The eyes of this nation, and even some others, will be on Iowa on Tuesday as the first official voting of the 2012 presidential campaign takes place.
The winner in Iowa doesn’t always end up with the party’s nomination. Rather, the Iowa caucuses often serve to narrow the field. Political observers say three people can punch a ticket out of the state and remain competition in New Hampshire’s primary and beyond.
Six Republican candidates have been actively campaigning for Iowans’ support in the caucuses. On the Democratic side this year, there’s no suspense. President Barack Obama will be the nominee.
How it works:
- Caucuses start at 7 p.m. Because it is already 8 p.m. on the East Coast, party leaders have opted to conduct the presidential preference polling early in the caucuses to accommodate the national radio and TV networks, which are trying to get results on the air during prime time.
- Activists at each meeting elect a leader. Then backers of each candidate deliver speeches on their behalf.
- Presidential preference selection on the Republican side is done with a straw vote of those attending the caucuses.
- After the results are sent to a central system, people turn to party business, such as beginning to write a party platform, electing precinct officers and picking delegates to county conventions in March.
- For general information, go to the Iowa Republican Party website. You also can download a caucus app for your iPhone or Android-based smartphone.
- The Democrats’ caucus process is more complicated, but because President Barack Obama faces no opposition, there will be less attention paid to their process. Democrats still will hold caucuses across the state as an organizing effort to get ready for the 2012 general election.
- Registration begins at 6:30 p.m., and the caucuses begin at 7 p.m. Obama is scheduled to talk with caucusgoers via videoconferencing and calls to selected sites on caucus nights.
- For general information, go to the Iowa Democratic Party website and click on “The Caucuses.”
Frequently asked questions:
Q: What is a caucus?
A: The word “caucus” is an American Indian word, thought to be of Algonquin origin, meaning a gathering of the ruling tribal chiefs. The modern definition describes caucuses as a process of political party members gathering to make policy decisions and to select candidates.
Q: How did the caucuses begin?
A: Some form of caucus has existed since the early 1800s, even before Iowa became a state in 1846. Creators of the Iowa Constitution chose caucuses — developed from the congressional and legislative caucuses — rather than a primary election to nominate candidates because they preferred the grass-roots democracy-in-action approach.
Q: Who runs the caucuses?
A: The caucuses are run by the parties, not state election officials.
Q: Who can participate?
A: Any voter who is a registered Republican or Democrat, and can prove residency in Iowa, can participate in a party caucus. Those who will be 18 years old in time for the general election in November also can participate.
Q: When are the caucuses?
A: Democrats and Republicans will gather Tuesday at precincts across Iowa to choose presidential candidates and discuss party issues. Both parties begin their caucuses at 7 p.m. The parties actually hold caucuses every two years but usually get attention, a lot of it, only during presidential election years.
Q: Where do you go to participate?
A: Your caucus site is determined by the precinct in which you live. It is not necessarily the same as your polling location. To find your caucus location, go to www.IowaCaucus.com. The 1,784 precinct caucuses statewide are held at places like church basements, fire stations, schools and libraries.
Q: How do you vote?
A: There’s no voting booth; a caucus is a very public process. The methods differ, though, between the Democrats and Republicans.
Q: Do you have to be registered as a Democrat or a Republican? What about independents?
A: Voters can show up and register or switch party registration at the caucus site. You must register Democrat to participate in the Democratic caucus and Republican to go to the GOP caucus. To register at the Republican sites, you need a valid photo ID.
Q: Is there any penalty for sneaking into a caucus?
A: If a caucusgoer is found to have lied about identity or residency, that person can be fined up to $7,500, but that rarely happens.
Q: How did the Iowa caucus gain its first-in-the nation status?
A: In the early 1970s, the Iowa Democratic Party made several reforms to its delegate selection process. These reforms included requiring a minimum of 30 days between the precinct caucuses and the county, district and state conventions, and publicizing the events to allow more people to take part in the process.
When the 1972 Democratic State Convention was set for May 20, the new rules dictated that the precinct caucus would be Jan. 24, thereby making it the first statewide test for presidential candidates in the nation.
In 1976, recognizing the increased exposure, the Republican Party of Iowa moved its caucus to the same date as the Democrats’.
The candidates and national media have observed the Iowa caucuses as “first in the nation” since.
Q: How many people are expected to participate in the Iowa caucuses?
A: There are 613,521 registered Republicans and 645,475 registered Democrats in the state; total voter registration is 2,111,548. The parties don’t predict turnout, but in 2008, 239,000 Democrats took part, and 120,000 Republicans caucused. It was a big year for caucus turnout.