The presidential primary season kicks off in earnest with the Iowa caucuses on Monday 15 January, firing the starting pistol on what promises to be one of the most chaotic and atypical US election years in living memory.
Scandal-blighted Donald Trump remains the Republican frontrunner in almost all polls and is widely expected to cement his dominance over the GOP with a strong showing while the likes of Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis have a chance to build momentum as the only serious challengers to the former president.
For the likes of Vivek Ramaswamy and Asa Hutchinson, a poor performance could mean curtains for their ailing campaigns, definitive proof that they do not have the support necessary to merit continuing the quest to become the party’s nominee for the White House.
For Democrats, the matter is much more straightforward: they will simply gather in gyms, schools, libraries and churches to elect delegates to send to the county conventions in March, the next step to selecting the delegates that will attend the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August.
Here’s a quick guide for the perplexed.
What is a caucus?
A political caucus is defined as any gathering of people with a shared interest or goal.
The Iowa caucuses are a series of local meetings held throughout the state at which participants conduct party business and typically indicate their preference for the presidential nominee their party will place on November’s ballots.
It’s also the first step in a months-long process to select people to serve as delegates to the national party conventions in the summer.
Are caucuses different from primaries?
Yes, but the principle of consensus-building is essentially the same. One of the main differences between caucuses and primaries is the amount of time allotted for voting to occur and the methods by which people vote.
In a primary, voters can show up at the polls and cast ballots throughout election day, from the early morning until polls close in the evening. They also have the option of casting an absentee ballot if they cannot make it and, in some states, people may be allowed to vote in advance.
The Iowa caucuses, however, are held in the evening and voters must attend in person to take part, except in a few isolated instances.
Caucuses are run by political parties, whereas primaries are typically run by the state itself.
Are both Republicans and Democrats holding caucuses in Iowa this year?
Yes. Both the state Republican and Democratic parties will be holding caucuses on 15 January but only the Republican event will have any obvious real on the presidential race.
In a departure from previous years, the Democratic caucuses will this time serve only to conduct administrative party business and kick off the process of choosing delegates for the conventions.
Support among Iowans for Joe Biden’s nomination for a second term will be indicated by a postal vote instead, running from Friday 12 January to “Super Tuesday” on 5 March. The results will not be known until that later date.
What is at stake?
Nothing for Democrats but, for the Republicans, there are two prizes in the Iowa caucuses: delegates and bragging rights. Iowa Republican voters will indicate their picks for the party’s presidential nominee and the results of that vote will determine how many of the state’s 40 convention delegates each candidate will receive.
Candidates win national convention delegates in direct proportion to the percentage of the vote they receive. There is no minimum threshold required to qualify for delegates.
However, Iowa makes up a tiny share of the total number of Republican delegates nationwide (just 1.6 per cent). So, in theory, a candidate who performs poorly in the Hawkeye State has plenty of opportunities in the remaining states and territories to make up the difference.
But, because of Iowa’s first-in-the-nation placement in the campaign calendar, the caucus results often give a disproportionate boost to the winners and to those who perform strongly or surpass expectations. The then-little-known Barack Obama, for one, famously benefited from a strong performance there in 2008.
Conversely, it can have a demoralising effect on the rest of the field, possibly even nudging underperforming candidates out of the race for good.
Although Iowa is not particularly representative demographically speaking, its caucuses are so crucial because they serve to signal to voters in other states, fairly or unfairly, which candidates are best placed in the race for the nomination and have momentum heading into the subsequent contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and so on.
The political analyst Christopher Hull estimated in his 2008 book Grassroots Rules: How the Iowa Caucus Helps Elect American Presidents that the Iowa caucuses receive 143 times more media coverage than other presidential primary elections.
Imagine how much more intense the glare will be this time.
How will the Republican caucuses work in 2024?
There will be two main agenda items at every Republican caucus site: holding a binding vote on the party’s presidential nominee and electing delegates to attend county conventions, which is the next step in the multi-tiered process of electing delegates to attend the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this summer.
The binding presidential vote functions essentially like a party-run primary, only with very limited polling hours and no accommodation for absentee voting, except for a small handful of overseas and military voters.
There are speeches on behalf of various candidates before the voting and a variety of party business after the vote.
Individual caucus chairs are allowed to exercise some discretion in how to conduct the vote but the voting is done by secret ballot and there is no set list of candidates.
Voters must be given the option to vote for any candidate they choose. In the past, some caucus sites have pre-printed the names of major candidates and provided a write-in option but, typically, voters submit their choice by simply writing the name of a candidate on a blank slip of paper.
There is no walking around the caucus room to form preference groups behind particular candidates. That voting method was a feature of Democratic caucuses from 1972 to 2020 but is no longer in use by either party in 2024, which is perhaps a shame, as it brought a surreal touch of Alice in Wonderland to proceedings.
The Republican caucuses will convene statewide at 7pm local time on 15 January and begin with the election of a caucus chair and secretary.
Only registered Republicans may participate in the caucuses and only in their designated home precincts. However, Iowans may register or change their party affiliation as late as caucus day itself, although voters must turn 18 by the November general election to participate.
How will the Democratic caucuses work in 2024?
Iowa Democrats had to completely redo their caucus and presidential delegate selection process after their last caucuses devolved into chaos and failed to produce a clear, undisputed winner, hence the new mail-in voting approach.
The Democratic caucuses on 15 January will therefore be concerned only with electing convention delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August as the presidential nomination process is given over to the new mail-in voting system.
Additional reporting by agencies