The Iowa caucus kicks off the primary race Monday night, and recent polls suggest it’s going to be a close one. Donald Trump retook the lead from Ted Cruz in the latest Des Moines Register poll, widely regarded as the most reliable, but caucus history suggests it may be closer when Iowans start making the real decisions at 8 p.m. Eastern Monday night.
Starting at 8 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. local time), Iowans will report to their caucus precincts and check in, or register with the party they intend to caucus with if they’re currently registered as independents. The doors will close shortly thereafter, as the process for both parties can be complicated and too time-consuming to allow for interruption from latecomers. From there, the parties take two different routes to slecting the precinct’s choice, both of which make an accurate timing of the closing hard to estimate.
Republican caucus-goers at each precinct will hear a short final appeal from each candidate’s campaign, after which secret ballots will be cast, counted, and percentages assigned. With 11 candidates drawing at least 1 percent of Iowa voters in the RealClearPolitics Iowa polling aggregation, it could take a substantial amount of time before Iowa Republicans complete the caucus process.
Democrats, meanwhile, have an entirely separate, no-ballot process for assigning delegates. Democratic caucus-goers organize on the caucus floor into groups favoring specific candidates. If a caucus-goer’s candidate draws less than 15 percent in a particular precinct, the candidate is declared “non-viable” and the caucus-goer can choose another candidate or declare him- or herself uncommitted. With Iowa looking like an a tight two-candidate race and a non-viable candidate in Martin O’Malley pulling enough caucus-goers to put Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton over the top, but not enough to make himself viable, a contentious reorganization could make the timing of the results unpredictable.
While it’s impossible to predict exactly when the Iowa caucuses will close for the reasons stated above, history suggests that Iowa results will start to come in somewhere between midnight to 1 a.m. Eastern. It may come earlier than in previous years, though, thanks to Microsoft pitching in to speed up results reporting with a new app for precinct staff, replacing an older touch-tone-based system that bogged reporting down due to human error.