What is the Iowa caucus and why is it important?

Race to the 2024 US presidential election begins as Republican voters gear up to participate in the year’s first caucuses.

Republican voters in Iowa are gearing up to participate in the caucus that will test former President Donald Trump’s influence over the party as the race to the 2024 presidential election officially begins. But record cold temperatures will likely affect turnout.

Winning the state won’t guarantee the party’s nomination but it will create momentum leading up to the Republican convention in July, when the party candidate will be declared.

Caucus and primaries are the two ways the Republicans and the governing Democrats choose their candidates. The majority of US states hold primaries while some traditional Republican states such as Iowa hold caucuses to elect delegates. The delegates elected in caucuses and primaries vote in the convention.

This unique voting affair in Iowa – a Republican-dominated state – has marked the beginning of presidential primaries since 1972.

Here is all to know about the Iowa caucuses.

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What is the Iowa caucus and how does it work?

Iowa caucuses are in-person meetings among voters of each party in Iowa. They are similar to primaries, except they are run by parties instead of the state.

Public speeches are delivered on behalf of the candidates to rally support. Registered Republicans cast their vote through a secret paper ballot. No postal ballot is allowed. The votes are then tallied and winners are announced in a matter of few hours.

Registered Republican voters who are legal residents of Iowa will gather in caucus precincts as early as two hours before the commencement of the caucus. The voters have to be 18 years old by the time the elections are held in November.

Precincts are venues within Iowa assigned for the Republican in-person vote. This year, there are over 1,600 such venues, typically school buildings, churches and community centres.

People who are not registered voters or registered Republicans can also participate in the caucus, but they have to register in person at their precinct.

Why is the Iowa caucus important?

If we look at numbers alone, the Republican caucus will not be much of an indicator of who the Republican nominee would be. Iowa is allocated a mere 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this summer, making up only 1.6 percent of the total.

However, since the caucus is unique and inaugural to the primaries, candidates can leverage the momentum they can gain from its results as they head to the New Hampshire primary the following week.

The results of the caucuses are the first litmus test of the viability and momentum of Trump and other candidates in the race. They will also help gauge the strength of support for candidates, especially this year in blizzard-stricken Iowa.

But the Iowa caucus is not a reliable predictor of the eventual winner of the Republican — or Democratic — party nominees for the presidential race.

Mike Huckabee in 2008, Ron Paul in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016 won the Republican caucuses. None of them won the party’s primary race, with John McCain, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump representing the GOP in the presidential elections those years.

In 2020, Pete Buttigieg won the Democratic caucus in Iowa. Joe Biden, who eventually won the party’s nomination, came fourth.

Are Democrats caucusing this year?

Democrats will caucus but will not vote this year. They will instead send ballots by post over the next few weeks, which will be tallied by March 5.

Democrat voters will instead gather in person on Monday to carry out other party business such as electing county delegates.

In previous years, Democrat voters would also make speeches and divide themselves into groups based on their preferred candidates. However, in 2020, the Democrat caucus was impacted by technological errors, leading to mismanagement and delays in results.

What time are the caucuses and when can we expect results?

The Republican caucus will begin on Monday at 7pm Central Standard Time (01:00 GMT). The results are expected to be released on Monday night, a few hours after voting ends.

Is Trump in the lead?

A Des Moines Register/NBC News poll released late on Saturday found that Trump had the most supporters saying they were very enthusiastic about his candidacy.

The poll showed Trump with 48 percent of support, while Ron DeSantis, who has staked his bid on a strong showing in Iowa, had slipped to third place with 16 percent. Nikki Haley, who has banked on donors’ disappointment with DeSantis’s campaign, had jumped to second place with 20 percent. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson are also on the ballot.

Trump’s popularity with the Republican base is indicative that voters are willing to look past his criminal indictments, as well as his role in the January 6, 2021 Capitol attack by his supporters.

His supporters also seem undeterred by his increasingly shrill language, including comments where he said that undocumented migrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Trump has also been receiving endorsements from local leadership. On Sunday, he was endorsed by North Dakota governor and former 2024 presidential candidate Doug Burgum, as well as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, whom Trump defeated for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Can the weather affect the Republican caucus?

Monday night is forecast to mark the coldest Iowa caucus night ever – minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius).

Iowa highways are lined with abandoned cars stuck into snowbanks, political yard signs have disappeared under snow, and one reporter said on social media that her coffee had frozen. Many elderly Iowans, who are the backbone of the caucus, are wondering how they will make it to their sites.

Trump urged his supporters during an Indianola rally to show up to the caucus and dress warmly.

“You can’t sit home … Even if you vote and then pass away, it’s worth it,” Trump said to laughter.

Trump’s strong support within the voter base suggested that Trump supporters may not be deterred by the forecast.

Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann said he was expecting a strong turnout as long as there isn’t snowfall and icy road conditions that hinder travel.

“The temperatures are the least of my concerns in terms of depressing turnout,” Kaufmann said at a press roundtable hosted by Bloomberg News in Des Moines on Sunday. “Iowans know how to dress for that.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies