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How The Iowa Caucuses Work


And after a long, long run-up, Iowans are finally caucusing tonight, kicking off the Democratic presidential nomination process. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben is there. She joins me now from Des Moines.

Hey, Danielle.


KELLY: Hey. So what are you seeing? What's your overall impression?

KURTZLEBEN: So my overall impression is that Democrats here are just really, really energized. I've been out with Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator, for the last few days. Her events have been packed, some of them with overflow crowds. And my colleagues who have been with other candidates have also told me those candidates are also seeing huge crowds. And I've asked a lot of these people who are attending these, you know, what's your top issue? Quite a few say just defeating Donald Trump. So one possibility is that there's just going to be a very large turnout tonight just because of all that energy.

KELLY: Let's do a little review of the basics here - caucuses 101. What happens in a caucus?

KURTZLEBEN: So different states and parties do it differently, so let's just focus on the Iowa Democrats here. If you're an Iowa Democrat and you're caucusing, you show up, and you physically go sit or stand in a group in the corner of the gym or the community center or whatever with the other people who support Bernie Sanders or Amy Klobuchar, whoever your candidate is. Now, if your candidate doesn't have 15% of the people in the room, your candidate isn't viable, and you have to go pick someone else.

And by the way, this means it's not a secret ballot like a lot of primaries have. It means being very public with whom you support. And I've watched some of these caucuses before, and this can make for some awkwardness - you know, a wife and husband at different tables trying to convince each other to change their minds or a pastor and their congregation members. It's good-natured, usually, but in some of these small towns, everyone knows everyone, and it's no small thing.

KELLY: Now, there are some changes this year. The rules have changed in Iowa. Tell us what's going on with that.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. A few of these have been pretty big changes. One is that once you've picked your candidate and your candidate has 15%, you are locked in. You cannot change after that. That wasn't always the case. In addition, you can only choose a maximum of two candidates. If your first pick isn't viable, you pick a second choice, and that's it.

The idea here was the Iowa Democratic Party trying to streamline things. Being able to shift around a bunch, make multiple choices - it has made for very long caucuses in some places in the past. Now, since you're locked in once you pick someone, you can potentially leave after you're locked in. And that alleviates some concerns about...

KELLY: Oh, you can go home. You're done. OK.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. And that alleviates some concerns about accessibility. For people who, you know, might need to get home, watch the kids, that allows them to.

KELLY: All right. Lots to watch for tonight there in Iowa. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben giving us a primer on what to watch for.

We appreciate it.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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