The Big Story Blog

The Big Story Blog: January 3, 2012 Archive

Tuesday 1/3/2012
Iowans have their say

Posted at 5:59 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Hed

Iowa Republicans are meeting tonight to express their choice for the GOP nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November.

Iowa: Bachmann's closing argument

Posted at 6:30 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa

MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik in Waterloo, Iowa

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann heads home to her birthplace near Waterloo, Iowa, today, to address thousands of Republicans who will be caucusing at a large arena there.

Bachmann hopes to convince many of the undecided caucus-goers to support her in tonight's balloting, and give her campaign the boost it needs to regain momentum heading into New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Listening to Bachmann on the campaign trail, you'd be hard-pressed to know she's dead last in the polls, that key staffers have abandoned her campaign and that virtually every political insider has written off her prospects to win the GOP presidential nomination.

The polls that Bachmann once celebrated she now dismisses, and she's become increasingly frustrated with reporters' questions about her campaign's viability should she fail to post a strong finish in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses.

Bachmann is making the trip to the Waterloo area not only because she can talk to thousands of caucus-goers at once, but also to try to leverage her Iowa roots -- as she has since she began her campaign for president.

"I was born into a middle-class family here in Iowa," Bachmann reminded reporters Monday afternoon during a campaign stop in Des Moines. "I grew up in Iowa, and my experiences here also led me to understand how independent thinking Iowans are."

A couple hours to the northeast in Waterloo, there's a lot of activity in the cramped offices of the Black Hawk County Republican Party. They're getting ready for what could be a caucus turnout that's twice as large as it was four years ago.

"We helped project [Bachmann] into the forefront when she entered the race, because she is a Waterloo native and a Black Hawk County native," said Black Hawk County GOP Chairman "Mac" McDonald.

McDonald said he thinks Bachmann got bad campaign advice, and that the image she tried to portray as a fighter fell short.

"She spearheaded the fight against Obamacare; well, she got defeated," McDonald said. "She spearheaded the fight against TARP; well, she got defeated. She didn't really come out with a plan, she came out with what's wrong, but not with a plan to set us straight."

McDonald thinks that if Bachmann ends up finishing at or near the bottom in Iowa, she will have a hard time garnering support in other states.

Scott Huffmon, a political scientist in South Carolina, agrees. Huffmon, of Winthrop University in Rock Creek, S.C., calls Iowa "stunningly important" for Bachmann's South Carolina prospects.

"South Carolinans would look at her and say if she wasn't viable in her own backyard, in a place where she has spent a ton of time laying a lot of groundwork, then maybe we'll look to another candidate," said Huffmon.

The rest of Mark's report can be found here.

Cathy Wurzer talked with Des Moines Register's Jason Noble on Twitter yesterday about what he's seen from Bachmann in Iowa.

More Iowa coverage from MPR News.

Iowa: Who do you want to win?

Posted at 6:29 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

It's the day of the Iowa caucuses, where voters will finally begin to get their say in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Today's Question: Who would you like to see emerge as the winner in the Iowa caucuses?

Iowa chat: Caucus preview

Posted at 10:00 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Iowa: What to watch

Posted at 7:15 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Iowa Republicans, 115,000 or more them, are expected to express their choice for the GOP nomination tonight. Nearly every candidate in the field has led the public opinion polls at some point in the Iowa campaign. Those polls continue to be volatile. Here are a few thing to watch to get a sense of how thing might be going early on.

Listen to MPR News' live coverage from Iowa.

Washington Post's Fix highlights six counties to watch.

1. Dallas County

Why to watch it: This is the big suburban county in Iowa, and is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. It was the closest county in the state's GOP caucuses in 2008, going for Romney by a mere four votes out of nearly 4,000 cast. It also happens to be the only county near Des Moines that Romney won, while Mike Huckabee racked up huge margins in the central part of the state.

What to watch for: Romney needs to expand his margin of victory here and hope that growing population means growing turnout. Particularly if he loses neighboring Polk County (see below), he would love to be able to make up a lot of those votes in Dallas County and then focus on his more traditional bases of support in the eastern and western parts of the state.

