Guy Benson

Politicos from coast to coast have heard a great deal about the fabled Iowa caucuses, but precious few ever have the opportunity to actually witness or participate in the unusual and parochial process.  How, exactly, will this evening's voting unfold?  Real Clear Politics' Scott Conroy offers a useful primer on the basic mechanics.  Conroy first underscores how few Iowans are projected to take part in tonight's highly-scrutinized election:
 

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.


That's a startling reminder: Tonight's results will be determined by just three to five percent of all Iowans, and a microscopic fraction of one percent of the overall US population.  Talk about out-sized influence.  While it's true that the quaint (some might say anachronistic) caucus system has dominated Iowa politics since the 19th century, Iowa didn't slide into its first-in-the-nation driver's seat until 1972.  The four decade-old tradition will resume this evening as Iowans gather at venues large and small to codify their presidential primary preferences:
 

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.


More than anything else, it's the nuts-and-bolts of caucus night protocol that fuels Iowa's unique electoral lore:
 

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


As I've noted repeatedly, more than forty percent of likely caucus participants tell pollsters they haven't yet settled on a solid choice, so these brief surrogate speeches may prove particularly influential in 2012.  With so many voters ambivalent and conflicted, these short remarks will be the very last live-action campaign "commericials" they'll consume before making a decision.  Those decisions, incidentally, will be neither recorded behind curtains, nor tallied in private:
 

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.


Finally, an obligatory reminder. Despite all the media coverage and hype, tonight's results are non-binding:
 

Caucusgoers' presidential preferences are non-binding. The real business takes place after the presidential vote, when the caucusgoers who stick around pick delegates and platform proposals for their county GOP convention. The 99 county conventions will later select delegates to the four district conclaves, each of which chooses three national delegates and two more for the June 12 state GOP convention, where the remaining 13 uncommitted national delegates are finally selected.


This high stakes, quadrennial political pageant will resume in gymnasiums, community centers, and barns across the Hawkeye State tonight at 7pm CT.  Katie and I will be on the ground, chronicling this spectacle in real time this evening, so we invite you to check the Tipsheet frequently to keep tabs on our team coverage.


UPDATE - Click through for a handy infographic on how the caucuses work, including an explanation of the differences between the Democrat and Republican processes.


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography