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What to know about the Iowa caucuses

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

(CNN) — The first test of the 2024 presidential election hits January 15, when Iowa Republicans gather to caucus in high school gyms, community buildings and churches.

The first event of the party primary calendar for the past half century, the caucuses will provide an initial moment of truth for former President Donald Trump’s comeback bid and could help Republicans tired of Trump decide which of his challengers to rally behind.

What is a caucus?

Caucuses are not primaries. Primary elections are conducted like other US elections – at polling places and by secret ballot, held throughout the day and usually also with absentee and early voting.

Caucuses are something else. They are essentially meetings run by political parties, convened at a specific time – 7 p.m. CT in Iowa. Since it isn’t a traditional election, a candidate’s performance in Iowa is often viewed as a test of his or her campaign’s organizational strength.

How are votes cast at a caucus?

For Republicans, surrogates for candidates give final pitches after the caucuses get underway and then paper ballots are distributed to caucusgoers. They’re counted on-site, and the results are shared with the party.

Who are the main candidates?

Trump has had a consistent lead in Iowa polls. But the state has been the site of numerous perceived upsets in the past.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a super PAC supporting him have invested heavily in Iowa. In early December, DeSantis completed what’s known in political circles as the “full Grassley,” which means he visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties. Chuck Grassley, the state’s long-serving Republican senator, has done it every year for 43 straight years.

Vivek Ramaswamy, the businessman new to politics, did a “double Grassley” by visiting all 99 counties twice before the January 15 caucuses.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has improved in recent polling and could be moving past DeSantis as the top Trump alternative in the GOP primary. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is also running. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie suspended his campaign the week before the caucuses. Read more about the 2024 GOP presidential candidates.

Trump has notably skipped debates and candidate forums, hoping to ride his front-runner status to victory.

What’s important to Iowa voters?

Evangelical voters make up an important faction of Republicans in Iowa, and more socially conservative candidates have performed well in the state GOP caucuses. That includes former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won in 2012, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won in 2016.

This year, former Vice President Mike Pence banked his campaign on appealing to religious conservatives in Iowa, but he eventually pulled out of the race when he did not appear to be gaining traction.

The prominence of the Hawkeye State on the presidential calendar has also helped Iowans push issues important to them – agricultural subsidies, ethanol additives for gasoline and, this year, the relatively new issue of carbon pipelines.

Does the winner in Iowa usually win the White House?

In an open year, when there’s no incumbent running for a party’s nomination, Iowa has a spotty record at picking the president, particularly for Republicans.

Only one Republican, George W. Bush in 2000, won a contested Iowa face-off and then went on to win the White House.

On the Democratic side, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and went on to win the White House. Jimmy Carter was the top Democrat in 1976, but he placed second to a slate of “uncommitted” delegates. Still, the momentum propelled him to the party nomination and ultimately the White House.

Some notable losses include when the Republican Ronald Reagan placed second in 1980 to George H.W. Bush, who ultimately became his running mate. Reagan, interestingly, had won the Iowa caucuses in 1976, although then-President Gerald Ford won the GOP nomination and subsequently lost the White House.

The elder Bush, despite winning the caucuses in 1980, lost them in 1988 to then-Sen. Bob Dole even though Bush was running as the sitting vice president. Bush went on to secure the GOP nomination.

And Trump, although he’s the favorite in pre-caucus polling this year, lost the Iowa caucuses in 2016 to Cruz.

Weren’t there some problems with the Iowa caucuses?

That’s an understatement. Both Republicans and Democrats have experienced total system meltdowns in Iowa.

In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner immediately after the caucuses, based on the initial caucus-night returns. But it was actually Santorum who had narrowly won the caucuses, although the caucus-night mistake robbed him of much-needed momentum. Romney went on to win the next state, New Hampshire, and the Republican nomination, although he lost the general election.

Republican Party leaders have revamped their system in the intervening years.

In 2020, it was Democrats’ turn. Technical difficulties with an app meant to streamline the counting process created such chaos that no winner was declared for weeks. Pete Buttigieg was ultimately crowned, but it was too late for him to capitalize and create momentum.

Are Democrats caucusing this year?

Yes and no. They are meeting to caucus in person on January 15, but they are not conducting a presidential primary preference vote on that date.

Rather, Iowa Democrats have until March 5 to vote by mail. Results will be released on Super Tuesday, March 5.

Why the change for Democrats?

This is the first time since 1972 that the Iowa caucuses will not be the first event on Democrats’ presidential nomination calendar. (Republicans went Iowa-first in 1976.)

President Joe Biden, who placed fourth in the 2020 Iowa caucuses, pushed Democrats to change up the calendar. One complaint among Democrats with Iowa is that the state’s population is predominantly White and focused on rural areas. Another is that the caucuses require people to show up at a certain time in the evening, a logistical barrier that lowers turnout.

Instead, the Democratic Party picked South Carolina to go first for them on February 3. New Hampshire, unlike Iowa, has decided to defy the Democrats and hold its primary on January 23.

How did Iowa get to go first?

After violence disrupted their 1968 primary in Chicago, Democrats tried to make the primary process more democratic.

That, combined with the Iowa legislature moving the caucuses early in the year, meant headlines for then-Sen. George McGovern after his surprisingly strong finish in the caucuses. McGovern won the Democratic nomination in 1972 but lost the White House to Republican incumbent Richard Nixon, who never had to deal with the Iowa caucuses as we know them today.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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