Since 1972, Iowans have gathered in public places like schools and community centers not to elect delegates to the national convention like most other states, but to elect lower-level precinct delegates. These precinct delegates will go to one of 99 county-level conventions to advocate on behalf of the candidate they supported during one of the 1,681 precinct-level elections. From there, delegates are chosen for a congressional district-level caucus and finally a statewide convention, where delegates to the national convention are finally selected in late May.
Iowa Republicans and Iowa Democrats have different methods for electing their delegates. Iowa Republicans use a ballot system to elect their delegates; Iowa Democrats follow a more complex process. Democratic caucus-goers separate into small groups according to the candidate they support. If a candidate receives less than 15 percent support in the room, the candidate is eliminated and his or her supporters are then courted by the other groups.
The Iowa caucuses have a history of shutting down campaigns and giving candidates momentum. In 2004, former governor of Vermont and then Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean was expected to handily win Iowa. Instead, Dean finished in third place behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Kerry’s first place finish in Iowa revived his struggling campaign and propelled Kerry to win the New Hampshire primary and later the Democratic nomination.