Students listen as Republican candidate Ben Carson speaks at a town hall event on Monday at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. (Scott Morgan/ Reuters)

Like clockwork, more than a few questions have been raised this year about why Iowa should come first and what the country might gain if the first presidential nominating contest moved elsewhere. The Fix's own Philip Bump has made both of those arguments often and well.

But there are also, apparently, very good and solid reasons that the Iowa caucuses remain a touchstone of American democracy. To get at that, The Fix went straight to two experts in the field of Iowa politics. They had some interesting and -- yes, dare we say -- uplifting things to say about the political exercise that will occupy at least some of Iowa on Monday night, charting the nation's political course this year.

Snow, as well as presidential hopefuls, may storm across Iowa on February 1. (Reuters)

What follows is a bit of information about these experts and a Q&A, edited only for clarity and length.

The experts

Timothy M. Hagle is a political scientist at the University of Iowa and an expert in both political behavior and decision making. He has written a series of books that help social scientists produce more statistically grounded research, explain seemingly obscure but really critical processes such as congressional redistricting and, most recently, "Riding the Caucus Rollercoaster: The Ups and Downs in the Republican Race to Win the 2012 Iowa Caucuses." His expertise and proximity to the the caucus action have made him a sought-after source. And his personal research and information gathering ground game includes advising the University of Iowa College Republicans.

David Redlawsk is a Rutgers University political scientist and Mabry Fellow at Drake University's Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement in Iowa. Redlawsk's work today is nonpartisan and research-oriented, but he's run for and held public office as a Democrat, and for several years he served as the Iowa City precinct chair. He is the author or editor of several books about the role of emotion in politics, the processes and tactics that prompt voter decisions, voter participation and the distinct qualities of gubernatorial office. In 2010, Redlawsk co-authored the book, "Why Iowa: How Caucuses and Sequential Elections Improve the Presidential Nominating Process." He has spent the past few months in Iowa conducting research on the caucuses and contributing to the blog, iowacaucusproject.org.

 

The questions

THE FIX: If you were asked to explain the Iowa caucuses to an intelligent but alien life form with some understanding of democracy, what would you say?

HAGLE: The Iowa caucuses are the first opportunity for voters to express their preferences in the process for the major parties (Democrats and Republicans) to select their nominees for a presidential election.  Although the caucuses themselves occur on a single night, an important aspect of the caucuses is the campaign that occurs in the several months to a year beforehand.

Candidates engage voters in small settings and often interact one-to-one. This allows candidates who are not as well-known or not as well-funded initially to attempt to build a strong and successful campaign. It also allows candidates to interact with a wider range of voters than is often the case later in the campaign or if the person becomes the president. Others may drop out when they are unable to garner support in the Iowa caucuses. That process of reducing the field helps to find the strongest candidates and clarifies the races for the primaries and caucuses that follow.

REDLAWSK: Folks in all of Iowa's 1,681 precincts get together in schools, churches and public buildings on a cold winter night to talk about politics with the neighbors. They discuss what their party should stand for, choose local party leaders and vote on who should be the next president.


Campus aerial view of Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. (Maharishi University of Management)

THE FIX: Does it make sense for the caucuses to remain the nation’s first presidential nominating contest?

HAGLE: People complain about aspects of Iowa and the caucuses that really don’t concern the process itself. Put another way, and to borrow a line I heard from a New England Patriots fan, “They hate us because they ain’t us.”

In terms of the Iowa caucuses, Churchill’s quote that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” may apply. It’s certainly not perfect, and the parties in Iowa are always looking for ways to make it better, but the alternatives ... have their own problems.

The Iowa caucuses provide advantages that other systems or starting in bigger states would not. One is that starting in Iowa, a relatively small state in which it is less-expensive to run a campaign, allows candidates who are not as well-known or who do not have a large warchest to still be competitive and get their start. A second advantage is that the caucus campaign process gives candidates the opportunity to meet and interact with a wide variety of average voters in ways they would not be able to in a large or expensive state. Candidates have the opportunity to find out what people outside their usual political bubble think about the issues.

