“What’s a straw poll?” + 6 other questions about primaries and caucuses

With the Iowa straw poll coming up on August 13, it’s time for a refresher course on caucuses and primaries.

Fred Thompson on stage in Iowa. Photo credit: Flickr user freddthompson

Every four years when there is a presidential election, the first states voters hear about are Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But why these states? Why Iowa, of all places? What would the founding fathers say about a state that has seven electoral votes being the stepping stone in the nomination process? How can that be? Shouldn’t it be California, New York, Texas, or Pennsylvania?

Here’s a handy primer to help you sort things out.

Have we always had primaries?

The founding fathers never imagined primaries and caucuses, but they have become the true meaning of a democratic electoral process. Political parties and their members get together more than a year before an election to select a presidential candidate—a process that has now taken center stage with the American media. Caucuses have been around since the mid-19th century, and since have played an increasingly important role for selecting presidential candidates in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Why Iowa?

Iowa became the first in the Union to hold a statewide test for Presidential candidates. In 1972, the state instituted reforms to their process of selecting delegates. This is why the Iowa caucus is known as the “first in the nation”.

Who sets the primary calendar?

Parties set their own calendar for primaries, but ultimately the state governments decide. While Iowa continues to retain the moniker of “first in the nation”, other states have tried to move up their own primaries. The Republican National Committee, which is handling the schedule for the 2012 election, has tried to avoid the 2008 situation, where the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary were only less than a week apart.

Iowa has threatened in the past to move their caucus up to December, in order to stay first. The RNC has also implemented a system that would avoid a single national primary where states would hold their nominating contests on the same day. This schedule impacts the presidential nominating system by ensuring candidates to campaign across the country.

What’s the difference between a caucus and a primary?

A caucus is a meeting arranged by either a political or state party. Caucuses are different because only registered voters can participate. For instance, the Iowa caucus will only have registered Republican voters in Iowa voting. A primary is a direct, statewide process of selecting candidates and delegates. There are two kinds of primaries: an open primary means all registered voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of political party affiliation. This also means that Independents can participate as well. However, a closed primary only allows voters to vote for candidates of the party they belong to.

What’s the Iowa straw poll?

The Iowa straw poll takes place in Ames, Iowa at a fundraising dinner for the Iowa Republican party. Candidates who pay a 15,000 dollar minimum to set up a tent at the venue also have the opportunity to give a short speech. If a candidate does not set up a tent, they cannot make a speech.

A win at the straw poll can drum up media attention and provide momentum for the Iowa caucus and other primaries.

How important is it?

The straw poll does not have an official effect on the presidential primaries, but it is generally considered the first test for presidential candidates. A win at the straw poll can drum up media attention and provide momentum for the Iowa caucus and other primaries.

Who is on the ballot this year?

The official ballot will include nine names, including Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich, who are all declared candidates but chose not to compete in the straw poll. It is not unprecedented for candidates to be on the ballot and have chose not to participate in the straw poll. John McCain did it in 2007 and ended up winning the Republican presidential nomination. Rounding out the list is Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Thaddeus McCotter, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Santorum. And for the first time in the history of the straw poll, Iowans can vote for anyone they like as write-ins will be counted.

Matt Riffe is a Public Programs Demonstrator at the National Constitution Center and the creator of “Hail to the Chief: Presidential Trivia”.

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