February 3, 2020

The Weather Should Mostly Cooperate For Monday's Cumbersome Iowa Caucus

Weather shouldn't hinder Iowans heading out to caucus on Monday night in the first contest of the 2020 presidential election. The lengthy and rigid nature of caucuses makes this type of voting more susceptible to dampened turnout than traditional elections. Most of Iowa can expect a typical February evening with subfreezing temperatures and a breeze that makes it feel even colder. Freezing drizzle might make for some slick roads in the southwestern part of the state.

Iowa's Democrats and Republicans will begin their caucuses at 7:00 PM CST. Temperatures will struggle to climb much above the 30s across most of Iowa during the day on Monday, allowing temperatures to quickly fall once the sun sets. The National Weather Service expects most of Iowa (except the southeastern counties) to fall below freezing by the start of the caucuses.

Patchy drizzle and freezing drizzle is possible across the southern half of Iowa during the evening hours, especially east of Omaha, which could make roads and sidewalks slippery in some places. Any icing issues could deter voters from heading out to caucus, but it's unlikely that the drizzle will become a big deal. Overall, it should just be cold and windy for the election's first voters.

Caucuses are a lengthy process compared to traditional elections. Rather than casting ballots, voters arrive at their voting precincts at a set time and physically gather in different sections of the room in support of their preferred candidate. Officials conduct a headcount for each candidate's section and tabulate the results. In the Democratic contest, supporters of candidates who don't win enough support have the opportunity to caucus for a different candidate or persuade others to come to their side before the second count. The final tally is used to calculate delegates at the state and national level.

Monday night's bearable conditions across Iowa should remove the one natural barrier to this otherwise obstacle-laden process. The involved nature of caucuses makes the event last about an hour, though a contested race or a heavily attended caucus can stretch it out even longer.

This kind of rigid time commitment—aside from making caucuses difficult to attend or flat-out inaccessible for parents, low-income workers, disabled individuals, those who are sick, those without transportation, or those for whom a public and confrontational voting process may be ill-advised due to social, domestic, or mental pressures—means that foul weather can easily dissuade potential caucusgoers from venturing into rain or snow or extreme temperatures. Political scientists have found that foul weather depresses turnout, and it stands to reason that the effect is even more pronounced in an involved caucus than it would be in a traditional election.

The 2020 presidential nomination process will feature less than half the number of caucuses we saw during the 2016 cycle. Democrats in 14 states held a caucus during the 2016 election, compared to just three traditional caucuses (IA, NV, and WY) this time around.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.