Q. What is a caucus?
A. A party meeting at the precinct level at which citizens express their candidate preferences and pick delegates to their county conventions. It's the lowest level of party politics - the real grass roots. These meetings, held in each of the state's nearly 1,800 precincts, typically draw anywhere from a handful of people in rural areas to hundreds in suburban areas.
Q. Who takes part?
A. Anyone who is old enough to vote in the November general election and is a member of the party is eligible, but traditionally only a small number of Iowans show up. This year, 120,000 to 150,000 people are expected to vote in the Democratic caucuses, while 80,000 to 90,000 are likely to participate in the GOP contest.
Q. Why is it politically significant?
A. Persuading a group of average citizens to show up in support of a candidate is considered a sign of organizational strength. Each candidate courts politicians and activists at the state and local levels in hopes of getting strong numbers of supporters to show up and participate. At the same time, the caucus system allows candidates to develop and hone their message before relatively small groups.
Q. What happens at a caucus?
A. Participants, led by a chairman or chairwoman, indicate their preferences for their party's presidential nomination, pick delegates to their county conventions, and discuss party business, including their party platforms.
Q. What happens next?
A. Delegates chosen at the caucuses go to the county convention later in the year. There, the field is winnowed down and delegates are chosen for the district convention. This happens again at district meetings and again at the state convention, where delegates are named to attend the party's national convention.
Q. Why are the numbers different?
A. The Republicans essentially hold a straw poll - a head count - at their precinct caucuses, reporting real numbers. One head, one vote. The Democrats do not report straight numbers, but use a mathematical formula to determine support for a presidential candidate in percentages. A candidate must have the support of 15 percent of those present at any meeting, precinct caucuses through the state convention, to remain "viable." This is meant to ensure greater consistency throughout the process.
Q. Will there be exit polls in Iowa?
A. Something similar. The Associated Press and the television networks will survey voters as they enter the caucus sites. Those surveys will help readers understand what issues and qualities motivated Iowans to vote for a specific candidate.
Q. How did the Iowa caucuses get started?
A. A commission that was appointed after demonstrators disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention recommended proportionate representation and affirmative action. Iowa Democrats decided to use new rules in 1972, adopting a regulation that there must be a month between events - the caucuses and the county, district, state, and national conventions. The caucuses wound up being held as early as January.