5 Things to Know About the Iowa Caucuses

We break down how they work, why they're so influential and whether or not they should be.

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It's not as if Iowa represents a diverse cross section of America. With a population of just more than 3 million, the state doesn't even have that many people. And it's not the only place to have a voting event leading up to a presidential election -- while the Iowa Republican caucuses take place this week (along with noncompetitive Democratic caucuses, where Iowa Democrats can show support for the unchallenged incumbent President Obama), all 50 states eventually hold caucuses or primaries of their own. Yet every four years the presidential candidate race zeroes in on the Iowa caucuses with make-or-break focus, with the national media in tow.

So why is this event so important? Is it as influential as it's cracked up to be? And, um, what goes on at a caucus anyway? Here's an explainer on what you need to know.

It's More Work Than Just Voting

While most states hold primaries, in which registered voters simply cast a ballot for their candidate, Iowa uses the caucus system. Under this system, voters attend hundreds of small meetings in towns and neighborhoods across the state -- at schools, churches, fire stations, even people's houses. In Republican caucuses, attendees listen to supporters of each candidate make their case, followed by a paper ballot. In years when there is a Democratic race, the Democratic caucuses follow a slightly more complex, public voting procedure.

Attendees break into groups designated for the candidate of their choice, but for a candidate to be considered viable, he or she must have at least 15 percent of caucus votes. If a candidate has less than 15 percent, a representative from a viable candidate's group speaks to persuade those supporters to vote for their candidate instead. In a second voting round, the nonviable candidate's supporters must join another group or opt to not be counted as a voter.

"This is a commitment," said David Bositis, senior research associate for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "On a cold, January evening you have to go out there -- and for some people it's an hour's drive or more -- and then sit down and caucus. It takes a lot of effort, and therefore it's a very small group of people."

So why caucus? It's cheaper for the state to do it this way, without having to administer elections through polling sites. Also, it's just the way it's long been done. "The caucus is a historical artifact of Iowa," said Bositis. "It's a cultural idiosyncrasy of the state."

Most of the Fuss Is Because It's the First

Another reason that Iowa holds caucuses instead of a primary is to keep its prominent standing as the first voting event of the presidential election. While New Hampshire has a state law that says it must be the first to hold a primary, Iowa's alternative caucus system lets it still squeeze ahead. The position of the candidates' first real test draws a frenzy of media attention and, thus, lends more weight to the caucus.

"For many years, this has been a moneymaker for Iowa and New Hampshire," said Bositis. "The national press goes there, TV stations run tons of ads and candidates spend a lot of money on food and services. There's way more press coverage of Iowa and New Hampshire -- which together have seven representatives in Congress -- than California, which has 53."