5 Things to Know About the Iowa Caucuses

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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.

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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."

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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.

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"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."

It Doesn't Reflect the Rest of the Country

You might think that the results of the Iowa caucuses hold some unique implications for how the rest of the country will vote, but that's not the case. With both Iowa and New Hampshire representing populations where the vast majority is white — 91 percent and 94 percent white, respectively — and with higher levels of educational attainment than the rest of the country, the states are hardly indicative of how things will go in other states.

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In recognition of that comparative whiteness, some changes have been made to the process. To make the political calendar more reflective of the electorate, the Democratic and Republican national committees moved primaries in more diverse states, like South Carolina and Nevada, to earlier dates. "In terms of predicting the Republican nominee, the state that's best for that is South Carolina," said Bositis. "That's the one that the eventual winner usually wins."

The Iowa Democratic caucus, however, can hold considerable significance when liberal candidates are vying for their party's nomination. During the 1976 presidential race, Jimmy Carter won a huge victory in the caucus, which helped build momentum throughout the rest of the season. And in 2008 when Barack Obama won the caucus — with its white, middle-American voters — it cemented his standing as a viable candidate.

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On the whole, caucus voters are a different beast from the general electorate. "Iowa Republicans tend to be very conservative and very religious," said Bositis, in contrast with the middle-of-the-road temperament usually associated with the state. "Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll in August, and all the attention was paid to her, despite the fact that there hasn't been a member of the House of Representatives nominated for president in 150 years. The broader base is more concerned about the mix of voting for the people who they want to give their hearts to, while also realizing when a candidate is kind of crazy."

Another factor that drives the outcome in the Iowa caucuses is how well organized the campaigns are. Ron Paul, a libertarian with largely antigovernment views, is currently leading Iowa polls, even though he hasn't been fully embraced by either mainstream Republicans or the Tea Party crowd. But what he does have is a strong ground organization and a committed following that's likely to show up at caucuses throughout the state. "Paul could win in Iowa," said Bositis. "But that doesn't mean that he'll win the nomination."

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It Matters If You Do Poorly

While the importance and power of the Iowa caucuses may be inflated, if a candidate totally bombs in the contest, then he or she may as well bow out of the race. With the exception of John McCain in 2008, no candidate in either party who has placed worse than third in the caucuses has ever gone on to win the nomination.

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And if a candidate who has been campaigning in Iowa with all he or she's got does poorly, then it won't bode well for the other 49 states. "For example, Rick Santorum spent all of 2011 in Iowa and put all of his eggs in that basket," said Bositis. "If he ends up with 2 percent of the vote, then that would be a sign that it's not going to be Santorum's year."

In a wildly unpredictable Republican race that has already seen several different front-runners come and go, however, there's no telling what will happen come Jan. 3. But whatever does happen, relax — this is only the beginning.

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Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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