2. Dubuque County

Why to watch it: An eastern Iowa county firmly in Romney's wheelhouse, Dubuque is heavily Catholic and pro-life. In fact, it was one of Romney's best counties in the state, giving him 42 percent of the vote despite qualms in other parts of the state about his Mormon religion.

What to watch for: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has made much of his Catholic faith and consistently pro-life record. Somehow upending Romney in Dubuque -- or making it close -- would be a very good sign for Santorum.

3. Johnson County

Why to watch it: Johnson is the home of the University of Iowa and, with it, scads of young voters. (A corollary: Story County, which includes Iowa State University). Young people turned out for then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, but will they come back early from winter break to take part in the Republican caucuses?

What to watch for: Given his reliance on young voters, Texas Rep. Ron Paul must do well in Johnson (and Story) if he wants to have a chance statewide. He took 15 percent in Johnson and 12 percent in Story in 2008 and must do much better this time to win. He probably needs to win both to have a chance at victory.

4. Polk County

Why to watch it: No list of counties to watch would be complete without the biggest county. Des Moines-based Polk County will account for upwards of 20 percent of the statewide caucus vote, and has recently been a pretty decisive electorate, giving one candidate a significant margin of victory (i.e. more than 10 percent). It gave then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush a 2,400-vote win out of less than 15,000 votes cast in 2000 and netted Mike Huckabee a near-3,000-vote margin in 2008.

What to watch for: This was one of the few more urban areas where Romney struggled in 2008, taking just 23 percent of the vote. Given the sheer number of votes at stake, he's got to at least make it close. A win here would be a really good sign for him, virtually guaranteeing a victory statewide.

5. Sioux County

Why to watch it: Sioux, located in the far northwestern corner of Iowa, has the highest Republican registration (by percentage) of any county in the state. It's also widely regarded as the home county of Iowa's social conservative movement. In 2008, Huckabee carried it with a massive 53 percent.

What to watch for: Sioux has to be Santorum country today. While it's hard to imagine Santorum matching Huckabee's lofty percentage from four years ago, the higher he can get his number, the better indicator it will be that he has unified social conservatives behind his candidacy.

6. Woodbury County

Why to watch it: This Sioux-City based county in western Iowa is Romney's base. He netted more votes here (500-plus) in 2008 than in any other county, despite the fact that it's just the sixth-biggest county in the state. But Rep. Michele Bachmann and Santorum have both been making a serious play for this part of the state.

What to watch for: Romney has only visited the northwest part of the state a couple times this year, and he's spending his last few days elsewhere in the state. But if his base holds in an area where he hasn't really spent much time and he wins by as much as he did last time (15 percent) that's a very good sign for him.

The New York Times' Michael Shear doesn't look to geography, but offers up this list of what he is watching.

EVANGELICALS: Four years ago, nearly 60 percent of the nearly 120,000 people who attended the Republican caucuses identified themselves as evangelicals. It was one of the largest percentages in recent memory and it helped power Mike Huckabee to a victory here.

A RON PAUL FADE? The big thing that has always been holding back Representative Ron Paul of Texas is the question of whether he is electable in a contest against President Obama in a race that takes place in the broader electorate countrywide.

TURNOUT: In 2008, at the height of the battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrats turned out in record numbers in Iowa. More than 220,000 people gathered in caucuses to choose between the two Democrats (and the others on the ballot).

ROMNEY'S MARGIN (EITHER WAY): Future political strategists may use Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign in Iowa as the model for how to set expectations properly.

FOURTH PLACE: All of the focus on the top three finishers makes sense. Terry E. Branstad, the Republican governor of Iowa, says every time he gets the chance that there are "three tickets out of Iowa." The candidates who finish fifth and sixth will face a lot of pressure to drop out, especially if they are way behind at the end of the night.

Iowa: Down to the wire

Posted at 7:50 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Here's a look at the latest news and analysis from Iowa:
Romney: 'We're going to win this thing'

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

NBC News: "Speaking before a crowd of at least 500 supporters here in a suburb of Cedar Rapids, Mitt Romney unleashed a torrent of cheers at the end of his rally when he appeared for the first time to predict a flat-out victory in tomorrow's Iowa caucuses."

