On Thursday, voters in Iowa will gather in community halls, schools, coffee shops and other venues to participate in this year's presidential caucuses. This first-in-the-nation event, officially since 1972, could determine who the likely candidates for president will be from both the Republican and Democratic parties. VOA's Greg Flakus explains the process in this report from Des Moines.

There are 1,781 political precincts in Iowa and state residents who are eligible to vote in this year's election may go to the party caucus of their choice in each of those precincts on Thursday.

Republicans will select the candidate of their choice through a majority vote at each caucus site.  Democrats will divide into candidate preference groups and then determine which candidates have enough support to be viable.  Caucus-goers supporting non-viable candidates can then switch to another candidate.  Once one candidate has more than half the votes in each caucus, he or she is declared the victor and that result is sent in to the Democratic party headquarters in Des Moines to be added to the statewide tally.

Norm Sterzenbach, who directs the caucuses for the Democratic Party in Iowa, tells VOA that delegates chosen at these meetings, for both parties, are not technically bound, but they usually do stick with their candidate all the way through the process.

"Our delegate preferences on caucus night are non-binding," he explained.  "What tends to happen, or at least what has happened in most recent years is that by the time the national convention rolls around we already know who the nominee is going to be. So we have a unanimous vote for that candidate regardless of how they finished in the Iowa caucuses."

What is more important than the actual delegates won here is the perception of momentum a candidate may attain by either winning outright or coming close to winning.  In the 2004 Democratic caucuses, for example, Senator John Kerry's win in Iowa propelled him forward to victories in following primaries, ensuring him the nomination.

Many larger states have criticized Iowa's first place status in the presidential election process, noting that this relatively small Midwestern state is hardly representative of the rest of the country.  But Iowans remain fiercely protective of their status and Norm Sterzenbach says this is one topic on which both Republicans and Democrats in Iowa agree.

"What Iowa has going for it is that it is a small state where candidates can come here and talk to voters one-on-one," he added.  "The other thing that we have is that our caucus-goers know the issues, they know the candidates. Our caucus-goers will walk in on caucus night knowing not only where their candidate stands on the issues, but also knowing where most of the candidates stand on issues that are important to them."

There have been proposals in Congress to set up a rotating system of primaries and caucuses for future elections so that different parts of the country can have the opportunity of going first. But many candidates who have participated in the process here argue that the tradition should be maintained since it gives candidates with fewer resources a chance to make their case directly to voters in a way that would be impossible in states with much larger populations.