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Explained: Does Iowa matter in the race to the White House?

February 01, 2016 13:35 IST

After months of media hype and TV debates, the long political warm-up is over. The race for the presidency in the United States will finally get underway on Tuesday morning (local time) US election calendar.

All around one will read about the Iowa caucus and how it matters. In fact, they say campaigns have been made or lost in the state.

But if all this caucus talk and the US elections itself has left you confused, don’t worry, we’re here to help.

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton leads a campaign rally at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photograph: Adrees Latif/Reuters

First, before all else, what is a caucus?

A caucus is a precinct-level meeting of politically like-minded individuals.

On caucus night, people gather at hundreds of sites across the state and talk about why they’re supporting a candidate. Speeches are made on candidates’ behalf, and there’s jockeying to persuade other people to support their candidate. The process can sometimes take hours.

For Democrats in Iowa, caucus-goers publicly show support for their candidates after the speeches by moving to designated spaces in the space they’ve gathered. If a candidate does not get at least 15 per cent of the room backing him or her, those supporters must go support another, viable candidate. For Republicans, after the speeches, there's a secret ballot, no head counts.

Why does Iowa go first?

By accident, the state captured the prime nominating spot in 1972 and has since kept it through stubborn determination. 

Iowa doesn’t go first because it is more important than other states. Iowa goes first, essentially, because it says so.

Supporters clamour for an autograph from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump after a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Why are the Iowa caucuses significant? 

Iowans defend the caucus as an exercise in real grassroots democracy, given the extent of politicking and discussion that goes on.

Furthermore, it is the first contest for people to get their party nomination. After months of polls, debates, rumours, speculation and other chattering, Iowa provides the first test of actual voter sentiment. It takes a lot of work to ensure supporters show up and caucus. So the popularity contest is seen as a test of both a candidate’s appeal as well as his or her ability to build a campaign that has the organisational mettle to win the nomination.

So whoever gets the most votes wins?

Not necessarily. Expectations play an enormous role in judging the caucuses. A candidate seen as performing better than expected can be judged a winner, while a candidate who performs worse than anticipated may be deemed a loser.

Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz poses for a photo after speaking during a campaign event at the Johnson County Fairgrounds in Iowa City. Photograph: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

What are the expectations this time?

In the Democratic contest, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was leading in polls until Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders caught up with her. In Iowa, he recently topped Clinton at 49 percent to 45 percent, according to the latest QuinnipiacUniversity poll, essentially locking both candidates in a tight battle. 

On the Republican side, all eyes will be on billionaire Donald Trump, and whether people will actually go out and vote for him. The celebrity tycoon is leading in Iowa with about 31 per cent, compared with 29 per cent for Senator Ted Cruz, according to the same QuinnipiacUniversity poll. 

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders greets voters during a campaign event. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

But, Iowa isn’t very good at picking winners

For as much stock as has been put in the first-in-the-nation voting contest, the results over the past several election cycles haven’t held much sway in predicting the eventual nominee.

Over the past 10 elections, the winners of the Iowa caucuses went on to the be the nominee for their party in 1976 (Jimmy Carter for the Democrats), 1984 (Walter Mondale for the Democrats), 1996 (Bob Dole for the Republicans), 2000 (both George W Bush for the Republicans and Al Gore for the Democrats), 2004 (John Kerry for the Democrats) and 2008 (Barack Obama for the Democrats).

On the other hand, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, Mitt Romney and John McCain all went on to win their party’s presidential nomination after losing the Iowa caucus.

And increasingly, the winner of the caucuses has not only experienced poor fortune in the race for the nomination, but has fallen into relative oblivion.