Forget winning Iowa: It's better to 'exceed expectations'
National Journal: "If it's the Iowa caucuses, it must be time for those magical political words: 'better than expected.' In the 36 years since Iowa has mattered in the presidential nomination process, doing better than expected has almost always meant much more than actually winning the first-in-the-nation caucus."

Throng of reporters follows Michele Bachmann on West Des Moines stroll
Des Moines Register: "The Republican presidential candidate met potential supporters at Paula's Restaurant amidst a literal crush of reporters and TV cameras, posing for snapshots and imploring voters to turn out for her at tonight's caucuses, the first contest of the 2012 presidential nominating process."

Jon Avlon demystifies the caucuses for CNN:

The Iowa caucuses are low-turnout, high-intensity elections. There are 2.1 million registered voters in Iowa. But the total turnout for the GOP caucus in 2008 was just 118,696 people, despite the months of media hype.

Mike Huckabee won the caucuses that year with nearly 41,000 votes, beating Mitt Romney by more than 10,000 votes while being outspent considerably. That 10,000-vote margin represented less than half of 1% of the entire state's electorate.

Overall, the state of Iowa is representative of heartland America -- 37% registered independent, 32% Democrat and 30% Republican. But caucus-goers do not represent that political spread. Instead, 88% of GOP caucus voters in 2008 identified themselves as "conservative," and only 11% described their views as moderate. Nearly two-thirds were evangelical.

As a result, center-right Republican candidates who might have the best chance of winning Iowa in a general election have a hard time making inroads in the conservative caucuses.

Protests at Romney event, hotel lead to 15 arrests
Des Moines Register: "Fifteen protesters affiliated with Occupy the Caucus were arrested Monday, 12 at the Renaissance Savery hotel in downtown Des Moines and three before a Mitt Romney campaign event in Clive.

Here's a look at other 2012 news.

Politico: Where are the candidates?
7:15 AM
Michele Bachmann
Appearing on FOX News' 'Fox & Friends'

7:45 AM
Michele Bachmann
Appearing on CNN's "Starting Point"

8:45 AM
Mitt Romney
Holding grassroots rally
Des Moines, Iowa

9:00 AM
Newt Gingrich
Meeting with voters at Elly's Tea
Elly's Tea, 208 W 2nd St. #A., Muscatine, Iowa

9:10 AM
Rick Perry
Hosting Iowa caucus training
West Des Moines Sheraton, 1800 50th St., West Des Moines, Iowa

9:30 AM
Michele Bachmann
Appearing on C-SPAN

9:45 AM
Michele Bachmann
Speaking at 'Rock the Caucus' Student Assembly
Valley High School, Gymnasium, 3650 Woodland Ave., West Des Moines, Iowa

10:00 AM
Jon Huntsman
Speaking at Strong Foundations Charter School
Strong Foundations Charter School, 715 Riverwood Drive, Pembroke, N.H.

10:00 AM
Michele Bachmann
Appearing on ABC Family's "700 Club"

10:10 AM
Michele Bachmann
Holding media availability at Valley High School
Valley High School, 3650 Woodland Ave., West Des Moines, Iowa

10:45 AM
Ron Paul
Speaking at 'Rock the Caucus' Student Assembly
Valley High School, 3650 Woodland Ave., West Des Moines, Iowa
2012-01-03 at 10:45
11:30 AM

Newt Gingrich
Meeting with voters at The Drake Restaurant
The Drake Restaurant, 106 Washington St., Burlington, Iowa

12:45 PM
Jon Huntsman
Hosting town hall meeting
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, 1 Medical Center Drive, Lebanon, N.H.

1:00 PM
Rick Perry
Meeting with employees
Principal Financial Group, Auditorium, 711 High St., Des Moines, Iowa

2:30 PM
Rick Perry
Meeting with employees of Nationwide
Nationwide, Main Cafeteria, 1100 Locust St., Des Moines, Iowa
2012-01-03 at 2:30

3:30 PM
Jon Huntsman
Hosting town hall meeting
Tidland Corporation, 11 Bradco St., Keene, N.H.

