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Iowa caucuses: Here’s why Iowa goes first and why it matters

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WATCH: 2020 U.S. Election: Primaries and caucuses, explained – Jan 30, 2020

After more than a year of campaigning, the U.S.’ political parties will begin the process of narrowing down their field of candidates vying for the office of the President at the Iowa caucuses on Monday evening.

Over the weekend, Democratic hopefuls made their final pitches to Iowans, laying out their arguments for why they have the best chance of winning the 2020 general election.

The Republican party, too, will caucus on Monday.

Iowa kickstarts America’s months-long primary season leading up to the National Conventions.

Why does Iowa get to go first and why does it matter?

Here’s what experts say.

Why does Iowa go first?

Iowa is the first state to vote in the country’s primary season, but it wasn’t always this way.

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In 1968, after U.S. President Richard Nixon was elected, the Democratic National Convention decided it would implement a number of reforms in an effort to make the nomination process more democratic.

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Biden tells Iowa voters next president needs to help ‘heal’ country – Feb 1, 2020

Iowa has one of the most complex primary processes with precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions and state conventions.

In order to accommodate the lengthy process, the convention decided moved Iowa’s caucus to early February. This began in 1972.

Karen Kedrowski, a professor of political science at Iowa State University, said the Iowa Democratic Party did not realize at the time that it had “leapfrogged” New Hampshire in order to become the first contest.

READ MORE: How are U.S. presidential nominees selected? A look at primaries and caucuses

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“Nobody else really noticed either,” she said. “The 1972 caucuses in Iowa were quite a subdued affair. It was not until 1976 when a little known governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, decided that he wanted to use the Iowa caucuses as a way of launching his national campaign.”

A few years later in 1976, the Republican party adopted similar reforms and began holding its caucuses in Iowa first.

Why does it matter?

Iowa is important because it is the first state to vote, meaning it is the first time party members can express who they want to represent them in a general election.

In the Democratic race, there are 41 pledged delegates and eight unpledged superdelegates up for grabs. That means 49 of the 1,991 delegates a candidate needs to secure the party’s nomination can be obtained in the first primary competition.

However, this is a relatively small amount when you consider Texas and California who have 228 and 415 delegates respectively.

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2020 Democratic presidential frontrunners prepare for Iowa caucuses – Feb 2, 2020

So then why is Iowa so important? Experts say it’s all about momentum.

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Kedrowski said Iowa does, in fact, “call the field.”

She said since 1976, candidates who do well in the first contest end up having an “enormous amount of momentum” going forward in terms of fundraising, media coverage and excitement for their campaign.

In a previous interview with Global News, Matthew Lebo, chair of political science at Western University, said that in the primaries, this momentum is “hugely important.”

“The first to contests are Iowa and New Hampshire, which are two of the least representative states in the United States,” he said. “They’re just almost exclusively white, and so candidates who are doing well with people of colour are not situated well.”

READ MORE: Iowa caucuses – Race to pick Democratic nominee starts after weeks of campaigning

According to census data, minorities account for less than 10 per cent of the population in Iowa. By comparison, about 27 per cent of the U.S. population is non-white.

Lebo said candidates who are more popular with white voters gain a “huge boost,” while others “lose momentum immediately.”

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Iowa caucus vote in full swing for U.S. Democrats – Feb 3, 2020

Bernie Sanders is an example of that,” Lebo said. “Where he’s in good shape in the first two states and that will help him look more powerful than he is when he goes to states that are more representative of the Democratic party.”

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Kedrowski said even leading up to the caucuses, Iowa’s power could be seen, as some candidates who failed to gain traction in the state dropped out of the race.

“Depending on how people perform, I think we might very well end up seeing a number of people dropping out right before New Hampshire or immediately after New Hampshire,” she said.

Five tickets out of Iowa?

Historically, after Iowa, a party’s field will narrow to only the top three or four candidates, which is why the saying “there are only three tickets out of Iowa,” is often used by politicians and pundits.

But, this year with a historically large Democratic field, Kedrowski said “there may be five tickets out of Iowa.”

Kedrowski said whichever candidate garners the most support after the first alignment could claim victory, but a candidate who performs better than expected could claim victory too.

“There’s both performing well in terms of being first past the post, but then there’s also performing well in contrast to the expectations,” she said.

Is Iowa good at picking candidates?

Historically, Iowa has a relatively good record for picking who ends up as the Democratic party’s nominee.

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In the past five contested primaries, the winner of the Iowa caucuses has gone on to be the Democratic nominee.

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Democrats criss-cross state of Iowa ahead of pivotal caucuses – Feb 1, 2020

In the 12 Democratic caucuses that have been held in Iowa since 1972, nine times the top delegate winner in the state has ultimately been the nominee.

Since 2000, every candidate who won the Iowa caucus became the Democratic nominee.

However, on the Republican side, the last three winners failed to secure the party’s nomination.

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But only three U.S. presidents have won the Iowa caucus: Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

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This year, there are 1,678 precincts in Iowa, with an additional 99 satellite precincts set up. Caucus organizers are expecting an enormous turnout and are hoping to surpass the 239,000 participant record set in 2008.

-With files from Reuters and The Associated Press