Written by Sarah Lynn Neal.

With the 2016 presidential election almost 10 months away, you’ve probably been wondering to yourself: why should we care about the race this early in the year, and, of all fifty states, why is Iowa getting so much attention?

Yes, Iowa, that seemingly insignificant, Midwestern state. Iowa’s importance in the presidential election doesn’t seem to make much sense, given that it’s unrepresentative of the nation’s diversity (and by a stretch—the 2014 U.S. Census Bureau reported that 92.1% of its residents are white) and mostly rural. Iowa’s special role is based entirely on precedent.

If you don’t win Iowa, you don’t get momentum.

Iowa and its historic caucus—wait, what’s a caucus? Don’t fret, we’ll get to that in a bit—officially became the first state to cast primary votes in 1972. The reason? Iowans claim that the nature of the caucus, as it is markedly more complex than a simple primary vote, afforded their state the first vote of the season. Four years later came the moment that would solidify Iowa as the most important early state to campaign.

When Jimmy Carter, a little-known Georgia governor at the time, garnered the Iowa Democratic Caucus victory in 1976, he set the stage for what would become a touchstone in the presidential primary nomination process. He went on to win the Democratic nomination, and his success demonstrated that a no-name candidate could get launched into national consciousness by frontloading his campaign in Iowa.

If you don’t win Iowa, you don’t get momentum. This translates to a lack of votes in the primary states that follow. Think about it this way: If you’re on the fence about a candidate, and you live in, say, Nevada—a state that votes third in the primary election—when it comes time to vote, you’re probably more likely to vote for the candidate that has the best chance of getting the party’s nomination.

So, What’s a Caucus?

According to David Yepsen, a former political writer at the Des Moines Register, per his NPR interview, “A caucus—it’s a neighborhood meeting.” As opposed to a state primary election in which you would simply cast an individual vote and leave, a caucus is orchestrated by debating with your fellow caucus-goers in an attempt to convince them to side with your candidate of choice.

First, you go to a precinct location in your county, typically held in a high school gymnasium or a public library. Keep in mind, the Iowa Caucus utilizes a closed primary election process, which means you are split up on a party basis. Democrats in one location, republicans in another.

At your precinct you’ll debate with folks from your party over which candidate should get the coveted nomination. If a distinct majority isn’t reached after debate, you keep going until a clear decision is reached.

And if you thought the process couldn’t be any more grueling, think again. If you support a candidate who doesn’t have at least 15 percent of the caucus-goers’ consensus, your candidate is deemed not within the “viability threshold,” and you must choose another candidate to vie for. The debate continues.

If after dropping the candidate without 15 percent, caucus-goers still have no consensus, they debate some more. The process can last hours, and being that the caucuses are held at nighttime in the thick of Iowa’s winter, commitment and excitement for a candidate matters. Presidential nominees rely on Iowans to turn out and caucus for them so they can garner delegates for their party’s convention.

That’s where we get to ground-game.

How Candidates Get Iowans to Actually Come to Caucus

“Ground-game” has been tossed around a lot this election cycle with regard to candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, both of whom don’t have the party’s establishment support but instead have thousands of volunteers who participate in the old-fashioned way of attracting voters—door knocking, phone banking, house parties. The most dedicated supporters carry out these tasks.

A campaign with a sophisticated ground-game makes an effort to build up a strong network of gung-ho voters who will try their hardest to convince their neighbors and friends that their candidate is deserving of support. If a prospective presidential nominee doesn’t have the strongest ground-game, they might shift their strategy to attract locals in a different way.

Take GOP nominee Ted Cruz, for instance. Trump has got him beat with ground-game, so Cruz’s campaign has been on a traveling bus tour (“Cruzin’ to Caucus”), stopping in hometown establishments like diners and churches as a way of connecting with voters on a smaller scale.

How the Caucus Translates Votes into Delegates      

Delegates are the people who cast their votes at the party conventions. After Iowans finish their debating and finally reach a majority vote, it will come time for them to select delegates to report their chosen candidate at Iowa’s convention. This convention isn’t to be confused with the larger party conventions—The Republican and Democratic National Conventions. It’s a state-held process by which delegates represent the caucus-goers majority vote.

These delegates are allocated based on population, so you can think of them like mini representatives for their county’s caucus. Let’s say you attended a caucus in a large county, and your friend attended one in a tiny one. Your county might have four delegates allocated to your caucus, while your friend’s only gets two.

Why You Should Be Paying Attention

The primary conventions don’t take place until mid July, so it’s easy for the election to seem light-years away, a speck so far in the future you have to squint your eyes to even make out its image. But Iowans will be casting their votes on February 1st, my friends, and the candidates that come out on top will be the ones to watch for. All eyes on Iowa: the 2016 presidential election cycle has officially begun.


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