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The Iowa Caucuses Explained For British People

What's an Iowa, and why should we care?

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So, it seems some non-Americans have a few questions about what's going on in American politics today.

Let's find out!

2. Iowa is the first state to vote in the seemingly endless process of the two parties in the US choosing their candidates for president, which at this stage feels like it's been happening for about 57 years.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

If the nomination process is like an army on a long, grim death march through a never-ending winter, this is the bit where they start eating the horses.

3. Why is Iowa the first to vote? Because of some fucking history, that's why.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Basically some lads couldn't book a hotel room in June in the 1970s so the caucus was moved to January meaning it was first, and then four years later Jimmy Carter was like "better get involved" and campaigned really hard in Iowa and did really well and that helped him become president and suddenly everybody was all like "oooh this really matters".


4. This means the candidates have to spend an inordinate amount of time schlepping to and fro in Iowa, a state of around 3 million people, in a country of more than 300 million people.

6. In a field with so many candidates, both Democratic and Republican, campaigns are desperate for the undecided and the simply confused. So they make instructional videos like this one from the Sanders campaign to motivate their side.

That's a two-term state senator and kindly older woman saying, "it's going to be fucking awesome." America!

7. Wait, so who are those candidates?

Andrew Burton / Getty Images

There are more Republicans vying for the nomination than Democrats. The key candidates are:

* Donald Trump – implausibly haired parody of every appalling stereotype Brits have ever believed about America

* Ted Cruz – proudest achievement is shutting down the entire US government to make a point

* Marco Rubio – Florida senator with a strong policy record, who has spent the past few months trying to distance himself from his policy record

* Jeb Bush – Son of George HW, Brother of George W, somehow seems even less enthusiastic about a third Bush presidency than everybody else in the US

* Ben Carson – renowned neurosurgeon; now the reason why "brain surgery" has been crossed off the list of "jobs you need to be smart to do well", to the delight of rocket scientists everywhere

* Rand Paul – much as Jeb Bush is trying to follow in his father's footsteps by winning the presidency, libertarian Rand Paul looks set to follow in his father Ron's footsteps by not winning it

* Chris Christie – New Jersey governor, troubled by a scandal over the time he shut down a bridge, which frankly pales in comparison to Ted Cruz's shutting-shit-down achievements

* John Kasich – no idea who he is tbh

Meanwhile, the Democrat field is smaller. The two-and-a-half candidates in contention are:

* Hillary Clinton – former Secretary of State, senator for New York, first lady, and defeated rival of Barack Obama's in 2008, will not be fucking happy if America doesn't pull itself together and elect her this time

* Bernie Sanders – proudly socialist senator from Vermont, calling for a "revolution" and confusing the political establishment by running Hillary very close. Basically a beardless Jeremy Corbyn with a Brooklyn accent

* Martin O'Malley – no-hoper from Maryland, only still in the race because it gives him an excuse to play his guitar


8. After the candidates traipse around different Iowa libraries and high schools and dismal gymnasiums, the actual voting begins.

10. For Democrats, you go to one of 1,681 designated caucus-y places in Iowa at 6:30pm-ish. Then you listen to some speeches and decide who's your fave candidate and then go physically stand in their corner by 7pm.

These sperms are like, "Can Bernie win over centrists? Should I go with Hillary? Who's Martin O'Malley?"

11. At 7pm some nice old lady comes round and counts how many people are in which corner. Some campaigns will have attracted loads, and some will have shat the bed.

Those campaigns that didn't get enough people to stand in their huddle aren't considered "viable" (usually this means they got less than 15%) and they are disbanded in shame.


13. Then when they've made up their minds (or just want to go home tbh) they all go stand in their new, better corners with their real, viable, winner-y candidates.

Then the nice old lady comes round and does a little re-count, divvies up the delegates that caucus has elected, they all have some orange juice and a cookie or two, and go home, resplendent in their electoral power.

14. If, say, your name is "Fartin O'Falley", and you weren't viable in the end, you go home with nothing. That's why the ~viable~ campaigns are totally flirting with the loser candidates' supporters right now.


"Give me your delegates, you total fucking loser!" – The Hillary Clinton Campaign


16. Like they actually just write a name on some paper and it's a secret ballot and everything.

Still called a "caucus" though, cause Iowans are all about the caucus.

17. Delegates are divvied out proportionally to how many people caucused for you – remember, Americans don't vote directly for presidents, but elect "delegates" to go and vote for the candidate for them, which is honestly a bit silly.

Paramount Pictures

But anyway, the delegates are won, tears are shed, warm smiles fall upon the rosy cheeks of victorious campaign workers, and the 24-hour cable news networks assemble endless panels for a week of shouting about "WHAT IT ALL MEEEAAANNNSSS!!!"

19. A close result means the frontrunners get virtually the same number of delegates anyway, making it all slightly pointless. Still, everybody will still care who came first because it shows they have ~momentum~.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

If the polls are right, those people will probably be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

But basically it's a bit uncertain because, LOL, polls. Will all the disillusioned voters swarming to Trump and Sanders actually come out to vote if it means standing in a school gym for two hours? Hahaha nobody knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯


20. Also it doesn't necessarily matter who wins the Iowa caucuses because they don't have the greatest track record of predicting the actual winners of the contests.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

In 2012, Rick Santorum won the Republican Iowa caucuses. In 2008, Mike Huckabee did. In 1992, Bill Clinton only got 3% of the vote in Iowa, before going on to win the presidency.

21. Also, lol, in 2004, Howard Dean got third place in the Democratic race, which was a poorer showing than he'd expected – but what REALLY fucked him over was when he let out this guttural scream at a rally after the result.

It sank his campaign and is basically all he's remembered for now, lmao.

22. Anyway, after Iowa's all caucussed out, the very next week (9 February) all eyes turn to New Hampshire, where they do proper 21st-century voting.