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How votes are counted could make for wild Iowa Caucus

First votes cast in 2020 election won't be on a ballot
Posted at 9:57 PM, Jan 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-03 11:32:36-05

The Iowa Caucus is just days away, marking the first votes to be cast in the 2020 presidential election.

According to polling, Monday's Iowa Caucus is wide open, as several Democrats could end up ahead at the end of the night.

But the Iowa Caucus is very different than how most of us are accustomed to voting, and polls do not give a full view of how the night will be decided.

Votes are not on a typical secret ballot

The Iowa Caucus for Democrats is more like a community event rather than a typical election. Rather than using a secret ballot, caucus goers will first hear from supporters of the candidates, representatives of the campaigns, or perhaps even from the candidate themselves.

Then those on hand will literally "take sides," and join with other supporters of that campaign. At the precinct, a determination is made of viable and non-viable candidates (generally 15% is the threshold).

The supporters of non-viable candidates will then be given 15 minutes to join a viable campaign, or abstain. Once the 15 minutes are up, a tally is taken, and the Democratic Party releases state delegate equivalents, which is the most important figure of the night.

Some caucuses are decided by coin flips

With the 2016 caucus being very close, the winner of at least several caucus events were decided by a coin flip via a smartphone app. Bernie Sanders' campaign criticized the Democratic Party for its lack of transparency in announcing which caucuses were decided by a coin flip.

What is at stake on Monday

The difference between first and second could potentially be a small one. For instance, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won 23 national delegates while Sanders won 21.

For Monday's Iowa Caucus, a total of 41 national delegates will be up for grabs. The Democrats divvy delegates in a proportional basis, meaning with a wide-open field, it is likely that a candidate will not receive a majority of the delegates on Monday.

But with Iowa representing the first votes cast in the nomination process, it is important to do well for fundraising and momentum purposes.

What do the polls say?

Four candidates could potentially win on Monday, making it potentially one of the most competitive Iowa Caucuses ever.

An aggregate of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics gives Sanders the edge over former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanders has seen a surge in his polling, while Biden's numbers have leveled off.

Sanders has clearly benefited from a drop of support in the polls for Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Polls in November indicated that Warren was in the lead in Iowa. Then in December, it appeared that Buttigieg was in the lead in the polls.

The four frontrunners have held a lead at some point in the polling in the last two months.

But the Iowa Caucus might be most important to Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is hoping that Iowa as a neighboring state to Minnesota could keep her presidential hopes alive. An Emerson poll released this week showed Klobuchar coming in third, ahead of Warren and Buttigieg.

But with a large field, where supporters of non-viable candidates end up could play a pivotal role in deciding who wins on Monday.

What happens after Iowa

Eight days after Iowa, the candidates go to New Hampshire in hopes of winning as many of the state's 24 pledged delegates as possible. There, Sanders has held a modest lead in the polls.

Process under fire

Some have criticized the long-established process of giving Iowa and New Hampshire outsized roles in the Democrats' nominating process given the states' lack of diversity. Both states have populations that are more than 90% white. The population of the United States is 73% white, according to Census figures.