Tonight, a few hundred thousand Iowa residents will gather in a couple thousand caucus sites and finally, finally kick-start the presidential nomination process. It's been 44 years since the first presidential caucuses that mattered, and 40 years since both parties held them. And yet, for the 315.8 million Americans who do not live in Iowa — and for the slightly smaller millions who live in primary, not caucus, states — the process perpetually needs explaining.
That's fair enough. Here's an explainer.
What time do the Iowa caucuses start? At 7 p.m. Central time, across the state. Expect the cable TV countdown clocks to start much sooner.
When will we know the winner? In 2008, the caucuses were called for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) by 8:30 p.m. Central. Both men won by nine points, and early counts matched the exit polls. In 2012, the late surge of former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) forced an election night tie with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, and the networks (and more importantly, front-page editors) only seemed able to call a winner after midnight. That call was wrong. What looked like an eight-vote victory for Romney had been scrambled when eight precincts, with a total of 298 missing votes, missed the count. Santorum had won, a fact that was not reported until 16 days later.
Short answer: This year? Probably by 10 or 11 p.m. Central. (You'll be able to see maps here.)
How is a caucus different from a primary? The answer differs depending on which party you're asking about. Instead of heading to one of Iowa's 1,681 precincts and pulling a lever, voters will head to a caucus site that may toss several precincts together. Instead of seeing their votes tabulated by the state elections office, they'll see them reported to the state parties, which will in turn report them to the news media.
Here's where the parties diverge. A Republican caucus is odd but simple, a peanut-butter-and-tuna-fish combination of a normal election and a PTA meeting. At nearly 900 caucus sites, voters will gather, then hear speeches from whichever campaigns have precinct captains assigned to whip up votes. (Presidential candidates can show up and do this for themselves, in one of the most intimate examples of democracy in all of politics.) Then they'll write their choices on paper and hand them in.
The Democratic caucus process is more complicated. When they show up at one of the 1,100-odd sites, voters will be asked to gather in sections designated for the candidates. They will be counted. If one candidate fails to get at least 15 percent of voters in his corner, they are released, and caucus captains for the surviving candidates can personally lobby and answer questions, enticing them to join up. After that, delegates are assigned based on the support for each candidate.
It sounds confusing, and it is. For starters, the number of delegates for each precinct will be assigned based on Democratic turnout in that precinct from the last two elections. (There is no raw vote total released, only projections of how many Democrats turned out.) If there's a massive surge of voters in, say, an Iowa City precinct, if there's a massive fall-off in a rural precinct, it does not matter — the same number of delegates are at stake. This might be best illustrated by the live recording C-SPAN did from one key caucus site in 2008.
Has that mattered in the past? Yes, it has. In 2004, the Democratic presidential campaign of former Vermont governor Howard Dean was clearly starting to flag before the vote. The final Iowa poll pegged then-senator and future secretary of state John F. Kerry (Mass.) at 26 percent, future tabloid cover star John Edwards at 23 percent, Dean at 20 percent and former House minority leader Dick Gephardt at 18 percent.
The final result: Kerry 38, Edwards 32, Dean 18, Gephardt 11. Dean was hit three times: first by his falling level of overall support, then by the 15 percent rule, and finally by the superior acumen of volunteers for the Kerry and Edwards campaigns. In real time, they pulled people from Dean to their side.
How does any of that matter this year? It's an open question, but we all have a few questions that can't be answered until caucus night. Donald Trump, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and even Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are all claiming that new voters will swarm the caucus sites and break the turnout models. Will they? Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley has run a traditional Iowa campaign, but he's struggled to break out of single digits in the polls. Who will O'Malley's supporters pull for in the second stage of the caucuses?
But does it matter beyond Iowa? The rap on these caucuses, which grows louder each election cycle, is that asking normal people to spend several hours listening to political arguments is undemocratic and unfair. Voter turnout suggests that this is right. In 2012, 121,501 Iowans voted in the Republican presidential caucuses. The Republican primary for Iowa's U.S. Senate race drew out 158,031 total voters. These sorts of contests have usually slanted more toward party activists than late-deciding voters, which is a major reason Republican elites hope that Iowa can embarrass Trump.
But this year's contests may, objectively, matter more than ever. In 2012, the Iowa GOP caucuses were not binding. Supporters of former Texas congressman Ron Paul took advantage of that and stormed the more obscure county and district party meetings where delegates were actually assigned. The result was that the first voting state sent a delegation to the Republican National Convention that was committed to backing Paul instead of Romney.
After 2012, Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee made sure this could never happen again. Tonight's caucuses will now determine which candidates send delegates to the GOP convention in Cleveland. Nine other states will assign delegates this way, in both party contests.*
The candidates who organize best in Iowa usually end up overperforming in the remaining state caucuses. In 2012, Romney won 30 Republican primaries where delegates were chosen, and Santorum won just four.** But Santorum won five state caucuses to Romney's seven. In 2008, the Democratic race was even more lopsided. Hillary Clinton won 20 primaries to Barack Obama's 19. But Obama nearly swept Clinton in caucus states, losing only in Nevada — where his organization netted more delegates anyway.
That's great, but it doesn't tell me why these particular Iowa caucuses matter. Fine, here's the short version. Unless the polls are wildly, historically, cats-and-dogs-living-together wrong, these caucuses will end the 2016 campaigns of the past two Republican caucus winners, Santorum and Huckabee. If Trump wins them, he will have dramatically changed the math of Iowa politics, despite a ground game that has already been exposed as rickety. If Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) wins them, Iowa Republicans will have gone on record supporting the candidate who pledged to end the ethanol mandate, a key issue in a corn-growing state. If Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wins them, he could — as Kerry once did with the Democrats — quickly establish himself as the GOP establishment's choice.
And if Bernie Sanders wins them, along with the following primary in New Hampshire, he will tee up a Democratic Party contest with Hillary Clinton that seemed unthinkable just two months ago.
That is what Iowa can do, assuming a few hundred thousand people want to sit in some gyms.
Speaking of polling ...
As of Sunday, Trump is leading in Iowa with about 31 percent, compared with 25 percent for Cruz and 15 percent for Rubio. On the Democratic side, Clinton is at 46 percent and Sanders at 45 percent.
* Yet more complications! Nebraska Democrats will choose delegates in caucuses; Nebraska Republicans will hold a primary. Washington Republicans opted for a binding primary instead of caucuses; Washington Democrats did the reverse.
** Santorum pummeled Romney in Missouri, too, but that state did not assign delegates based on its "beauty contest" primary. The win largely mattered because it came the same day as Santorum wins in the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses, giving him an unexpected momentum burst and establishing him as the main Romney challenger.