USA TODAY - Here's a warning about watching the Iowa caucuses: There's not a lot to watch and the process is mostly incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, it is the first voting of the 2016 presidential election cycle, so it is a pretty big deal — this is the first time candidates are judged by voters instead of pollsters and pundits.
When does it start?
The caucuses begin at 7 p.m. Central time as voters gather at locations scattered around the state. But that is not the start of the voting. Caucuses generally begin with speeches in support of candidates before the actual voting gets underway.
How does the voting work?
The parties handle their caucuses differently. Republicans cast secret ballots; Democrats gather in candidate affinity groups and then reshuffle if some voters stood for a candidate who does not have enough support to be viable. This could be an issue for supporters of Martin O'Malley, who may not generate the required 15% support to be viable in some caucuses. Delegates are distributed based on the percentage of support each candidate received.
When does it end?
There is no "poll closing" time like a regular election; caucuses take as long as caucuses take. But the bulk of the results are likely to be reported to state party headquarters and then reported to the media sometime after 9 p.m. Central time.
So we will have winners Monday night?
One hopes. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucuses the night of the vote but several precincts were late reporting. By the time their count was added two weeks later, Rick Santorum was declared the winner. To avoid a repeat of this mess, both parties have worked with Microsoft to develop a result-reporting app that is supposed to ensure the process works better.
Keep in mind, caucuses are just nominating conventions for delegates, who go on to nominate other delegates to the state party meetings. The process runs until July before there is final delegate count and some of them might switch candidates between Monday night and July.
What are the big story lines to watch?
Obviously, the top line is: Who wins? Polls in both the Republican and Democratic side have shown very close contests for first place. Do Republicans back Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? Do Democrats back Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders? If any other name comes out on top in either party, that would be a huge story and dramatically reshape the race.
The second question is whether someone places a strong third on the Republican side. Assuming Trump and Cruz place first and second, a candidate in third with a good margin ahead of the rest of the field will be able to claim some momentum heading into New Hampshire. If a well-known and well-financed candidate like Jeb Bush cannot place somewhere in the top ranks in Iowa, it would be a major blow to his campaign.
The third question is: Who does not survive Iowa? With a crowded field on the Republican side, some candidates are likely to come out of the caucuses with minuscule support, and it may be hard for them to justify continuing in the race. On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley has trailed badly in all polls and needs to make some news in Iowa in order to make the case going forward that he is more than an afterthought.
(Copyright © 2016 USA TODAY)