2024 Iowa caucus FAQ: What it is and why it's first

Iowa Republicans have scheduled the partys presidential nominating caucuses for Jan. 15.
Iowa Republicans have scheduled the party’s presidential nominating caucuses for Jan. 15. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

All eyes will be on Iowa Jan. 15, as the Republican primary caucus officially kicks off the 2024 race for the White House. While the process remains largely unchanged for Republicans, things definitely look different for Democrats in the Hawkeye State this year. Here’s your guide to the 2024 Iowa caucus: What it is, how it works and why it matters.

What is a caucus and how is it different from a primary?

Political caucuses are meetings held across a given state for registered voters to show their support for a specific candidate. In Iowa, it’s the first step to select people to serve as delegates at the national conventions for Republicans and Democrats this summer. So, technically, caucus goers aren’t voting for candidates, they’re voting for the delegates who will support a specific candidate on behalf of the state.

A caucus is different from a primary in that it is overseen by political parties rather than the state government. The voting methods and time allotted for voting in a caucus is also different from that of traditional primaries.

In a primary, voters can show up to cast their ballot at any time on Election Day, starting when the polls open in the morning until they close that night. If a voter can’t make it to the polls on Election Day, they can cast an absentee ballot or participate in early voting, depending on the state.

The Iowa caucuses, for example, begin at a specific time in the evening and require in-person participation in most instances, with exceptions for a handful of overseas and military voters.

When and where will the Iowa caucus take place?

On Monday, Jan. 15, the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Republicans across the state will gather in places like schools, churches and community halls at 7 p.m. CT.

Who can vote?

Residents of Iowa who are registered Republicans, and who will be at least 18 years old by the November general election, can take part in the caucuses in their designated home precincts. Statewide there are about 1,700 precincts, according to Reuters. On caucus day, Iowans also have the chance to either register or change their party affiliation.

What about Iowa Democrats?

For the first time in 50 years, the Democratic presidential primary process will not begin in Iowa. Instead, the Democratic National Committee has chosen South Carolina to kick off the party’s 2024 election cycle with its Feb. 3 primary. The drastic shake up, which was supported by President Biden, seeks to prioritize minority voters in selecting the party’s nominee for the White House.

Instead of participating in the traditional caucus process, this year Iowa Democrats will choose their party’s presidential nominee entirely through mail-in voting. The results won’t be known until March 5, or Super Tuesday.

Read more from Yahoo News: Elections 2024: Your guide to all the key dates for primaries, debates and what happens next

So how will the Republican caucus work?

The Republican caucus process is pretty simple. Iowa voters listen to speeches from candidate representatives before choosing a candidate by secret ballot, typically by writing the name of their preferred candidate on a slip of blank paper.

The state party then tallies up the secret ballot votes and, typically within a few hours, the delegates who will go to the county conventions in February are announced. From there, additional conventions will be held at the district and state levels before the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee on July 15, where the national party will officially announce its nominee for president.

Why does Iowa get to go first?

It all started with the infamous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president who supported the controversial Vietnam War, received the Democratic nomination despite entering the race too late to participate in the Democratic primaries. Chaotic protests and riots erupted outside the convention that year.

In the aftermath of 1968, Democratic Party leaders wanted to make the presidential nomination process was more transparent and inclusive, in part by spacing out the schedule for each state’s primary elections. Because Iowa has one of the most complex nomination processes in the nation – with four steps just to get to the national conventions – it had to start early in the year.

In 1972, the Democratic Party held first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa, with the GOP following suit in 1976. 1976 was also the first year that Iowa established itself as a key contest on the road to the White House after Jimmy Carter, who many considered a long shot for the Democratic nomination, won the caucuses and then the presidency.

Are the Iowa caucuses really that important?

"The really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it's first because it's important. Iowa is important because it's first," Kathie Obradovich, a political columnist for the Des Moines Register, told NPR in 2016.

Because of Iowa’s long standing placement on the primary election calendar, it has had the potential to reveal early frontrunners in each party’s presidential race. Perhaps more notably, as Yahoo News’ Jon Ward notes, the results of the Iowa caucuses can also narrow the presidential field by reducing the number of candidates for either party’s nomination down to two or three.