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What the H-E-Double Hockey Sticks is a Caucus?

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By HVpolitics on January 2, 2012

Something to keep in mind as your television and Internets scream “IOWA IS TOTES HUGE, YOU GUYS” all day Monday and Tuesday: John McCain came in fourth at the state’s caucuses in 2008 (finishing 21 percentage points behind Mike Huckabee, 12 points behind Mitt Romney and even a hair behind that District Attorney fella from Law & Order). George H. W. Bush came in third in 1988; Ronald Reagan came in second in 1980. All three men went on to win the party’s nomination.

Tuesday night’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses may thin the herd — will any of the also-rans not pictured above drop out after its over? — but it won’t come anywhere close to telling us who will win the Republican nomination. Given that Bob Dole and Pat Robertson destroyed the field in the 1988 and Pat Buchanan nearly won the most delegates in 1996, the race is far from over as history has shown.

But, historical unimportance aside, all eyes will indeed be on Iowa’s January 3rd caucuses before the field moves to the equally retail state of New Hampshire for the following week’s primary.

It’ll be a tight finish in Iowa, as three Republicans are now bunched together at the front of the field: In most major polls, Mitt Romney has a slight lead over Rep. Ron Paul, with Rick Santorum surging behind both men. The weep-ified Newt Gingrich has slipped to a comfortable fourth place. Republican voters, it seems, took a good look at Anyone But Romney before coming back to the original front-runner.

Okay, so you know the history, and you know who’s leading the polls. But just what is a caucus?

Most other states have traditional polling places for their primaries. Iowa has a caucus system. The first thing to know is that only registered voters for that party can vote at the caucus, but Iowa voters can switch their party allegiance at the door that every night. That makes the pollsters’ job trickier than other states — it’s more difficult to gauge who will show up and change their party on the spot. In 2008, about 13 percent of Republican caucus-goers and 20 percent of Democrats were Independents.

Iowans gather at one of 1,774 precincts throughout the state — think public buildings, schools, churches or wherever you’d picture Iowans might gather. Anyone who will be 18 or over by Election Day 2012 can participate. Each campaign gets each campaign one surrogate at each caucus to speak on behalf of the candidate before any voting begins. Then it’s time to cast the ballot.

Republicans have simpler rules than Democrats. Whereas Democrats have second and third rounds and must actually voice their vote, Republicans vote by secret ballot. The results are tallied and then phoned into the state party headquarters. At a Democratic caucus, there’s a realignment and a viability threshold, but with a sitting Democratic president you won’t have to worry about that for four more years.

Voters can leave, but the process is not over: Delegates from each precinct’s caucus then move on to the county conventions, and those delegates go on to choose delegates to the district conventions, and then those delegates then go onto select delegates to the Iowa State Convention. Simple!

Click Page 2 below to see how Republicans got back to Square Mitt after flirting with others…

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