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What is a caucus and why does Iowa have one?

With the latest poll released only hours before Iowans head to their caucuses to cast the first votes of the 2016 election season, Donald Trump is hanging on to his lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a man whom Trump called a “liar” this weekend.

What to watch at tonight’s Iowa caucus

The poll conducted by Quinnipiac University asked those who will caucus for the first time who they would be supporting and found 31 percent said they would vote for Trump with 24 percent supporting Cruz.  Florida Sen. Marco Rubio gained ground over the weekend, with 17 percent of those polled saying they would vote for him.

When pollsters asked veteran caucuses goers whom they would support, 25 percent said they would caucus for Cruz, with 24 percent saying they would support Trump.

The numbers can change quickly, of course – 28 percent of the people polled who named a candidate they would support also said  they might still change their mind by Monday night.

So what will happen Monday when Iowans head to their caucuses? Here’s a look at what a caucus is, how its conducted, and how what happens after the votes are counted.

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What is an Iowa caucus?

In Iowa, voters gather together in one of 1,681 precincts around the state to decide whom they want to support for their party’s nomination. Caucuses differ from the primaries most states hold. Caucuses are designed to choose electoral delegates in the state.

When are the caucuses held?

The  caucuses begin on Monday, Feb. 1, at 7 p.m. (CT). They go until they are finished, there is no set end time.

We seem to hear about the  Iowa caucuses a lot. Why?

The caucuses are the first indication of how the candidates for president are being received – at least how they are being received in Iowa.

How does it work?

The process works differently for Republicans and Democrats. First, let’s look at the Republicans, their process is not as complicated as the Democrats.

To participate in both caucuses, you must:

  • be registered to vote and be a registered member of that party
  • have turned 18, the legal voting age, by the time of the general election on Nov. 8, 2016
  • live in the precinct you are caucusing in

If you are a Republican, here’s how your voting process will go:

You will go to one of 1,784 precincts in the state. Once there, the precinct meeting is called to order and the precinct  chairman/woman will invite anyone who wishes to speak about  the candidate of their choice. After the speeches of support are done, each eligible voter will be given a piece of paper to write or make a check by the name of the candidate of their choice. The ballots are secret.

Once the choices are made, the slips of paper are counted and announced to those present. Those results go to the county Republican leadership which sends them to the state leadership to tabulate the state totals. The state totals are supposed to be reflected by the Republican delegates in the national convention this summer.

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If you are a Democrat, it’s a bit more complicated:

For Democrats, each precinct has a set number of county convention delegates – the people chosen to cast votes at the county level for candidates in the Democratic race. The number of delegates each county gets is determined by the number of people who voted in the past two general elections – the elections where you vote for governors and presidents.

That number is then converted into a “state delegate equivalent,” or a ratio of the number of state delegates to the number of county convention delegates. All that happens before anyone shows up to caucus.

On Monday, when they arrive at the caucus place, voters will divide into groups based on their preference  for candidates. The precinct chair  will them determine if the group for a particular candidate is “viable,” meaning they have the support of at least 15 percent of the people in attendance.

If a candidate does not get the votes needed to be “viable” then that candidate’s supporters have a couple of options. They can try to sway caucus goers supporting another candidate to come join them, they can join another candidate’s group, or they can choose to remain uncommitted.

After the groups are settled and the vote taken, each candidate will receive a proportional number of the county convention delegates and, by extension, the state delegate equivalents.  

Another difference in the Democrat process is that while you have to be a registered Democrat, it is possible to register as a Democrat on the caucus night itself.

This system is an old one, is there anything new about this year?

A new digital app will be reporting the 2016 precinct votes for both the Republican and Democratic parties. The app came about as a result of a collaboration between Microsoft and  both parties in Iowa.

How many Iowans will show up to  caucuses?

It’s estimated that up to 120,000 Republicans will show up, and if 2008 is an indicator, twice that  number for Democrats. However, a winter storm will be moving into the  area and is likely to cause snow over the central and northern Plains on Monday night and into Tuesday, according to Accuweather.   

Why do they make their decision so early?

Tradition, and, probably, a little bit of celebrity. The  date for the caucus was chosen back in 1972. Since then, Iowans have become used to being the first to express a preference for who will be president, and they seem to like being the center of attention on the decision.

Plus, it’s the law. The state legislature passed a bill saying the caucuses must occur before any other state’s primary by at least eight days.

How well do the caucuses predict the candidate who wins?

The Iowa caucuses are really just the beginning of the 2016 voting process. The caucuses don’t really carry more weight than the primaries to come in other states, they are simply the first in a process that ends with a nomination.

Former President Bill Clinton, husband of current Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, lost in the Iowa caucuses when he first ran for president, and lost big time. He was beaten by Sen. Tom Harkin. Harkin got nearly 75 percent of the delegates, while Clinton got around 3 percent. Clinton went on to win primaries in other states and eventually the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. 

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