Although it is more than three months away, the caucus that will be held in the Midwestern state of Iowa on January 19 is drawing Democratic candidates to the state every week.
The first thing to understand about the Iowa caucus is that it is not an election in which a large number of people participate. The caucus is a throwback to the direct, participatory democracy of town meetings in which people gather at a designated place in their community for a few hours of lively discussion about the issues and then vote for candidates, often by a show of hands. The results from such gatherings all across Iowa are then sent in to a central tallying station in Des Moines to be registered and counted.
Since the Republican Party already has President George Bush as its candidate, all the attention this year is on the Democrats.
Iowa Democratic Party Communications Director Mark Daley says party officials and volunteers are working all across the state to get ready.
"There are 1,993 precinct caucuses that will take place on January 19 at 6:30 p.m. [2230 UTC] all across the state," he said. "The party has to find all the locations, fund all of them, make sure that everyone that is reporting the numbers is trained on the system of how to report the numbers. There is no state funding, it is all done through the party."
Iowa seems an unusual place to begin each presidential political season. With a population of less than three million people, the state ranks 30th in population nationally. It is also one of the least diverse states racially and it has a proportionally older population than most other states.
But Mark Daley says the Iowa caucus, like the New Hampshire primary election that follows it by eight days, provides a setting where candidates can work more closely and directly with voters than they can in larger states.
"The benefits of Iowa, and New Hampshire as well, is that we are both small states, inexpensive states, and it is easy to campaign in them in that sense," he said. "We are getting to have one-on-one contact with many of these candidates and we are talking about issues with them and those are the issues they will carry forward with them throughout the campaign."
Drake University Political Science Professor Dennis Goldford says the Iowa caucus meetings do not necessarily forecast what is to come in the national presidential race, but they do provide an important starting point.
"Really, what is important about the caucuses is that they are the first kind of official point at which we stick a thermometer in the body politic and take its temperature," he said.
Professor Goldford says the intimacy of both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary allow those who take a real interest in politics to have a direct, and maybe even somewhat exaggerated, role in the national election process.
"There is a similarity between Iowa and New Hampshire in that you will have the average party supporter say, 'Well, I do not know if I can commit to this particular candidate because I have only met him four times and so I need to get to know him a little better,'" he said. "And in Iowa and New Hampshire, both, you have what we call retail politics, in which these candidates can meet with people one-on-one, two-on-one or in small groups and the people who participate in caucuses take themselves and the process very seriously. They consider it to be a very important process."
But Professor Goldford says political pundits need to be careful in interpreting the results from the Iowa caucus in particular. He says only very committed party activists will show up on a cold evening in January.
"Those who show up are not typical of your average party supporter," he said. "They are much more committed. They are much more strongly liberal in the Democratic caucuses and they are much more strongly conservative in the Republican caucuses than average members of their party."
Professor Goldford says candidates are spending time and money in Iowa mainly because they know that failing to make a good showing here could hurt their chances in New Hampshire and in other primaries where average voters do participate. He says Iowa is all about meeting expectations and gathering momentum for the contests to come.