The lengthy and complicated process of choosing the next president of the United States begins in early January when voters attend party caucuses and cast ballots in primaries to select the presidential nominees for the two main political parties. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone has part three of our series on the 2008 election from Washington.
It begins in the Midwest state of Iowa where voters from both parties gather in small groups, or caucuses, to express their preference for who should be the presidential nominee of their party.
With so many candidates running in both parties, Iowa and other early contest states have a crucial role in winnowing down the field of contenders.
"It is more important than ever because the process is so compressed, there are some candidates who really are relying on Iowa to catapult them [into contention]," said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University.
If history is any guide, contenders who do well in the early contests often go on to win the party nominations. Those who falter in the early going usually are forced to withdraw from the race.
"Typically, the New Hampshire primary has been so important in part because it is done early and it has been one of the first real indicators of how voters actually feel about the candidates, after all the polling, all the talk, all the money raising and so forth. New Hampshire is really the first election in the primary cycle," said Dante Scala, who teaches politics at the University of New Hampshire.
Scala adds that Iowa and New Hampshire also represent the last examples of what is known as retail politics, where voters can meet the candidates in person or in small groups and ask questions.
"We still see a lot of that retail politicking, one on one, town hall meetings and so forth. It is still taking place up here," he said.
Schmidt says citizens in the early voting states are aware of their special role in the U.S. presidential election process.
"We take it and they take it very seriously. There is a sort of a sense in this state that you have a kind of a moral responsibility to participate in politics, to inform yourself," he said.
That sense of commitment to the process is an essential part of the Iowa caucuses, where voters head out on a winter's night to listen to speeches before making known their candidate preferences.
"Caucuses require much more of a commitment than a primary does. It is at a single time on a cold, usually, January night. And it is not like going and voting and leaving," said Arthur Sanders, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.
The early voting states can also be picky about their candidates.
For example, Dante Scala says presidential contenders who have an independent streak often do well in New Hampshire.
"New Hampshire voters tend to have an ornery streak, and that tends to be toward introducing something that is new, a candidate that is for change and reform, that typically is one who suits New Hampshire voter's tastes," he said.
For example, Republican John McCain's popularity with independent voters helped him win the New Hampshire primary against George Bush in the 2000 election.
Iowa has played an important role in the nominating process since 1976, while the New Hampshire primary has been an influential stop on the campaign trail since the early 1950's.
Some critics suggest Iowa and New Hampshire wield too much influence in the presidential nominating process, and that other states should have the chance to hold their caucuses or primaries first.
But Drake University expert Arthur Sanders says there are advantages to having Iowa and New Hampshire go first.
"The best defense of the system is that you start in some smaller states, Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates without enormous resources can, in fact, compete, maybe not on an even field, but on a more even field," he said.
Several states have now decided to crowd the election calendar early in 2008. Florida and Michigan want to move up the dates of their primaries. That has resulted in some of the traditional early contest states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina holding their caucuses and primaries even earlier than usual.
More than 20 states are scheduled to hold primary or caucus elections on February 5 of next year, meaning the battle for the party nominations could be over earlier than ever.
Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says the compressed and advanced primary calendar could help the current frontrunners in each party, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani.
"And you have to remember now that we have a heavily front-loaded campaign where the big states are going first. Michigan, Florida, and then on February 5th, we have New York and California, and some of those states are winner take all states. Some of them, like Florida and California and New York are much more moderate states and Giuliani can do very well and just build up a sizable lead," he said.
If the party nomination battles are essentially settled by February or March, it would set up an eight-month general-election campaign between the Democratic and Republican Party nominees culminating on Election Day, November 4, 2008.