Jan. 3 (Bloomberg) -- Iowa Republicans will get the first crack at selecting a presidential nominee tonight by casting votes in a caucus process that’s become best known for ending or fueling candidacies rather than predicting the nominee.
Based on past patterns, a fraction of Iowa Republicans will attend the 1,774 caucus meetings held at 809 locations -- schools, community centers, churches and other public venues -- at 7 p.m. central time.
Each presidential campaign may have one surrogate speak for as long as five minutes. Attendees cast their votes usually by writing the candidate’s name on a piece of paper that they deposit in envelopes or boxes. The vote counting is public and may be observed by representatives of the presidential campaigns.
Caucus officials transmit the results to state party headquarters in Des Moines, where the standings are announced. The first-place finisher won’t be awarded official delegates because the caucus votes aren’t binding. The real prize is momentum going into the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary.
“It’s a big statewide straw poll,” Rhodes Cook, a political analyst and the editor of The Rhodes Cook Letter, said in an interview. “You need to win, place or show, that’s the tradition.”
Last Primary 1916
Iowa has always used a caucus and convention system to select presidential delegates to national conventions, with the exception of 1916 when it held a presidential primary. No major candidate entered that primary, turnout wasn’t strong, and the presidential primary was scrapped in 1917.
Advantages of the caucus system include saving the state the expense of running a presidential primary and promoting grassroots party building at what are essentially neighborhood meetings.
A downside to the system is that it caters to the most zealous political activists and draws a much lower voter turnout than primary elections. Caucuses require a time commitment of several hours on a weeknight.
The caucuses are open to registered party voters who will be at least 18 years old by the November general election. Democrats and independents are allowed to crossover to participate in the caucuses. They would have to change their registration to Republican, which is allowed on the day of the event.
There were about 614,000 active registered Republicans in Iowa as of Dec. 1, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office.
Participation Levels Low
In a good year, about a fifth of them participate. In 2008, the party had a record turnout of 119,000 -- about 21 percent of the active registered Republicans at that time.
The Democrats also saw strong participation four years ago, when then-Senator Barack Obama worked to expand participation by motivating young voters. About 240,000 Democrats wound up attending the 2008 caucuses, according to a Democratic National Committee memo.
Dennis J. Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said he would consider a Republican turnout of 125,000 to be a “substantial increase over 2008” and that he “can’t imagine” it would approach the 2008 Democratic turnout.
This year’s Republican contest may draw even more voters, in part because the race is close and there aren’t competitive Democratic caucuses vying for attention since Obama is uncontested.
“We are set up to have a strong turnout, and people do need to remember, in the Iowa caucuses, as an independent or a Democrat, you can register as a Republican that night and participate,” Matt Strawn, the chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, said Jan. 1 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Iowa’s primacy in the presidential selection process dates to the 1972 campaign, when Democratic officials revised the caucus schedule and set the first round for late January, before the New Hampshire primary.
George McGovern’s better-than-expected showing in that year’s caucuses presaged his rise to the Democratic presidential nomination. Jimmy Carter campaigned more extensively in Iowa ahead of the 1976 caucuses, in which he outperformed all other candidates en route to winning the presidency.
“It was Carter who first recognized that time spent in retail politicking in the state might propel him ultimately to the nomination and successfully implemented that strategy,” Christopher C. Hull wrote in his 2008 book, “Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents.”
The key, Carter found, has been to spend time courting the most devoted party activists in living rooms, nursing homes and veterans’ halls. White House contenders since Carter have tried to replicate his success by making repeated trips to Iowa, seeking a boost in a state where the national media view caucus performance as a test of candidates’ organizational strength.
George H.W. Bush upset Ronald Reagan to win the 1980 Republican caucuses, though Reagan recovered to win the New Hampshire primary and went on to win the nomination and the presidency. In 1988, Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Representative Richard Gephardt won the caucuses, though they faltered in New Hampshire and weren’t nominated.
Some candidates who fared poorly in Iowa despite frequent personal visits include Howard Baker and John Connally in the 1980 Republican caucuses, Alan Cranston and Reubin Askew in the 1984 Democratic caucuses and Phil Gramm in the 1996 Republican caucuses.
The 2008 Republican caucuses wounded the candidacy of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who spent heavily and lost to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee.
Arizona Senator John McCain, who won the Republican nomination, eschewed an active campaign in Iowa and finished fourth there. He was the second candidate since 1972 to finish lower than third in the Iowa caucuses and win the presidential nomination.
In this year’s race, a poor caucus showing might be harmful to the two leaders in the closing polls: Romney and Representative Ron Paul of Texas. For former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Texas Governor Rick Perry, a finish in the top three may be transformative. And for former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has bounced up and down in surveys of voters, the caucuses may be defining.
Romney is running a less expensive campaign in Iowa than he did four years ago, and until recently his campaign sought to tamp down expectations for his showing. As polls have shown him at or near the top, though, he has accelerated his bid to win the vote.
Perry, Santorum and Bachmann are trying to exceed expectations by winning Iowa’s large bloc of evangelical voters.
A depressed turnout caused by bad weather or other factors may favor Paul, who’s built what Iowa Republicans such as former state party director Craig Robinson consider the best organization among the candidates. For the Des Moines area, the forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-30s, with no chance of precipitation.
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