REDLAWSK: The nomination process should start where the parties are competitive, voters are engaged, and candidates can shake the hands of nearly everyone who will vote for them. The grass-roots focus requires candidates to get out of the bubble and engage with real Americans, learning about their lives. It creates informed voters who carefully assess their options, and importantly, makes candidates better as they learn the everyday concerns of voters and figure out (or not) how to build an organization.

Iowa may not be perfectly representative [of the United States], but no one state is. It actually makes more sense in a sequential system not to worry about the "representativeness" of any one state. Combined, the first four carve-out states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- do a pretty good job of representing the constituencies and issues that drive American politics.

THE FIX: Do caucuses provide or do anything that the more common primary election format does not?

HAGLE: Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, recently described the difference as: “A primary is a vote; a caucus is a conversation and a vote.” The campaign before a caucus or primary is essentially the same (at least in Iowa and New Hampshire). The difference primarily comes on the night of the caucus or day of the primary.

The idea of a caucus is that people of the same party in neighborhoods across Iowa come together to discuss who they want to be their nominee in the presidential election.  That makes the caucuses a more personal, interactive and democratic process. Turnout for a caucus does tend to be lower than for a primary, but it’s also less impersonal.

That’s particularly important because the caucuses are party events, put on and paid for by those who support the parties, rather than the taxpayers as whole. That gives the parties an opportunity to build their organizations based on the interest in the candidates who are running. Although many come to caucus specifically so they can support their favorite candidate, after the presidential poll is taken the meetings move on to other party business, such as election of delegates to the county convention and beginning the formation of a party platform, which will help to keep new caucus-goers as active members of the local party.

REDLAWSK: The Iowa caucuses are about party-building, with a nomination process grafted on. Caucuses have been used to organize the Iowa parties since the mid-19th century. Voters in primaries may choose party precinct leaders along with candidates. In Iowa they do this too, as well as selecting delegates to a county convention (and eventually to district and state conventions) and deciding what platform planks to send on to the conventions for consideration. The caucuses build the party from the ground up. In primary states, the party is often run from the top down.


Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks to widower Annette Bebout, 73. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

THE FIX: What’s known about the typical Iowa caucus voter? Who tends to come out and participate?

HAGLE: Averages of Iowa voters are certainly different from averages in some other states, but it may be difficult to say that there’s a typical caucus-goer.

There are a few things we can say about caucus-goers in general. On average they do tend to be older, which is consistent with voting in primaries and general elections. Because the caucuses are party events, they also tend to be more engaged in their party of choice. That means they are more often activists. It also means they tend to be a bit further from the middle than the average voter. More specifically, Republican caucus-goers will be a little more conservative and Democratic caucus-goers a little more liberal. New or younger caucus-goers won’t fit those patterns, but they are often energized by a particular candidate who speaks to the issues that interest them.

REDLAWSK: Historically, caucus-goers were party activists, not rank-and-file party voters. The basic requirement to vote in a caucus is that one must be a registered voter for that party. However, Iowans can register at the caucus as long as they are an eligible Iowa voter and are at the right precinct. One interesting quirk: Iowa allows those who will be 18 by the November election to caucus, so people as young as 17¼ years old can caucus this year.

In recent cycles, the number of caucus-goers has exploded. For the GOP, about 60,000 (out of nearly 600,000) showed up in 2004, but in 2008 and 2012, double that number attended, setting records. For Democrats, attendance doubled to a record 125,000  in 2004 (also out of about 600,000; Iowa is a very balanced state). The intensity of the Obama grass-roots campaign resulted in a huge increase in 2008 turnout, to a new record of 239,000.

