When I explain the American election system to journalists in developing countries, they can't believe it. They have this notion that every American can vote in private, free from intimidation. They think that every person's vote counts the same, and the person who gets the most votes wins the race.

They have never seen the Iowa caucuses at work.

The confusing caucuses

If you cannot get to Iowa's caucus meetings, which begin sharply at 7 p.m. (CST) in 1,681 precincts throughout the state, you are hosed. Democrats and Republicans meet in different locations. The Republican Party has nearly 700 caucus locations this year, and the Democratic Party has about 1,100. Lots of them have moved since the last election, so there has been a scramble to ensure people know which home, schoolhouse or church to go to.

If you have to work, are sick, don't have a way to get to the meeting, are in the hospital or putting your kid to bed while Iowans are talking politics for a couple of hours, you can't participate. If you're late, you're out of luck. They close the doors at 7 p.m., and nobody else gets in.

And most Iowans don't bother to show up. Despite all of the attention we lavish on their state, only about one in five registered Republicans participate. In 2012, barely more than 5 percent of registered Republicans showed up. Experts say turnout could be higher this year, but nobody expects the majority of registered voters to show up.

If you are voting for a Democrat, this is not a one-person, one-vote system. Only "viable" candidates are eligible to receive votes. To be viable, a candidate has to receive 15 percent of the support in each precinct. Then the fun begins. If a candidate is not viable, the other campaigns try to lure his or her voters to their side. This is called the realignment period. So even if a candidate wins the first round, they could still lose if they fail to attract voters who abandon other candidates when they are no longer viable. And forget secret ballots — all of this is quite public.

The Republicans are a bit more private, and their caucus system is more streamlined. Caucus-goers mark their preferences on a ballot. Sometimes it is printed, sometimes it's just a scrap of paper.

From there, it gets complicated. Monday night's vote actually determines how a precinct's delegates will be allocated at Iowa's county conventions held in March. Those county conventions then select delegates for district conventions, which choose delegates for a statewide election, which in turn pick delegates to attend the national convention in the summer. In this way, the precinct caucus indirectly determines the proportion of delegates from Iowa that will represent various candidates at the national level, according to The Des Moines Register:

The delegates elected during the caucuses will attend county conventions in March. Participants at county conventions select the delegates to represent a candidate at district conventions in April that then select delegates for the state conventions in May (Republicans) or June (Democrats).

Delegates are further narrowed to attend the party national conventions in July. There, the national delegates select which candidate will be the party’s nominee for president.

However, at any stage the Democratic delegates can choose a candidate different from whom they caucused for. Republicans are bound to the specific candidate they were elected to represent.

What else is new in 2016?

The Microsoft app.
The app.

In an attempt at modernization, the Iowa caucuses this year will be using a new app from Microsoft to report the results from each caucus. Bernie Sanders' campaign has expressed suspicion about Microsoft's role in the reporting process, so it's using its own system. Sanders backers point out that Microsoft has thrown a lot of money into the political system and note that the company's employees have donated "several hundred thousand dollars" to Clinton over the years.

Four years ago, Iowa took 16 days to declare a winner in the GOP caucuses. By then the candidates had moved on to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney claimed a win, but in fact, Rick Santorum had squeaked out a victory. A fat lot of good it did him weeks later.

Iowa has also changed the rules that kept many members of the military from voting. Until this year, if you were serving overseas and couldn't drop your gun to fly to Iowa on caucus night, you were left out of the process you were fighting to preserve. Now, the Iowa Democratic Party is instituting what it calls a "tele-caucus."

As part of the IDP’s continuing effort to expand participation in the Iowa Democratic Precinct Caucuses, for the first time ever the party will hold a Tele-Caucus for military members serving out-of-state and Iowans living abroad. The Tele-Caucus will take place at the same day and time, February 1 at 7 p.m. CST, as the precinct caucuses.

