For years, Iowa party activists would gather in the winter to talk politics and gauge presidential preferences. No one outside the state paid attention until 1972, when Democrats established their caucuses in January. That made the party's presidential vote the first in the nation, and candidate George McGovern built momentum for his campaign with a stronger-than-expected second-place finish in Iowa. Four years later, Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter did the same, putting in the time and resources to win Iowa. Republicans moved their caucuses to January in 1976.


The Democratic and Republican Parties hold their caucuses at the same time — this year starting at 7 p.m. on Feb. 1 — at locations in all of Iowa's 99 counties. Caucuses are held in each of the state's 1,681 precincts, but the number of meeting sites is smaller because some precincts share a building. Democrats will meet at about 1,100 spots, and Republicans will gather at nearly 900. Voters from some small precincts meet in homes, but most gather in schools, veterans halls and other large venues. The parties hold their caucuses simultaneously but operate differently, and their results differ.


A Democratic caucus is a public affair. Democrats are asked to separate into groups based on the candidate they support. If the number of people in any group is less than 15 percent of total attendees, generally speaking, that group is deemed to be not viable. People in the group then can either realign with a different candidate or be counted as uncommitted. That leads to some intense wooing, as candidate representatives try to persuade others to join them and prevent their own supporters from switching. Once the groups are determined, delegates in each precinct are awarded to candidates based on a complicated formula. The candidate with the most delegates statewide at the end of the night is declared the winner.


Beginning this year, the Republican caucuses are much simpler than before, with a lot more privacy. It is essentially a straw poll. Candidates or their surrogates are allowed to give speeches. Then ballots are handed out and caucus attendees fill them out in secret. The raw vote count is then used to determine the winners. A total of 30 delegates to the party's national convention are at stake. They will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote.


Every candidate hopes to win the caucuses, providing a boost of attention as the focus then shifts to the New Hampshire primary eight days later. But more than winning, the goal is to exceed expectations. Even if a candidate finishes second or third, he or she can claim that it's a victory to finish near the top, and that he or she received more support than expected. But a win in Iowa doesn't necessarily translate into a party nomination. In fact, the last time the ultimate Republican nominee won a contested caucus was 2000, when George W. Bush finished first. The winner of the Democratic caucuses has fared better. In the past three contested Democratic nomination races, the Iowa winner became the nominee.


Weather is one of the biggest challenges for the campaigns. They have to persuade their supporters to go out into the evening in temperatures that can range from the 30s into the teens. In recent caucuses, most of the state has seen little more than flurries, and no Iowan would admit to being deterred by a few flakes.

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