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article imageIowa: A quirky tradition in U.S. presidential race

By Ivan Couronne (AFP)     Jan 4, 2016 in World

On January 19, 1976, little-known US presidential candidate Jimmy Carter won the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses after campaigning heavily there. One year later, he waltzed into the White House, cementing Iowa's pivotal role in the election cycle.

It is in this Midwestern state, with a population of 3.1 million spread across an area slightly larger than Greece, and with corn and soybeans growing as far as the eye can see, where 15 candidates for the Democratic and Republican nominations will spend much of their time in January.

With Iowans voting on February 1, the deluge has already begun. At least six candidates, including Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, barnstormed across the state in December's final days.

Top Democrat Hillary Clinton, who recently called the race "a sprint" to Iowa and then New Hampshire, attends three Iowa events Monday, when surging Republican Senator Ted Cruz launches a six-day bus tour across much of the Hawkeye State.

Iowa does not hold a "primary," the form of nomination contest adopted by most states. It instead hosts "caucuses," a series of voter meetings in which it is the responsibility of the political parties to decide on rules and announce the results.

Those who will have turned 18 by Election Day  November 8  2016  are eligible to participate in the ...
Those who will have turned 18 by Election Day, November 8, 2016, are eligible to participate in the February 1 caucuses in Iowa
Jewel Samad, AFP/File

On a Monday evening four weeks from now, voters will gather in thousands of meetings across Iowa and, through a series of quirky -- some would say arcane -- steps, ultimately choose the candidate they wish to be their party's nominee in November's general election.

Despite frustrations with the system -- long hours, no absentee voting -- high-stakes Iowa is immensely consequential in the electoral process.

It was in Iowa where Clinton launched her presidential campaign in 2007. And last April, she dashed to the heartland state the day after announcing her latest candidacy.

Cruz has already done 91 events there. The record holder is former senator Rick Santorum, with 209 events in 73 days of Iowa campaigning.

In total, according to the Des Moines Register, candidates have so far attended more than 1,200 Iowa events in the 2016 cycle -- 10 times more than California, the National Journal noted.

"This grew up purely accidentally," Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford, co-author of political guidebook "The Iowa Precinct Caucuses," told AFP.

"Iowa is not first because it's important; Iowa is important simply because it's first."

- Low participation -

In 1972, the Democratic Party opened up its primary process, and advanced its national nominating convention to early July.

Among Iowa's 3.1 million inhabitants  there are currently about 584 000 active Democratic voter...
Among Iowa's 3.1 million inhabitants, there are currently about 584,000 active Democratic voters, 611,000 active Republican voters, and 725,000 who are registered under "no party" affiliation
Jewel Samad, AFP/File

Iowa's Democratic organizers, needing time for their convoluted system to play out, leapfrogged ahead of New Hampshire, which had opened the nominating process for decades. Iowa Republicans followed suit in 1976.

Few noticed the change until Carter's Iowa surprise helped catapult him to the presidency.

Proud of Iowa's influence and exposure, state legislators passed a law ensuring Iowa votes eight days ahead of any other state, including New Hampshire.

Among Democrats, Clinton leads Bernie Sanders in Iowa polls. Conservative Cruz and billionaire Trump are popular among the state's Republicans.

But Iowa results are historically unpredictable. In 2012, half of Republican voters chose their candidate in the final days, exit polls showed.

Some win Iowa only to see success on the national level escape them, as occurred with Santorum in 2012 and fellow Republican Mike Huckabee four years earlier.

Others seize on their symbolic victory, as underdog Obama did spectacularly in 2008 when he bested Clinton in Iowa on his run to the White House.

Experts agree that Iowa's early vote helps winnow the field and force less viable candidates to fold their tents.

No candidate has won their party's nomination without finishing in the top three in Iowa, except John McCain in 2008 when he missed third by a hair.

In the Republican race, such filtering has a conservative bias. More than half of those who voted in the 2012 caucuses were evangelical Christians.

Only the most dedicated voters participate in the caucuses, which come with imposing time commitments -- and sometimes inhospitable winter weather.

"To get people to the caucuses on a cold night, you have to hope the babysitter shows up and the car works and there's not a blizzard," Goldford said.

Participation is therefore lower than in other leading states -- just 20 percent in 2012, and 40 percent during the Clinton-Obama matchup of 2008.

The outcome of one of the most important political events of the year, one which ultimately has global consequences, is decided by some 200,000 or 300,000 voters.

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