(Update: In response to this piece, a former colleague noted that he has described the Iowa caucuses as “ranked-choice voting presented as performative dance” – which is such a great line that I had to include it here.)
Here in New Hampshire we pretend the Iowa Caucuses don’t exist because they steal some of our presidential thunder, but the delays over reporting results have forced us to look at how it works. Perhaps as a result, I’ve heard several queries this morning from readers and colleagues along the lines of: “Are the caucuses just ranked-choice voting done by people in a room?”
The answer: Sort of, but not really.
The Iowa caucuses, like ranked-choice voting ballots, eliminate the supporters of low-ranking candidates and transfer their votes to their next choice, doing this over and over until you reach some pre-determined level of victory.
So far, so similar. But the differences are huge.
First, voters in Iowa make their choices sequentially. With RCV ballots you decide your first-through-last choices all at once; in Iowa you can make up your mind on the fly about where to go next.
Just as importantly, at a caucus (as compared to a secret ballot) you can see what others are doing and others can see what you’re doing. Peer pressure plays a huge role in Iowa.
So, no, the caucuses aren’t like ranked-choice voting done in a room. They’re a weird hodge-podge all their own.
And, in my humble opinion, a ridiculous way to choose a leader.
Another way that they are different, and more directly mathematically important, is the fact that they are tabulated BY PRECINCT. This throws the numbers off substantially. A candidate who isn’t viable in precinct A may still, by overall votes, have been viable state wide, and therefore retained their voters instead of losing them.
Further, in the IA caucuses all candidates not at 15% were allowed to reallocate simultaneously. This is different than RCV, where only the least-vote getter is elongated and those ballots reallocated, one at a time.