Today, February 1st, starting at 7 pm citizens will gather in local caucuses across Iowa to be first to vote for their party's presidential nominee.
On the Republican side, after messages from candidates and supporters, people cast the usual secret ballot and Iowa's national convention delegates are awarded proportionally.
On the Democratic side, it's more complicated. Voters divide themselves into "preference groups" for each candidate (in other words, they physically stand together.) If a candidate falls under a 15% voter threshold, they are eliminated and their supporters may choose another. If not, the candidate is awarded "state delegate equivalents" in proportion to their number of supporters.
Why is it important?
Since 1972 (1976 for Republicans) the Iowa caucuses have been first in the presidential nominating schedule. For better or worse, this role gives the state heightened influence. The winner in Iowa gains political momentum that can significantly boost his or her campaign.
This year, both parties are running dramatic races. Donald Trump is in the lead with 27% among Republicans, with Ted Cruz right behind at 24%. Hillary Clinton leads Bernie Sanders 49% to 42%. Nationally, Trump leads by 16%, Clinton by 14%.
Should Iowa come first—and therefore have a heightened influence in the primary process?
To have a state so demographically skewed be so powerful in the primary process is deeply problematic—and there are more representative options.
Iowa by no means guarantees a nomination, but the caucuses play a significant role in creating momentum for the winning candidate. No candidate from either party has lost the nomination after winning both Iowa and New Hampshire since the states' reordering in 1972.
Iowa's population is disproportionately whiter and older than the nation's. Iowa is 92% white to the U.S.'s 77% and 3% black to the nation's 13%.
Iowa is also deeply rural, with no meaningful representation of the 45% of the national vote that comes from big cities.
These voters have an outsized voice within their party, and in setting the stage for the post-nomination presidential race.
The idea that there are no states more representative is plainly false. There are many with much greater racial and urban diversity. Among them: Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Iowa's first-in-the-nation status narrows the primary playing field in unique and important ways.
While it is true that Iowa has on average a whiter, older, and more rural population, their voting patterns do not reflect this bias. Both Republican and Democrat minority candidates historically perform well in Iowa. Further, the state includes a mix of political opinion that makes its population surprisingly dynamic and diverse.
Iowa's small size gives less prominent candidates a leg up, allowing them to compete early in a way that would not be possible in a larger, more urban, or populous state.
The caucus system—though itself controversial—also reflects the commitment of communities in Iowa to this process. Practically, the state's first-in-the-nation place is unlikely to change, given Iowans' attachment to the process.
In general, the Iowa caucuses represent tradition, commitment, and close candidate-to-voter interactions that set the stage well for other primaries and the general election.