The point is that, in recent campaigns, the demographics of those attending the Iowa caucuses have been quite similar to the rest of their party. However, even so, they are more likely to be activists, older and somewhat more ideological. And even after the Obama campaign brought out a lot of new voters, the old saying is still true: The best predictor of attending is having done so before. But there is an important caveat: Caucuses, like primaries, are party events, and thus independents are far less likely to be represented.


Voters listen a rally in Marion, Iowa, on Sunday, Jan. 24. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

THE FIX: Are there any demographic patterns, changes or trends that you would expect to see or emerge this year among caucus-goers?

HAGLE: It’s hard to speak of trends without seeing the results this year and comparing them with prior caucuses. In terms of the specifics for this year’s caucuses, one interesting question will be the extent to which young voters turnout for [Bernie] Sanders. He’s been relying on their support. They tend to have a lower turnout percentage than older voters, but they will turn out if the campaign has a good ground game. The question is whether Sanders has the necessary ground game.

A similar question arises with Trump.  He relies less on younger voters, but much of his support comes from people who haven’t caucused before or who aren’t registered as Republicans yet. The question for Trump is whether they will turn out, register and support him. Longer term, the question will be whether those new voters, regardless of how many and which party, will continue to be active in the party and later elections.

REDLAWSK: If (and it is a big if) Sanders and Trump can turn the enthusiasm of those who attend their massive rallies into actual turnout, then the caucuses will again have a lot of new people -- and in particular, younger people -- than they usually do. We might also begin to see the development of a critical mass of Latino caucus-goers. The Latino population is growing rapidly, but historically those that were eligible voters were unlikely to caucus. Efforts are being made by Latino groups and some candidates to change that, so we might see some effects of that effort this year.

THE FIX:What can voters reasonably expect to conclude from the outcome of the caucuses this year?

HAGLE: Not surprisingly, the answer to that question depends on what those results are. We often expect that many Iowans don’t make their final choice until even a few days before the caucuses. We know from prior caucuses that there are often substantial differences between the final polls and the actual caucus results.

Aside from who won and what the rank order of the others was, we’ll know whether those new and young voters turned out for Sanders and Trump. We’ll know whether Republicans set another turnout record and how close Democrats came to their previous high. We may know who O’Malley supporters realigned with when they weren’t viable in some precincts and if that affected the overall results. We’ll know how much separation there is among the Republican candidates and whether some can claim a victory of sorts from finishing above some others -- even without an outright win.

One thing we will know for sure is that Iowans take the honor of being the first contest in the presidential nominating process very seriously.  They attend many events, listen to the candidates, ask them questions, and carefully evaluate each candidate’s prospects of being their party’s nominee and, perhaps, president of the United States.

REDLAWSK: We really won't know until it's over! However at a minimum, voters in other states can assume that the Iowans who caucus will have paid pretty careful attention, and the decisions they make about who gets to fight another day and who goes home will be based mostly on their sincere assessments of the candidates. At least, that's what our research in the 2008 caucuses told us.


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at Thursday night's event at Drake University in Des Moines. (Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

THE FIX: Any other projections or insights that you can share about the 2016 Iowa caucuses?

HAGLE: I want to see the final poll on the Saturday before the caucuses to see if there any indications of late movement, but it seems that Trump and Cruz will be competing for first and second on the Republican side, with Rubio looking to come in third.

I expect [Rand] Paul to outperform his recent poll results, as his campaign is very well-organized. I think we’ll see some separation between the top three finishers for Republicans and the next three, but it will be interesting to see how close those in the fourth through sixth positions are.

For the Democrats, I am fairly confident in predicting that O’Malley will come in a distant third. I can also predict with some confidence that either late Monday or early Tuesday we will see a mass exodus of candidates, staffers and media folks traveling from Iowa to New Hampshire.

REDLAWSK: The only thing we know for sure is that we don't really know what's going to happen on either side. The ground game to get out the vote has historically been critical in Iowa, but it is also hard to see in advance. And with the rise of social media networks among voters, it has become even more under-the-radar.