5:30 PM
Michele Bachmann
Giving remarks
Black Hawk County Caucus Super-Site, UNI-Dome, 2401 Hudson Road, Cedar Falls, Iowa

6:00 PM
Jon Huntsman
Holding public event with Gov. Tom Ridge
Peterborough Town Hall, 1 Grove St., Peterborough, N.H.

7:00 PM
Ron Paul
Holding caucus night rally with supporters
Courtyard Des Moines Ankeny, 2405 SE Creekview Drive, Ankeny, Iowa

7:00 PM
Rick Santorum
Holding caucus night rally at Stoney Creek Inn
Stoney Creek Inn, The North Woods Conference Center, 5291 Stoney Creek Court, Johnston, Iowa

7:00 PM
Newt Gingrich
Hosting caucus night event at Veterans Auditorium
833 5th Ave., Des Moines, Iowa

7:00 PM
Rick Perry
Hosting caucus night watch party
Sheraton West Des Moines Hotel, 1800 50th st., West Des Moines, Iowa

8:00 PM
Michele Bachmann
Holding caucus night event
West Des Moines Marriott, Grand Ballroom 1250 Jordan Creek Parkway, West Des Moines, Iowa

8:45 PM
Mitt Romney
Hosting a caucus night event with supporters
Hotel Fort Des Moines, 1000 Walnut St., Des Moines, Iowa

Iowa: Bachmann puts faith in undecided voters

Posted at 8:45 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Indianola, Iowa, USA -- Michele Bachmann's caravan makes its way through central Iowa Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011. (MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson)

Photos: Michele Bachmann's last dash through Iowa

From MPR News' Elizabeth Dunbar

Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann says she hopes young voters and others who have committed support will help sway their neighbors at tonight's Iowa caucus.

The Minnesota congresswoman told MPR News' Cathy Wurzer "it's anyone's guess" who will come out on top. Polls are showing that even caucus goers who have committed to a candidate say they could change their mind.

Bachmann says she has a lot of support from voters ages 18-29.

"They're beyond the issue of gender, they're beyond the issue of race. They look at the candidate," she told MPR's Morning Edition.

Bachmann says she expects many caucus goers will make their decisions on the spot. She said she's putting her hopes into the people who have told her they will stand up and speak for her at the caucus.

"People will say 'gee, I didn't know that about Michele. I didn't know she was a tax lawyer. I didn't know that she started a successful company. I didn't know she raised 23 foster kids. I didn't know that she sits on the intelligence committee, [that] of all the candidates in the race she's the only one with national security experience,'" Bachmann said.

"Those pieces of information will all come out on caucus night, and quite literally people will put those pieces of information together and then make their decision on the spot," she said.

Iowa: Up close

Posted at 9:15 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson

From MPR News blogger Bob Collins on News Cut

It's almost over. The national media will soon pack up and take its "isn't Iowa just the cutest state full of hillbillies" nonsense with it. One thing we learned in this caucus season: You don't want to dump on Iowa. (not suitable for the workplace)

The assertion that Iowa is a Democratic state is an interesting one, and one on which David Yepsen, a political reporter in Des Moines, disagrees. Writing in the Washington Post, Yepsen debunks five myths about Iowa, one of which is that Iowa isn't the far right state this crop of candidates thinks it is (maybe that's why 41 percent are still undecided). But it is conservative.

After today, then, Iowa will go back to being Iowa. New Hampshire and South Carolina will be the new darlings of the national media. Maybe that's good news for Emily Price and her husband, Dave. They're political reporters in Des Moines, for competing TV stations.

Iowa: Great caucus weather

Posted at 9:45 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

"It doesn't get any better than this for Iowa weather in January. Dry skies and mild temps for January should be a good gauge for interest in the Iowa Caucuses tonight.

"Temps should make the 30s in most of Iowa today with a shot at 40 in western Iowa," -- MPR News' Paul Huttner.

Iowa: Caucus commentary

Posted at 11:15 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

A roundup of opinion pieces and editorials about the Iowa caucuses:

New York Times: The slush funds of Iowa
"To influence the small fraction of Iowa voters who will participate in Tuesday's caucuses, the candidates and their supporters will have spent $12.5 million, an unprecedented amount. Only a third of that was spent by the candidates themselves; the rest comes from the 'super PACs' that most of the candidates have allowed to be established. These political action committees are essentially septic tanks into which wealthy individuals and corporations can drop unlimited amounts of money, which is then processed into ads that are theoretically made independently of the candidates."

