THE BEGINNING: In 1972 Iowa Democrats moved their caucuses to January, making them the first in the nation and a bellwether for the election cycle. Iowa Republicans followed suit in 1976.
HOW THEY WORK: On caucus night, both Democratic and Republican parties gather to conduct precinct caucuses – which include a discussion of issues, the selection of delegates to represent the precinct at the county conventions, and of most interest to the rest of the nation, a decision on presidential candidate preference. Republicans and Democrats differ in how they conduct caucuses, according to the Des Moines Register. About 119,000 Republicans voted in Iowa’s 2008 Caucuses – a record number. About 239,000 Democrats voted in 2008 – also a record.
“That was the year of Republican disappointment and discouragement, and in a sense it’s reversed this year,” caucus expert and Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford told the Sun-Times.
THE HISTORY: Winners of contested caucuses win their party’s nomination only about half the time. Here is a look at past winners (N designates candidates who went on to win party nomination; P those went on to win presidency):
Democrat: Barack Obama N,P
Republican: Mike Huckabee
Democrat: John Kerry N
Republican: President George W. Bush ran unopposed P
Democrat: Al Gore N
Republican: George W. Bush N,P
Democrat: President Bill Clinton ran unopposed P
Republican: Bob Dole N
Democrat: Tom Harkin
Republican: President George H.W. Bush ran unopposed N
Democrat: Dick Gephardt
Republican: Bob Dole
Democrat: Walter Mondale N
Republican: President Ronald Reagan ran unopposed P
Democrat: Jimmy Carter N
Republican: George H.W. Bush
Democrat: Jimmy Carter placed second – 9 percentage points behind “uncommitted” – but was later nominated. N,P
Republican: Gerald Ford N
Democrat: Edmund Muskie
Republican: Republicans had not yet moved their caucus date to January.
Putting the caucuses on the map: The modern Iowa Caucuses came into prominence in 1976 when little known peanut farmer Jimmy Carter vaulted from obscurity ahead of other candidates in Iowa.
The Dean Scream: In 2004, then Vermont Governor Howard Dean came in third and gave an enthusiastic concession speech that included an ear-splitting scream that was widely mocked – and replayed on CNN – as the candidate slid in the polls.
Favorite son: Tom Harkin, Iowa’s governor at the time and the state’s favorite son, was such a shoo-in for the 1992 caucuses that other Democrats griped about skipping the process completely. Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton came in third, with a fraction of the state’s votes, but went on to win the presidency.