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Iowa's Raucous Caucus
by Charlie Keenan

Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Dick Gephardt shakes hands with Jean Cooper (right) after speaking to a small group of people at a home in Marshalltown, Iowa. (Photo: Alex Dorgan-Ross/AP Wide World)

The media flocks to the Hawkeye State early in the presidential campaign and watches the candidates as they meet, greet, and high-five voters. While in Iowa, candidates also talk to party officials and try to make a good impression. The better the impression, the more likely party members are to speak up for a candidate at caucuses, or meetings of party members to vote on candidates or issues.

The word "caucus" comes from Native Americans and means "to gather together and make great noise." And that is just what a caucus is today. Members of a political party gather anywhere from schools to libraries and discuss the candidates and issues.

On January 19, each of Iowa's 1,997 precincts, or voting districts, will hold a caucus. Candidates need at least 15 percent of the attendees at each caucus to vote for them. If candidates get only 5 percent, then their voters will have to switch their allegiance to someone who has 15 percent or more.

Iowa is crucial because if a candidate wins in this state, he or she will get a lot of press and will be a frontrunner for the party's top prize, the presidential nomination. Come in fourth and the candidate is probably history in New Hampshire and the other primaries and caucuses that follow. The Iowa caucuses also allow candidates to get a general view of the public's approval of them.

"The early contests create momentum for candidates who win them, assisting them in winning the next round," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "They winnow the field."

Delegates, or representatives, are also chosen at caucuses. People at the caucus elect delegates to county conventions, who then elect delegates to district and state conventions. At those conventions, national convention delegates are selected. National convention delegates attend the party's conventions in the summer and cast their vote for the nominee.

Getting Ready for Election 2004

In October, Howard Dean made a campaign stop in Howard County, Iowa. This wasn't just any stop on his campaign trail. It was the 99th, and last, county he had to visit to reach his goal of visiting every county in the state. However, even this accomplishment didn't bring Dean to the top of the polls. According to a November 9 poll from The Des Moines Register, 20 percent of likely Democratic caucus participants said they support him for their party's presidential nomination.

Richard Gephardt has the most support. Twenty-seven percent supported Gephardt, who visited all 99 counties in 1988, helping him win Iowa's caucuses in that race.

John Kerry is currently third in the polls, with 15 percent. John Edwards (5 percent), Dennis Kucinich (3 percent), Carol Moseley-Braun (1 percent), and Al Sharpton (1 percent) are behind.

Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark decided not to campaign in Iowa. They do not think they will win the state, so they are spending their money campaigning in other states, such as New Hampshire. In the poll, Lieberman had 5 percent and Clark had 4 percent.

How Iowa Became So Important

This year isn't the first that Iowa has been a crucial state and it won't be the last. Iowa has been an important step on the presidential campaign ever since 1972, when Democratic candidate George McGovern's campaign spent a lot of time on Iowa and finished close behind opponent Edmund Muskie. It gave McGovern the attention he needed to win the nomination.

Jimmy Carter expanded on the strategy in 1976, taking Iowa and eventually winning the presidency. Candidates have made Iowa an early stop on the campaign ever since.