Rick Santorum's curious closing argument
Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post: "The 'Santorum surge' in recent days has little to do with the candidate himself and everything to do with the fact that he is the last man standing after voters discarded all the rest. There's little time left to scrutinize Santorum before the Iowa vote -- and in his case, that's an exceedingly lucky thing. Given more time in the spotlight, he would reveal himself as a hard-edged Dan Quayle."

Working-class hero
In the New York Times, David Brooks pans Santorum detractors and those in the GOP who are supporting Romney. "I suspect [Santorum] will do better post-Iowa than most people think -- before being buried under a wave of money and negative ads. And I do believe that he represents sensibility and a viewpoint that is being suppressed by the political system. Perhaps, in less rigid and ideological form, this working-class experience will someday find a champion. If you took a working-class candidate from the right, like Santorum, and a working-class candidate from the left, like Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and you found a few islands of common ground, you could win this election by a landslide. The country doesn't want an election that is Harvard Law versus Harvard Law."

Light duty for journalists
George Packer in the New Yorker writes: "Once demagogy and falsehoods become routine, there isn't much for the political journalist to do except handicap the race and report on the candidate's mood."

And this special message to Iowa voters from the Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovitch: "If you show up and cast your vote, then you will have done what mattered. Don't let some talking head in the Beltway or in New York City tell you otherwise. They're invited to watch, and they'll say what they will. But they don't get to make a choice in Iowa tonight. You do."

Iowa: Gingrich calls Romney a liar

Posted at 10:45 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

CBS News: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says Mitt Romney is a "liar." However, he would still support him over President Obama.

Iowa: Iowans don't always pick winners

Posted at 11:45 AM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: History, Iowa, Politics

Being the first state to select a presidential nominee places a great deal of attention on the Iowa caucuses, but Iowans have a checkered past in picking the ultimate nominee. NPR's Ken Rudin reviews the previous outcomes.

History. Here's a look at the results of contested GOP caucuses since 1980 (note: Iowa Republicans did hold a first-in-the-nation caucus in 1976, when President Gerald Ford was challenged by Ronald Reagan, but no official straw vote was taken.)


Iowa winner -- George H.W. Bush (32 percent)

Rest of field -- Ronald Reagan (30 percent), Howard Baker (15 percent), John Connally (9 percent), Phil Crane (7 percent), John Anderson (4 percent), Bob Dole (2 percent)

1979 straw poll winner -- Bush

Nominee -- Reagan


Iowa winner -- Bob Dole (37 percent)

Rest of field -- Pat Robertson (25 percent), George H.W. Bush (19 percent), Jack Kemp (11 percent), Pete du Pont (7 percent)

1987 straw poll winner -- Robertson

Nominee -- Bush


Iowa winner -- Bob Dole (26 percent)

Rest of field -- Pat Buchanan (23 percent), Lamar Alexander (18 percent), Steve Forbes (10 percent), Phil Gramm (9 percent), Alan Keyes (7 percent), Dick Lugar (4 percent), Morry Taylor (1 percent)

1995 straw poll winner -- Dole and Gramm (tied)

Nominee -- Dole


Iowa winner -- George W. Bush (41 percent)

Rest of field -- Steve Forbes (30 percent), Alan Keyes (14 percent), Gary Bauer (9 percent), John McCain (5 percent)*, Orrin Hatch (1 percent)

1999 straw poll winner -- Bush

Nominee -- Bush


Iowa winner -- Mike Huckabee (34 percent)

Rest of field -- Mitt Romney (25 percent), Fred Thompson (13 percent), John McCain (13 percent)*, Ron Paul (10 percent), Rudy Giuliani (4 percent)*, Duncan Hunter (1 percent)

2007 straw poll winner -- Romney

Nominee -- McCain

Iowa: The Queenmaker

Posted at 12:50 PM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Michele Bachmann and Steve King appeared together at a press conference Tuesday morning in West Des Moines. (Jason Noble/The Des Moines Register)

Social conservatives have courted Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King in an effort to win his endorsement. King regularly criticizes Republican leadership in Congress from the right, for example in a recent missive reported by USA Today, aimed at House Speaker John Boehner "for two offenses in 2011: ruling out the possibility of a government shutdown during the budget debate in the spring, and ruling out a U.S. default during the debt ceiling debate in the summer."

