What is a caucus and why is it in Iowa?

January 3, 2008 5:32:15 AM PST
Thursday night brings the first big test for candidates in the race for president. Iowa voters will gather in community meetings for what has become the country's first indication as to which candidates will pull to the lead for the Republican and Democratic nominations. So what exactly is a caucus?

The caucus, like any election, is a popularity contest. Only in this one, your vote isn't secret, you can cast it several times, and if you think your friend is supporting a loser, you can plead with them to come over to your team. All this, while the nation watches and Iowa proves it can produce more than pigs and corn.

Caucusing is so quirky the campaigns are actually holding practice drills.

"We've put shovels in every field office. We will babysit your children, I will shovel your walk, we'll drive you. It's all about getting them to get to their caucus," said Terry McCauliffe, Clinton campaign chairman.

Hillary Clinton's campaign chair tells ABC7 winning in Iowa is as much about proving you have what it takes to be president as it demonstrating you can deploy a dominant field operation.

"Out of what 18 candidates, I think I've met 10 of them, several of them more than once," said Mark Felderman, Lucas County, Iowa, resident.

Mark Felderman has heard every sales pitch. Now it's up to him and the more than 200,000 other Iowans who are expected to take part in the caucus.

"We do a good job of winnowing out the losers, maybe not losers, but we say 'No, I don't think you're ready for this,' " said Felderman.

This state is in no way representative of America. It is 92 percent white and has a habit of rewarding the candidates who press the most flesh here. So how did this little state get so much influence?

"It's a historical accident. I can't say whether it's fair or not," said Jack Lufkin, Iowa Historical Museum.

While Iowans have been caucusing for more than a century, the state didn't get this kind of power in the presidential race until the divisive riots in Chicago following the '68 Convention.

"This didn't happen by accident. After the '68 convention in Chicago, there was a lot of concern to get activists, grassroots Democrats back and involved," said Gov. Chet Culver, (D) Iowa.

This year, Iowa is hosting the closest race in decades.

One thing to keep in mind over the next week: Iowa and New Hampshire represent just 2 percent of eligible voters nationwide, yet these small states chew up and spit out presidential candidates.