By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - Hundreds of thousands of Iowa Democrats will take to caucuses across the state Monday in what has proven to be a historically decisive step in the party nominating process.
The caucus deep in America’s heartland kickstarts a months-long series of dozens of contests in states and federal territories across and outside of the U.S. that will ultimately determine which Democrat will be selected to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House in November's national election.
In addition to every state, primaries and the lesser-used caucuses will be held in the nation's capital, and U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa.
Only a handful of jurisdictions are like Iowa in using the caucus system, which is uniquely complicated.
Unlike conventional electoral systems that normally include a secret ballot wherein voters are allowed to voice opinions behind the ballot box curtain, the caucus system is out in the open.
It is more akin to a community meeting at which individuals seek to convince fellow state residents to support their candidate of choice.
After forming groups that support each candidate at the caucus site, caucus-goers begin the first round of voting. Candidates who fail to cross a 15% threshold in each location are disqualified from advancing, and supporters are then able to caucus for another candidate.
Caucus-goers who chose a candidate that remains viable after the first round of voting must stick with that candidate and will seek to draw those who supported unsuccessful candidates to their side.
The second round of caucusing will take place after what is called a "realignment," and a final tally will then be taken at each site and relayed to the state party.
The entire process has been limited by the state Democratic party to just two rounds of voting, meaning it could conclude just an hour after caucusing begins around 7 p.m. local time.
After caucusing concludes the state party will then report each candidate's State Delegate Equivalent or the number of delegates the candidate will be assigned at the statewide convention.
But Iowa's importance does not lie in the number of delegates it will ultimately send to the party's July nominating convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It has just 1% of pledged candidates.
For candidates, Iowa is about setting the narrative heading into the primary season and seeking to use that narrative to build momentum in successive races.
That is critical as seven of the last nine candidates to win Iowa have gone on to secure the Democratic nomination, including the last four going back to former Vice President Al Gore who won in 2000 but lost nationally to President George W. Bush.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders lost Iowa to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by just over 0.2%.
Sanders is currently leading in Iowa by a razor-thin margin with former Vice President Joe Biden trailing closely.
After Iowa the next race will be in New Hampshire on Feb. 11, shifting the format to a conventional voting primary, and a single contest will be held each week for the remainder of the month until March 3 in what is called Super Tuesday.
On that day, contests will be held in 14 states, and American Samoa. Democrats abroad will also cast their votes.