DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan. 20 (UPI) -- By now, you've probably noticed presidential candidates spending quite a bit of time in Iowa. That's because the Iowa caucuses -- the official start of primary season -- are less than two weeks away.
The process, while crucial to candidates seeking to become president, is unique and can be difficult to understand.
What is a "caucus"?
The origin of the word "caucus" is a matter of dispute. David Yepsen, a long-time political reporter for the Des Moines Register told NPR this month that the term is thought to have Native American roots.
"An Algonquin term for meeting of tribal leaders," he said.
Quite simply, it means a meeting of people who want to achieve a specific goal. The Congressional Black Caucus is a regular meeting of black House and Senate members to advance the goals of their constituents. The Freedom Caucus is a group of conservative House members. You get the idea.
The Iowa caucuses are groups of Iowa citizens who hold meetings to choose delegates for later county and conventions. Those two words are key -- Iowa does not, in fact, choose its electoral delegates on Feb. 1. They instead choose delegates who will hold county conventions, those delegates then elect district and state delegates. Those delegates then elect the delegates to go to each party's national convention.
Though Iowa holds the first caucus in the nation it is among the last to select its electoral delegates. The "winner" of each party's caucus is the one who accrues the most delegates.
If that sounds confusing, don't worry. Even CNN's Larry King is quoted as saying "I have never understood the Iowa caucus."
On Feb. 1, Iowans in all of the state's 1,682 precincts will hold caucuses at designated locations -- sometimes schools or private homes -- to begin the state's selection of primary candidates.
A brief history of Iowa caucuses
Iowa has held caucuses since before Iowa was Iowa. The practice, in some form, dates back to the early 1800s, long before Iowa became a state in 1846.
The first Iowa presidential caucus was in 1972, and a caucus has taken place every two years since then. In the first two Democratic caucuses, "uncommitted" won, meaning Iowans didn't feel strongly enough to select a candidate. Since the Iowa Republican party began holding their caucuses on the same day as the Democrats in 1976, the process has garnered national attention as the first decision day in the presidential election.
Is Iowa really that important?
It's up for debate. More than one time, candidates have won Iowa without going on to win the election.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee placed first in the 2008 Republican caucus, but went on to drop out of the race. This year, he's said he's likely to drop out of the presidential race if he doesn't place in the top three.
In 2012, former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn., tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the Republican caucus. Santorum dropped out of the race after losing Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
The Washington Post reported his daughter was hospitalized for complications from a rare genetic disorder the same weekend as the triple whammy. Santorum said his daughter's condition ultimately prompted him to suspend his campaign.
Another returning candidate this year, Santorum is polling at 1.2 percent in Iowa this time around.
Speaking of returning candidates, how did Hillary Clinton perform in Iowa's 2008 caucuses? She placed third behind President Barack Obama and John Edwards. Days later, she narrowly defeated Obama in the New Hampshire primary, another crucial test.
Later that month, though, she lost to Obama in the South Carolina primary. The losses -- peppered with occasional wins in California, New York and New Jersey -- accumulated from there, until she dropped out of the race in early June, saddled with debt that took five years for her to pay off.
Clinton's husband, President Bill Clinton, had a less-than-stellar showing in the 1992 Democratic caucus, coming in fourth place with just 2.8 percent of the vote. In second place, was that pesky "undecided," with 11 percent of the vote. In first, then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Harkin would go on to lose New Hampshire to Clinton, after which Harkin dropped out and threw his support behind Clinton.
Iowa has never been foolproof. The state is infamous for selecting unsuccessful GOP presidential candidates.
Iowa's GOP has backed an unsuccessful candidate in four out of nine caucuses since 1976. The Iowa Democrats have backed three unsuccessful candidates out of ten caucuses since 1972.
Long story short, the Iowa caucuses are not a reliable predictor of the outcome of the presidential race. And polling, although a handy guide, is not much better. Time reported that those who polled on top just before the caucuses in four of the last five elections did not end up capturing their party's nomination.
Both parties caucus differently, with the Democratic side being more complex.
First, Democrats have to figure out which candidate is viable. This is done by having caucus-goers stand in different areas of a room depending on who they support. After 30 minutes in which caucus-goers are allowed to try to convince their neighbors to vote for the other candidates, everyone is counted.
In certain precincts, candidates have to garner the support of at least 15 percent of attendees in order to earn delegates. In smaller precincts, that number is higher. Already, this step in the process spells trouble for former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has consistently polled in the single digits. In an average of recent polls, O'Malley is at about 5 percent in Iowa, according to RealClear Politics.
Once unviable candidates are ruled out, there's another shuffle. Supporters of a fallen candidate can join another candidate's camp or go home. Then, there is another count to decide that particular caucus' choice. That count is run through a complicated formula that determines the final choice based on that county's Democratic voting record in past gubernatorial and presidential elections.
This year, for the first time ever, the Iowa Democratic Party is holding tele-caucuses for Iowans living or serving abroad. The party will also allow for "satellite caucuses" for Iowans who can't make it to their caucus location due to mobility problems, time or distance.
Republicans caucuses are far more straightforward than that, and historically more forgiving. Caucus-goers simply cast a paper ballot, much like a regular primary.
This year, the Republicans are allowing Iowans in the armed forces serving abroad or out of state to caucus online. Voting opened on Jan. 18 and closes on Feb. 1.
One more big change for both parties? Microsoft has designed a cloud-based app for each party to make the caucus process easier. Iowa has an electoral process like nothing else in the country, and now it will be powered by similarly unprecedented technology.
The results of Feb. 1. Determine how many delegates each candidate wins in each precinct. Those delegates then go on to represent their candidate at county conventions. Delegates at county conventions elect delegates to represent candidates at district and state conventions. At both of those conventions, national delegates are then chosen. Those candidates, finally, go on to the Democratic and Republican national conventions, where delegates for each party select their party's nominee.
Yet another challenge of the Iowa caucuses is that they are held in, well, Iowa. In the winter. Weather is always a big factor in voter turnout, and sure enough, snow showers are predicted for parts of Iowa on caucus night. Candidates don't leave road conditions to chance, either.
In 2008, Clinton's campaign volunteers shoveled the sidewalks of the elderly on caucus night to make sure they could get out of their homes. That same year, the Obama campaign offered rides to the caucuses. Candidates have even offered free food and babysitting services to lure Iowans to caucus.
Iowa voters are so used to being pampered by candidates that Saturday Night Live mocked the practice in a 1980 sketch that depicted candidates doing laundry, dishes and even homework for a single caucus goer on the big night.