King has flirted with the notion that he was going to endorse a candidate before Iowans headed to their caucuses. Given how tight the race appears to be, an endorsement carries added weight. He told Cathy Wurzer this morning on MPR News that he wasn't going to endorse a candidate. King says that of the candidates who can articulate the problems of the country, he doesn't see one who can effectively advocate a plan to solve them. Pushed by Wurzer, King said he would certainly participate in the caucuses but wouldn't comment on whom he was leaning toward.

King is reportedly good friends and a political ally with Rep. Michele Bachmann. While she didn't get the endorsement of her friend, she might have gotten the next best thing. She spent this morning with King criticizing President Obama's health care plan.

Iowa: A state that suits Santorum's pocketbook

Posted at 1:50 PM on January 3, 2012 by Michael Olson
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Rick Santorum doesn't measure up in comparable wealth to the guys and gal he's running against. The "Santorum surge" we've been hearing so much about might be his moment to capture lightning in a bottle. Marketplace has more on why Iowa is Santorum's kind of state.

Marketplace's Stacey Vanek Smith: Prof. Moyer, supporters of the Iowa caucus say one advantage of the caucus is that it gives less wealthy candidates a chance -- that they can challenge candidates with deeper pockets because the Iowa race is more about meeting with people, shaking hands, that kind of thing. Is that true?

Wayne Moyer (teaches political science at Grinnell College in Iowa): Yes, I think that it is. The nature of the state is such that the smaller population and the less need for television advertising -- which is very expensive -- it does give candidates a chance who don't have quite the resources that others do.

Particularly, say, with Rick Santorum, who didn't have very much money, who's rising very rapidly in the polls right now. And he spent, I think, something like 100 days in Iowa, and he would not have been able to do that in a larger state. He wouldn't have had the same kind of impact.

Smith: Now, Iowa has its own particular economy -- it's got quite a low unemployment rate, and it's also a very rural state, and it's been a good few years for farmers. How is Iowa's economy factoring into the race right now?

Moyer: I don't think that it is making a great deal of difference. I think that the people in Iowa are looking at the national situation as much as they're looking at the Iowa situation. I mean, we still have an unemployment rate of 6 percent, which is still pretty high. I haven't been able to tell how it's helping candidates or hurting candidates per se.

Iowa: Caucuses FAQ

Posted at 2:30 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Politics

Iowa's been caucusing since statehood in 1846. But the caucuses didn't become a national force until 1972, when state Democrats moved theirs to January, ahead of New Hampshire's primary, traditionally the first key presidential political test.

In 1976, Iowa's Democratic caucuses gave strong support to a relatively unknown candidate, Jimmy Carter. Carter's presidential win cemented Iowa's role as a crucial early test of strength for Republican and Democratic candidates.

For presidential hopefuls short on name recognition or cash, the caucuses offer the promise, at least, that old-style retail politics -- handshaking at fairs, speeches in small towns and impromptu café discussions -- can level the competition.

There's been a lot of hand wringing over the years about Iowa's over sized role in picking presidential candidates and recent evidence the caucuses have lost some of their luster. But they continue to hold the attention of politicians and the public.

Here are some questions and answers about this evening's caucuses.

Q. What is a caucus and how does it differ from a primary?

A: Caucuses are meetings where citizens gather to talk politics and decide, in this case, whom to nominate for president. On caucus night, Jan. 3, starting at 7 p.m., Iowans in 1,774 precincts across the state will pick delegates for local conventions that lead, eventually, to delegates to the party national conventions.

Caucus states include Minnesota, Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Nevada, Washington, Maine and Wyoming,

Primaries are more formal elections. Primary voting lasts all day and primaries allow for absentee voting. Caucuses are informal gatherings that last only a few hours -- and you have to be there to participate.

