Monday, February 1, 2016


The Iowa caucuses are going on this evening, which is the way that a state's Democratic and Republican parties choose their delegates for their respective party conventions. Iowa generates a lot of buzz because it's the first state to do so in the election year, and is a kind of marker separating all the speculation that goes on before a single vote has been cast and the kind of speculation that goes on after there's a little hard data coming in. People claim to be able to predict a lot by what happens in Iowa and perhaps they even can.

I'm a Californian, and we don't have caucuses, we have primaries, so "caucus" is one of those many, many words and concepts that I have some vague and woolly understanding of, meaning, basically, no understanding at all.

But let's start with the word itself. For some reason, it always reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, and that's because, on investigation, there actually is a caucus race in chapter three. According to Spark Notes, the Dodo suggests a caucus race in order to get dry, which consists of all the animals running around helter skelter for half an hour until the Dodo declares the race at an end. Is it any wonder that I have a very strange notion of what goes on in those Iowa caucus rooms?

                                                               Project Gutenberg

Having suspected a British origin, I thought "caucus" might go back to the Romans, the "-us" on the end being the clue, but in this I was very wrong. It's actually an American word, which goes way back to the early days of the country, and has origins in a couple of possible sources, none definitive. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, its first in print in 1763 and may have come from the Algonquin word for counselor or adviser, which was caucausu, or from the name of a Boston drinking club, the Caucus Club, which may have been taken from the Greek kaukos, which means drinking cup. Whatever the origins, it was an American style institution from the get go, which makes me wonder how Lewis Carroll got interested in it.

The first usage mentioned in print referred to a private meeting of party leaders, but the term soon became more generalized and John Pickering in his 1816 book, "A vocabulary, or collection of words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States of America" called it a cant term referring to any meeting where party members agree on candidates or measures before more public discussions. (Quote is at Online Etymology Dictionary if you're interested.)

I wouldn't have been able to tell you before looking into this, but Iowa is far from the only state to hold caucuses. What's your guess? This article by Andi O'Rourke will tell you exactly how many states (and territories, that's a hint) use the caucus selection process. It also breaks down how each state uses the caucus process in its own way.

As far as the Iowa caucuses goes, the Democrats and the Republicans handle them in quite different ways. Both parties convene in a variety of precinct meeting places, like churches, schools, etc. There may be speeches and some last minute items of business. At this point, the Republicans cast secret ballots, pretty much like you would in a California primary (although, as I watch, it's really just folded pieces of paper handed in) and at that point, their work is done. For the Democrats, though, their work is only beginning.

Democrats gather into candidate preference groups. Then each group is counted. A candidate has to have 15% of the total votes in the room at the time of the count. If they don't, their group has to disperse and throw in their lot with another group, and that group now has to try and come up with the required 15%. Patrick Allen at Life Hacker has a good piece on all of this

Here's an example from a presidential precinct in Iowa, circa 2008.

Hmm. Maybe Lewis Carroll was more on point than I thought.


  1. I have a theory about where Lewis Carroll may have heard about a caucus race....In Charles Dickens's American Notes he attends one and is not terribly impressed.

    Carroll probably read American Notes (it was a best seller).

  2. Cool. I think that's a fair guess. I'm going to have to hunt out that Dickens' impression of a caucus in his day.

    I was pleased to hear Bernie Sanders mention in the debate last night that he had caucused with some group or other in Congress, which gives another current day usage of the word.

  3. No relation to the British "cock-up," is there?

  4. I think only in substance, Peter.

  5. Having take a brief glance at The Phrase Finder, I fear that the origins of cock-up are too murky even for me.