it varies according to precinct “magnitude.”)

  2. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

    Just to be clear, I wasn’t considering the GOP process virtuous, just less complicated.

    I will confess as to continue being confused on some of the finer details of the Democratic system.

    (And I knew it was your comment about the front-runner in Iowa that I needed to respond to, but I couldn’t remember in which post and was too lazy to go look!).

  3. MSS Says:

    Nah, I am lazier than you, Steven.

    As for the Dem rules, what they do on caucus night is simple–essentially it is STV. And, yes, STV is simple, especially for tiny electorates and when the transfers from one candidate to another happen literally by the voters moving from one part of a room to another. (Fortunately, no fractional transfers are involved here!)

    It is what happens afterwards that is complicated. On caucus night they are only establishing “delegate equivalents” (as I think it says in the main post, but I would have to scroll to find out and I am lazy). There are county caucuses (conventions?) and ultimately a state convention that take those delegate equivalents and convert them into actual delegates. I have no idea if the Rep process has similar multiple stages.


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