The Tele-Caucus is available to Iowans who are registered to vote and covered under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) and any active duty member of the military who is outside the borders of Iowa on the day and time of the Iowa Caucuses. This would include:

  • Members of the military stationed outside Iowa

 

  • Military family members living abroad

 

  • Members of the Peace Corps

 

  • Diplomatic Corps

 

  • Students and other Iowans living abroad

But if you have not already registered to participate, you are shut out.

This year, the Iowa Republican Party is also allowing military members outside of the state to caucus remotely for the first time.

Even this weekend, problems surfaced with new online caucus tools launched by the state's political parties. Expect similar confusion Monday night.

What about the independents?

Voters who aren't registered Republican or Democrat stay home. Independent voters sometimes "re-register" as a Democrat or Republican on caucus night, which they are allowed to do. And, here's the kicker, there are more independent voters than Republicans or Democrats. Take that in: the plurality of voters in Iowa can't vote on caucus night, even if they wanted to.

So few people actually show up to the Iowa caucuses that organizing the ones who do is key to success. Evangelical groups that have church-based organizations rock the vote in Iowa because their members show up.

The weather

Weather is often a factor in the Iowa caucuses. Snow will start falling in Iowa even while the caucuses are meeting. Just for fun, you can see how the weather affected previous caucuses.

A Weather Channel poll of 325 likely Iowa voters found that tornadoes, ice and heavy snow were the biggest voting deterrents.

From The Weather Channel
From The Weather Channel
From The Weather Channel
From The Weather Channel

Polling in Iowa is difficult because it is so hard to know how many people will brave winter weather and stay up late to caucus, no matter what they say to pollsters a week earlier.

Is Iowa a bellwether state?

Iowa has been the "first in the nation" primary election for 40 years — Democrats chose Iowa as the first in 1972, but the GOP joined in 1976. These two charts from The Des Moines Register and ABC News tell an interesting tale about how Iowa "winners" have done in the long run. For Democrats, the caucuses have a strong record of predicting the nominee. Not so much for the GOP.

WhoWonIowa_Dem_012816

WhoWonIowa_GOP_012816

Despite all the attention we give Iowa, its caucuses seldom reveal the eventual winner, as The Washington Post points out.

Nine states, on the other hand, have a perfect track record, though some weigh in late enough in the cycle that the nomination contest is already virtually over. Those nine states, all of them primary states, are Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

So, what's the point?

poynter election
Poynter's Covering Elections seminar January 2016

Last week at a Poynter seminar I led on covering elections, GOP strategist and advertising specialist Adam Goodman told the group that the primary elections are about two things: expectation and momentum.

To exceed expectations, Goodman said, you just have to do better than anybody thought you would. If you do well and you were supposed to do well, then you don't make much news. An underdog, he said, can show they are more legit than the media made them out to be. Money and free coverage can follow. This phenomenon began in 1972, when George McGovern did better than people thought he would. He finished third and became the story, a sort of Jack the Giant Killer.

Generally, the candidate who finishes in the last two or three places in Iowa is finished.

Keep this in mind

The headlines you write and the tone of your reporting will shape the way the public thinks about the momentum of this election. Be careful with words like "surprising, disappointing, strong, weak" and other such subjective adjectives. Context is key. If you report that "candidate X did worse than expected," be clear about who expected them to do better. Be specific.

Last-minute tips to help you sound like you know what you're talking about

Online betting favors Donald Trump to win the GOP contest in Iowa, but you could get very good odds on Jeb Bush winning.

This is not an election. Caucuses operate without state oversight. The events are run entirely by party staff and volunteers.

The caucus meetings are all open and journalists can (and do) attend.

The results will be released at around 10 or 11 p.m. CST, according to The Washington Post, in time for East Coast papers to print headlines and results.

There's an Iowa caucus page on Twitter associated with the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau. The Des Moines Register has an Iowa caucus Twitter account.

The Register also has a cool candidate tracker.

And remember, it's pronounced 'EYE'-oh'-wah.