The 2016 presidential campaign has been going on for so long that it's easy to forget that not a single primary vote has been cast – until now, the race has been purely hypothetical, played out in polls and pundit arguments. That changes, finally, with the Iowa Caucuses on Monday.
Maybe after that, things will calm down. So far, the campaign has been a funhouse reflection of politics, with Donald Trump proving that Republican voters don't like Republicans all that much and a self-described socialist challenging Democratic heir apparent Hillary Clinton. The absurdity is only amplified by the inherent weirdness of the Iowa Caucuses themselves.
Most Americans accept that the presidential race begins in a otherwise forgettable state with more pigs than people, and a voting system culled from the opium-addled brain of Lewis Carroll. But the reasons for this – and what it means for the US presidential election – tend to be less understood. Below, we've broken down some of the things you should know about the caucus before it's all over Monday night.
Iowa is full of them. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of Iowa voters is their translucence, a ruddy, corn-fed pastiness shared by virtually every resident of the Hawkeye State. A full 92 per cent of the population here is white, according to the latest US Census data, the fifth-largest majority of any state in the country. Naturally, this overwhelming lack of colour is reflected in the state's presidential politics: White people made up 99 per cent of Iowa Republican caucus voters in the last two presidential elections; Democrats were only slightly more diverse in 2008.
If nothing else, the numbers should dispel any lingering fantasies that see Iowa as somehow representative of "Real America". In addition to being whiter, Iowa is older than most states; it's also overwhelmingly rural and has a negligible foreign-born population. The demographic shifts taking place across the rest of America, by and large, haven't hit home here.
Democrats seem reluctant to admit that the votes they're competing for here are so lily-white, given how important winning minority voters will become more important in future primaries. Still, you can't help but cock your head in amusement when a Clinton ally accused Bernie Sanders of putting too many white people in his Iowa campaign ads.
For Republicans, the effect of all these white Iowans has been more sinister, providing a subtext for the endless campaign speeches and ads mythologising Iowa as the last bastion of Agrarian Democracy and Family Values. At the same time, conservative flashpoints like mass deportation and Muslim immigration bans remain mostly abstract concepts in Iowa, allowing the candidates to ramp up their nativist rhetoric in front of an audience that's likely had limited interaction with the real-life people those policies might affect.
To truly grasp the weirdness of the Iowa Caucuses, you have to understand what the hell a caucus is in the first place. Instead of just stepping into a booth and pulling a lever like normal voters, Iowans prefer an arcane, gratuitously quaint system in which likeminded partisans get together at a meeting house to chase each other around and fight about politics. In Iowa, members of each party do this with neighbours in their respective precincts; each of Iowa's 99 counties has a handful of precincts, and most of these hosts their own caucus party on Election Night. That's a lot of parties.
What goes down after the doors close at 7 PM varies by party. When Republicans get together on caucus night, they all sit in a meeting room—at a church, maybe, or in a high school auditorium—and those attendees who feel compelled to speak up on behalf a candidate are invited to address the group. After that's done, the voters each write their favourite candidate's name on a piece of paper, and then someone puts all the names into a bag. The votes are counted right there in the room, and then reported (via app!) to county and state party officials. The winner is eventually declared – though the candidates who aren't crowned the winner are still awarded delegates proportionally, so in effect there are multiple winners.
The Democratic caucus system is much more chaotic, with a lot of standing, and even walking around, involved. After some attendees give speeches on behalf of their favoured candidates, the participants congregate into human blobs that represent support for a particular candidate. It's not over then though: After the initial blobs are counted, any candidate who gets less than 15 per cent of the vote basically ceases to exist as an option, and the voters in that blob suddenly become free agents, with a chance to join another, more successful, blob. So begins the fun and tedious democratic process by which supporters of the bigger campaigns try to physically absorb the newly available voters.
In an election with a large Democratic field, this process can go on for hours. But it's not likely to last too long this year – the Martin O'Malley blobs will form, then dissipate, and be absorbed, and fought over, by the Sanders and Clinton teams. Then the final votes are tallied and sent to party officials via the Democrats' own custom app. Democratic delegates are also assigned to multiple winners, but how exactly these numbers are tallied, though, is too complex of a process for any living human to understand.
If you're wondering how this ridiculous system came to play such an outsized role in presidential races, you have to go back to the mid 1970s, when savvy Iowa politicos and business types realised that holding the nation's first presidential voting contest could be a boon for their otherwise tourism-deprived state, and convinced both parties and the national news media that the place was somehow a bellwether for the country's political sentiment.
The fact that anyone is still buying into that line, even as Iowa becomes less and less representative of the nation at large, is largely the fault of the political press corps. As reporters here regularly remind passersby, the significance of the caucuses isn't so much which candidates actually win the state but who wins the "momentum", a concept invented by the press to justify which candidates get serious coverage after Iowa. And the media's ability to influence the outcome of the race – particularly when there are large fields of candidates – in turn justifies even more coverage of the caucuses.
As a result, the caucuses have become an infotainment circus, turning the hordes of cable news pundits and embedded reporters into political monsters in their own right, drunk off their power to determine the "narrative" of the presidential race. Democracy!
Absentee voting is very limited at the Caucuses, so generally speaking, if you want to vote, you have to physically show up on caucus night. Almost no one does this: Only about 20 percent of Iowa's registered party voters – about 300,000 people in total – actually participate.
Whether it makes sense to let this tiny group of voters essentially anoint America's presidential nominees is obviously open to debate, but it does make close caucus races almost impossible to predict. This invariably leads to an endless debate over what political reporters smugly like to call "ground game" – the tactics used to turn campaign fans into such ardent supporters that they're willing to run around a gym or talk politics with strangers.
Though it's not always clear what these tactics actually entail, there appears to be a consensus that Donald Trump's ground game is chaos, run by eager fans and lunatics who have, for the most part, never even seen an Iowa caucus. By contrast, Ted Cruz, Trump's chief rival, is alleged to have excellent ground game built around a slick network of pro-life activists, Christian homeschoolers, and assorted faith-based reality television stars that have endorsed his campaign. Clinton, too, has poured tons of money into her Iowa operation, dispatching union organisers and other progressive minions to make sure she doesn't embarrass herself with an Iowa loss like the one she suffered in 2008.
As seemingly ridiculous as the Iowa Caucuses are, they do have a big impact on the party nominating contests. This is particularly true on the Democratic side, where the past three candidates who won Iowa – Barack Obama in 2008, John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 – went on to win the party's nomination. Losing in Iowa has also proved fatal to several Democrats, including Clinton, who never really recovered from her third-place finish here last time around.
On the Republican side, the Iowa results are less predictive. This is in part because evangelical conservatives play a much larger role in the Caucuses than they do in the overall GOP primary race. The last two Republican candidates to win in Iowa – Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012 – did so with overwhelming support from Christian conservatives, but were unable to translate that into broader support among Republican voters nationwide. Nevertheless, the caucus has served to winnow down the GOP fields, precipitating a dramatic drop-off in the number of Republicans running for president, and is likely to do the same in 2016.
Only nine more months to go before America's general election.
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