- Associated Press - Thursday, December 29, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa — All across Iowa next Tuesday, tens of thousands of Republican voters will travel through a chilly Midwestern night to the warmth of a local church or gymnasium for caucus meetings to select presidential candidates, the first voting in the 2012 election campaign.

These voters, most of them white, hardly resemble America as a whole, and their voting system puzzles most people. Yet Iowa holds substantial sway over how the nation chooses the president.

“Iowa will choose the next president of the United States in their early caucuses,” Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican presidential hopeful, said recently. “This is the cannon shot.”

The caucuses — essentially, community meetings — have served as a launching pad to the nomination, and often to the White House, for the past 40 years, though they’ve been around since the 1840s. Candidates tend to lavish attention on Iowa, hoping that a good showing will give them a burst of publicity to improve their chances in New Hampshire, which votes in a primary Jan. 10, and in other early-voting states.

The caucus process seems arcane and mysterious, even to people in Iowa. That is in part because most people don’t even participate. About 359,000 people — 17 percent of registered voters in Iowa — showed up for Democratic and Republican caucuses in 2008. Turnout will certainly be lower this year, since President Obama is unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Caucuses are held for all the state’s 1,774 voting precincts, some in remote spots where only a handful of voters gather, others in big community centers or schools that host several precincts under one roof. In all, Republicans will gather in about 800 locations.

Activists said that successful candidates must make connections with voters, then build an organization that can get them to their precinct gatherings.

“People still expect to see the candidates in person,” said Steve Scheffler, who heads the influential Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “The candidates who have spent the most time here will benefit.”

While both parties in Iowa use the caucus system to choose candidates, Republicans and Democrats go about things differently.

For the Republicans, the caucuses are simply a straw poll, meaning the results are not binding. While Democrats use the caucuses to choose delegates who are expected to support their favored candidate, Republicans handle that later at county and district conventions.

After electing a temporary chairman to run the meeting and a secretary to record the proceedings, any Republican who chooses can briefly speak in favor of a candidate. Ballots are then passed out and participants mark their choices in private. Those ballots are quickly counted and the results called into party headquarters, where they are posted online as they are received.

Any Republican voter can participate, including those who register when they arrive at the event. People too young to vote can also take part if they will be 18 by the general election.

Democrats, when there are multiple candidates, take a more convoluted approach.

Democrats break into preference groups at their caucuses, publicly declaring which candidate they favor. Candidates must get support from 15 percent of those attending the caucus in order to receive votes. Once they break into those groups, activists try to attract those whose candidates have fallen short of the 15 percent threshold.

After the results are reported to party headquarters, the numbers are run through a formula that changes the value of votes based on a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Or as Democratic strategist Jerry Crawford put it: “Democrats always like to make things more difficult.”

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