On February 1, the first voting contest in the presidential nominating process kicks into gear in the US state of Iowa. Because it is the first state to do so, candidates invest heavily there, whether by holding debates or canvassing.
Iowans vote in caucuses, which are small political meetings held throughout 1,681 locations scattered around the state. They are similar to primaries in that residents cast ballots for their preferred party candidate, and whoever garners the most votes wins. But people do not just show up and vote – the process is essentially a meeting of friends and neighbours in high school gyms and church basements, where discussions about candidates are held.
Representatives for the candidates are present and, at one point, attempt to persuade undecided voters. This is what makes caucuses different from primaries. The Iowa caucuses, which have represented the nation’s first ballot-marking since the 1970s, is also different for Democrats and Republicans.
The caucuses: Republican vs Democrat
In the US, elections take place like this: Citizens elect delegates, delegates elect nominees, and nominees become presidents.
On the Republican side, the caucuses are straightforward: Voters turn up, listen to speeches, and then cast their vote by a secret ballot. Votes are tallied statewide. A winner is subsequently declared.
On the Democratic side, the process is more convoluted and time-consuming. The number of people in the room are counted, and any candidate who does not get a certain percentage (a threshold set at the beginning of the night) in the first round, is eliminated.
Those who voted for losing candidates are then coaxed by the others to join their side and to vote for their candidate of choice. At the end, the results are collated across the state in all precincts.
Despite the hoopla surrounding the Iowa caucuses, the real impact of this process happens further down the line, when results are eventually translated into votes for delegates, who represent their states at their respective party conventions. These delegates are the ones who vote for a candidate to run in the national election.
Why are the Iowa caucuses significant?
Iowans defend the caucus as an exercise in real grassroots democracy, given the extent of politicking and discussion that goes on. However, some argue that the lengthy and complex caucus is archaic and should be changed.
One of the problems with placing so much weight on Iowa is that it is not demographically representative of the US, with a population that is approximately 90 percent white versus 77 percent nationwide.
“The importance of Iowa is enshrined in tradition. It’s not practical,” said Jason Johnson, a professor of political science and communication at Hiram College in Ohio.
“Other states are more demographically and economically diverse and are a better indicator of how you would do nationally. It’s just that we have been doing it for so long that no one wants to advocate its change,” Johnson, who has worked for both Republicans and Democrats as a campaign manager, told Al Jazeera.
If this state is small and unrepresentative, why does it have such an impact on the race? In a nutshell, it is because it is the first contest for people to get their party nomination. If a candidate does not do well in those early states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, financial and electoral support eventually begins to dry up. This gives Iowa the power to narrow down the playing field.
“Because it is the first, a large number of voters within the two parties and a large number of the press and party elites in [Washington] DC choose to make it an important contest,” Johnson said.
“Your success in Iowa is perceived to be an indicator for your ability to organise, to get people on the ground and to have voters enthusiastically support you.”
What do the Iowa caucuses achieve?
Because of the sequential system, the results of the ‘first-in-the-nation’ caucuses can affect how people in the next state vote (it helps them adjust their expectations accordingly), give winning candidates more airtime and media attention, and impact the behaviour of donors. More importantly, it narrows down the number of candidates to a manageable size.
“Its most important facet is that it winnows the field,” said Lara Brown, the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants. “It typically brings out two to three candidates who have the media momentum and organisational campaign to go forward.”
The winnowing effect of the Iowa caucuses helps predict the losing nominee. That is because it separates the “starters from the non-starters,” according to Bill Schneider, a political analyst who has covered every US presidential and midterm election since 1976.
“You will see candidates dropping out after Iowa,” Schneider told Al Jazeera. “People who vote in the Republican caucuses tend to be evangelical. They are not representative of the larger party. On the Democratic side, they tend to be very liberal, because it’s people who have the commitment to attend what’s essentially a meeting.”
Since 1972, no Democratic or Republican candidate who finished worse than fourth place in Iowa has gone on to win their party’s nomination, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
Most often, it is those hopefuls who get a top tier spot who continue to do well in their campaigns. Those who do not usually drop out of the race soon thereafter, although there are a few exceptions. A case in point is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who, in 2008, won the Republican caucus, but dropped out just three months later, without securing the GOP nomination.
What does this mean for this year’s race?
Essentially, pundits, strategists, candidates and people will be using the Iowa caucuses’ results as a litmus test to see how the nation responds to candidates and to set the stage and build momentum for the first primary held in New Hampshire about a week later. It is also a chance for voters and the media to see if the results measure up to their expectations.
In the Democratic contest, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was leading in polls until Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders caught up with her. In Iowa, he recently topped Clinton at 49 percent to 45 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, essentially locking both candidates in a tight battle.
While Sanders has positioned himself to seriously compete in this race, Iowa may be a tough win for him, according to some observers.
“Hillary Clinton has long focused on Iowa as essentially a shortcoming of her previous campaign, and I’d be surprised if she doesn’t win there,” Brown told Al Jazeera. “Bernie Sanders has to bring a lot of first-time caucus-goers who may not be as active and knowledgeable as Clinton’s supporters.”
On the GOP side, all eyes will be on billionaire Donald Trump, and whether people will actually go out and vote for him. The celebrity tycoon is leading in Iowa with about 31 percent, compared with 29 percent for Senator Ted Cruz, according to the same Quinnipiac University poll.
“As Trump gains momentum, there will be a lot of caucusers who think he’s going to be the nominee so they say ‘let me get on board’,” said Joe Watkins, a Republican strategist. “They see who’s going to win and they want in. That’s how it works.”
Trump, who won the endorsement of former GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, recently exuded confidence at an Iowa rally when he said he “could shoot somebody” on New York’s Fifth Avenue and “wouldn’t lose any voters”.
“With Palin’s endorsement, he’s digging into Ted Cruz’s base, which is the evangelical Christian base,” Watkins, who was a White House aide to former President George Bush senior, told Al Jazeera.
In New Hampshire, Trump has a much larger lead over the other Republican presidential hopefuls there, so if he wins in Iowa, he can bring both contests to South Carolina, which then puts him in a comfortable position on Super Tuesday, a day on which several US states hold primaries.
Schneider explained that there are two ways things can go for Trump: His supporters, many of whom have never voted in a caucus before, may not show up, especially since he has not invested as much time and energy on the ground there.
“A caucus is a meeting. It takes a lot more energy to attend a meeting,” Schneider said. “You need something to pull people out of their beds, find babysitters for their kids, to get them to that meeting. Without that sort of operation, his people won’t show up.”
On the other hand, it is possible that Trump’s supporters will show up without any organisation. “His people are so fired up, they want their voice to be heard. So it could happen. It happened to [Barack] Obama in 2008.”
What happens after the caucuses?
“Just because a candidate wins Iowa doesn’t mean he wins the general election,” Republican strategist Watkins said. “It’s all very fluid and not automatic.”
“It’s possible Trump can win Iowa and even the Republican nomination, but winning the general election is something else; he’d have to win constituents who aren’t Republican, or he has to walk back many of his comments that alienated others.”
The results of Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primaries also tend to go hand in hand. “Iowa and New Hampshire are different kinds of tests, but they go together: Iowa is a very restricted electorate. New Hampshire is more open because they allow independents,” Schneider said. “If you fail both these tests, then it’s time to leave.”