An Iowa caucus primer: How the process works

Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a campaign stop at the Iowa 80 Group in Walcott, Iowa, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry
Charles Dharapak

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

A week from today, somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 Iowans are expected to head to their local precincts to participate in the caucus system that has governed the state's politics since the mid-1800s.

Even if turnout far exceeds projections, only a small percentage of Iowa's 3 million residents will participate in the event that plays an outsized role in determining which Republican candidate will face off against President Obama in November -- and possibly lead more than 300 million Americans over the next four years.

Despite the national media saturation, the process by which the Iowa caucuses are run can seem incomprehensible even to politically attuned outsiders, and it is rarely explained in detail.

But some quintessential Iowa quirks notwithstanding, the Republican caucuses are rather straightforward.

Iowans who wish to participate on Jan. 3 must first find the voting site of their local precinct. The venues tend to change every four years, so even longtime caucus-goers are advised to double-check with one of the campaigns, the Iowa Republican Party website, or their local newspaper.

There are 1,774 precincts in this year's caucuses, and many of the state's rural outposts will see just a trickle of participants. On the other hand, some of the more populous counties combine their precincts into one location, which means that thousands of caucus-goers will gather at a single location.

Blackhawk County, for instance, is holding this year's caucuses at the UNI-Dome, where the University of Northern Iowa football team plays its home games.

The gatherings are run entirely by the state Republican Party, which will deliver to each precinct a list of registered Republicans as of Nov. 14.

Once people start arriving at their caucus sites, they will be checked in and directed to their seats if they are already registered with the party. Non-Republican voters are allowed to register on site with the GOP upon providing a driver's license or other photo ID with proof of residency and will be added instantly to the party's registration rolls and can participate that night.

Seventeen-year-olds who will turn 18 by Nov. 6, 2012 are allowed to take part.

Refreshments are typically provided, and neighbors and friends will mingle before the session is called to order by a volunteer precinct captain.

The caucuses begin at 7 p.m. Central Time, but Iowa GOP officials and the campaigns themselves encourage voters to show up early, since the process typically starts on time. Michele Bachmann's website, for instance, directs supporters to be at their caucus precincts by 6:30 p.m. and does not mention that the event actually begins a half-hour later.

After a few minutes of procedural business, the captains will move on to the main event: the Presidential Preference Poll.

Each campaign will then be allowed to have one surrogate speak on its behalf. These speeches, which typically last two to three minutes, are among the most important elements of the entire process and figure to be even more critical this year, given the especially high percentage of undecided voters.

"I hope to make a decision before I go in there, but a lot of people will actually go in there, visit with their neighbors not knowing what they're going to do, and say, 'Who do you support?' " said longtime Iowa Republican activist Becky Beach. "And what happens a lot is people who they are friends with or that they respect, they'll vote with those people because they know them and like them."

In the past, well-organized campaigns have placed volunteer speech-givers at almost all of Iowa's precincts, providing them with talking points for closing the deal.

But in a year that has seen a much lower level of organizing than usual, not a single campaign has announced chairpersons in all 99 counties. Bachmann seems to have come the closest, as her campaign announced earlier this month that she has 91 counties covered.

Mitt Romney's campaign will not say how many county chairpersons it has in place, though the remnants of the extensive organizing Romney did in the state throughout 2007 may prove invaluable.

At his Ida County precinct in 1996, Iowa GOP campaign veteran Tim Albrecht delivered his first caucus night speech on behalf of Pat Buchanan -- while just a high school senior. According to Albrecht, the visual stimuli at each site can have a significant last-minute impact.

"You want to plaster that room with your signs and plaster anyone who will wear one with a sticker, because people like to go with a winner when they are undecided this late," he said.

The candidates themselves will usually speak on their own behalf at one or two precincts in the more heavily populated counties.

Once the speeches have concluded, voting begins promptly.

Though methods may vary from precinct to precinct, each caucus-goer is typically handed a blank piece of paper on which to write the surname of the candidate for whom they are voting.

"In our precinct, I know this sounds cliché, but we passed around a red-white-and-blue sequined shoebox with a hole slit in the top, and you drop your ballot in there," said Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn, who plans to attend his local caucus this year but will not vote out of deference to his position.

In contrast to the far more complicated procedures involved in the Democratic process, Iowa Republicans do not maintain a viability threshold, and there is no second-choice realignment vote for candidates with little support.

Votes will be tallied in full view of attendees at a table in the back of the room, where each campaign is allowed to station an observer.

Decisions about misspellings are made by precinct leaders, but a liberal interpretation of voter intent is typically employed. There have been surprisingly few disputes over the years.

The results for each precinct are announced to everyone who is still on hand, and precinct chairs then forward their counts to the Iowa Republican Party.

The state GOP is likely to launch a website in the coming days, which it will use to announce the results as they come in on caucus night.

In 2008, the Iowa GOP tabulated and announced the outcome soon after the caucuses closed, and the party has enacted further improvements that it hopes will help it determine the outcome even more efficiently.

Unless the tally is extraordinarily close, the winner should have enough time to make a victory speech while most TV viewers on the East Coast are still awake.

The candidates who decide to continue their campaigns will then hop on red-eye flights to New Hampshire, where a one-week sprint in the first-in-the-nation primary state begins promptly the next morning.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.