Old-style voting puts Iowa in epicenter of U.S. election

Story highlights

  • After months of debates and rallies Iowa is the first state where people actually get to vote for a candidate
  • The state holds caucuses where communities debate each candidate's merits before voting, sometimes with a show of hands
  • Iowa's status as first to vote means it is watched closely although it does not always pick the eventual winner
  • Its issues are sometimes different to the nation -- so far Iowa has been spared the worst of the economic downturn

A frequently overlooked place of farms, friendly towns and relatively few people is, for now, the epicenter of U.S. politics. The place is Iowa. The question is Why-owa?

The answer is a quaint and quirky institution known as the Iowa caucuses -- an unusual, old-fashioned evening of talking about the candidates running for president and then voting on them.

Separate caucuses are held across Iowa as neighbors debate the pros and cons of candidates with each other before they vote among themselves, and that result then gets totted up with the other caucuses statewide to decide the winner.

The U.S. presidential campaign has been under way for months as Republicans decide who they want to run against the presumed Democrat candidate, the incumbent President Barack Obama.

Candidates have spoken at rallies, debated each other on TV and opinion polls are released at least weekly.

But the Iowa caucuses, to be held on Tuesday January 3, are the first time anyone will actually vote.

"The Iowa caucuses are really like nothing else in American politics," said CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser.

"I mean, imagine a cold winter night, sub-freezing temperatures. It takes a lot for a person to come out to their local school, the local church and take part for about two hours in a caucus. You've really got to be into the process."

Iowa: Quaint, quirky but important

    Just Watched

    Iowa: Quaint, quirky but important

Iowa: Quaint, quirky but important 02:16
Iowa: Anyone's race to win

    Just Watched

    Iowa: Anyone's race to win

Iowa: Anyone's race to win 02:12

Americans have long chosen their presidential candidates sequentially state by state.

Most states hold what they call 'primaries' -- primary elections -- to choose delegates to attend national conventions later in the year that formally select the Democratic and Republican party nominees.

This year, all attention so far has been on the fight to become the Republican nominee because Obama is expected to be the Democratic candidate.

To a casual visitor the primaries look a lot like any election, with the familiar routines of voters, ballot boxes and booths.

But Iowa caucuses are different and the rules vary in the roughly 1,800 state precincts that hold them. There isn't necessarily a secret ballot; sometimes there's no ballot at all.

After everyone gets a chance to express their opinions, the vote can be on paper, with a show of hands or, for Democrats, just by congregating into groups corresponding to the different candidates and seeing who has the biggest group.

It's a particular kind of politics with a long past. The caucuses date back in different forms more than 150 years. But they never attracted much attention until the 1970s when Iowa moved its caucuses ahead of the first primary and decided to stage them all on the same evening.

The media started paying attention and candidates learned that a strong showing could generate headlines nationwide.

Even so, winning Iowa doesn't predict much because with just three million people, the state is so small, so rural, so white and, these days, so affluent.

Its agriculture-based economy is doing well enough to be spared the worst of America's economic downturn.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that nearly 90 percent of likely caucus-goers described their financial situation as good. The Times says that's about 20 points higher than the average nationwide.

So maybe it's no surprise that, looking back over the decades, the most popular candidates in Iowa don't tend to get their party's nomination or the presidency.

To be fair, Iowa did do better than usual last time: it was half right. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee won his party's caucuses in 2008, but he didn't win the Republican nomination and he's not the president today.

The Democratic caucuses that year were more telling. Barack Obama did win them, the start of a long and surprising campaign that ended in the White House.

So does Iowa matter? Historian Hugh Winebrenner writes at IowaPolitics.Com that it does because America's media say it does.

"Iowa is first," Winebrenner notes. The "caucuses provide early evidence -- hard news -- on the progress of the presidential race. This is the perception of Iowa's role, and it is therefore the reality..."

But there is more to the reality. Even if Iowa doesn't add much to the process, it does subtract.

After the Iowa caucuses the most successful or determined candidates will stay in the race and head to the northeastern state of New Hampshire for its primary, the first in the nation, on January 10. The others tend to start heading home.

This year, the Republican race is so unsettled, with so many candidates trading the top spots in public opinion polls, that Iowa could be unusually close and confusing.

And quirky. You can count on quirky.

      Election 2012

    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
    • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
    • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
    • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.