VOTE 2012

How do the Iowa caucuses work?

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — All across Iowa next Tuesday, tens of thousands of Republican voters will travel through a chilly Midwestern night to the warmth of a local church or gymnasium for caucus meetings to select presidential candidates, the first voting in the 2012 election campaign.

Barack Obama won the 2008 Democratic caucuses, while Mike Huckabee won the Republican contest. (Photo: Associated Press)

These Midwestern, mostly white voters hardly resemble America as a whole, and their voting system puzzles most people. Yet Iowa holds substantial sway over how the nation chooses the president.

"Iowa will choose the next president of the United States in their early caucuses," Republican hopeful Michele Bachmann said recently. "This is the cannon shot."

The caucuses — essentially community meetings — have served as a launching pad to the nomination, and often to the White House, for the past 40 years, though they've been around since the 1840s. Candidates tend to lavish attention on Iowa, hoping that a good showing will give them a burst of publicity to improve their chances in New Hampshire, which votes Jan. 10, and in other early voting states.

It's this contest that helped propel Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore to their parties' nominations in 2000. It also helped Democrat John Kerry become Bush's challenger in 2004. And the caucuses gave Democrat Barack Obama his first win in 2008, though Mike Huckabee won on the Republican side, not the eventual GOP nominee, John McCain.

The caucus process seems arcane and mysterious, even to people in Iowa. That is in part because most people don't even participate. About 359,000 people — 17 percent of registered voters in Iowa — showed up for Democratic and Republican caucuses in 2008. Turnout will certainly be lower this year, since Obama is unopposed. And the GOP turnout may not exceed the record-setting 120,000 attendees that the party's contest saw four years ago.

Caucuses are held in all of the state's 1,774 voting precincts, some in remote spots where only a handful of voters gather, others in big community centers or schools that host several precincts under one roof. In all, Republicans will gather in about 800 locations.

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