Q. Who gets to vote in an Iowa caucus?

A. Iowans who turn 18 by Election Day 2012 (Nov. 6) can vote in the Iowa caucus, according to the Republican Party of Iowa.

You have to be registered as a Democrat to participate in Democratic caucuses or as a Republican to be part of a Repubican gathering. Both parties, though, let people walk in and register at the caucus. The Iowa GOP requires a valid photo ID with a current address and a utility bill or other document proving residence.

If you can register, you can caucus, which is why it can be a challenge to get a serious read on a candidate's strength beyond Iowa. "Technically, only registered party members can attend each caucus, but any Iowan who can prove residence in a precinct can register in either party on caucus night," the MSNBC caucuses guide notes.

Q. Once delegates are in a caucus, how do they pick a candidate?

A: Republicans and Democrats do it differently. Republicans use a simple process, writing their candidate choice on slips of paper and counting votes. Before voting, one surrogate can speak on behalf of his/her candidate.

It's more complicated with Democrats. Here's the Des Moines Register description from the 2008 caucuses:

While Republicans have one-person, one-vote, Democrats vote for delegates for each candidate. Democrats will break into what are called "preference groups," where participants' preferences for a candidate become public.

All the supporters of Hillary Clinton will go to one corner, all the supporters of Barack Obama to another, etc. If a candidate doesn't have 15 percent of the total, his or her supporters must realign with another group. Once everyone is in a group with at least 15 percent, delegates to the county convention are apportioned based on the size of the preference group.

So, for example, if the precinct sends 10 delegates to the county convention, those 10 delegates are allocated based on the percentage of people in a preference group. So if Edwards has 60 percent and Clinton has 40 percent, Edwards would get six delegates and Clinton would get four

Obviously, it will be less complicated for Democrats in this cycle, since Obama is running as an incumbent, unopposed. Democrats in Iowa, though, say they want a strong turnout to show support for the president's re-election.

Q: When we will know the GOP winner?

A: The Iowa GOP says it will announce results by precinct as those results are received and verified. MSNBC says results should start coming in by 7:30 p.m. CT.

Q: Do the caucuses often pick the eventual president?

A: No. While they're pretty good at picking eventual party candidates, they are far from perfect in picking the president. Since the 1972 Democratic caucus, only two non-incumbent candidates -- George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- have won the presidency after winning the Iowa Caucuses. In 1976, Jimmy Carter finished second in Iowa behind "uncommitted."

Not counting incumbent presidents (since nearly all incumbents have run unopposed in Iowa during their re-election campaigns), that's two out of seven election cycles where Iowa picked the president.

Iowa: Black Hawk County GOP ready for mega-caucus

Posted at 2:54 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

(MPR News / Mark Zdechlik)

The latest from MPR News reporter Mark Zdechlik:

The Republican Party of Black Hawk County will host all 63 of its precincts under the roof of the University of Northern Iowa's UNI-Dome for caucuses this evening.

Most of the people gathering at the university will be from the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area. About 2,800 Republicans caucused in Black Hawk County in 2008. This time they're expecting as many as twice that number.

The various precincts are spread out on the arena floor and in the bleachers. Prior to the 7 p.m. start time, those who show up will have a chance to hear briefly from candidates. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was born in Black Hawk county and who's been promoting her Iowa roots throughout her campaign, is planning to speak as is former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, might also attend.

Bachmann is polling dead-last among the field of GOP presidential candidates competing in Iowa, still she's predicting a caucus night "miracle,' and even if she doesn't get that, she's vowing to continue on with her campaign and has stops scheduled for Wednesday in South Carolina.

Iowa: Follow the results county by county

Posted at 4:39 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

WNYC and the website Patchwork Nation have put together a terrific map that will let you track county-by-county results from tonight's Iowa Caucuses as they come in after 7 p.m.

Place your cursor over a county and see data to the right

Iowa: Could a candidate today talk like Truman?

Posted at 5:41 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Politics

Political candidates say a lot of stuff about each other in Iowa. But you won't find them pointing fingers at Iowans -- not like Harry Truman did in 1948.

The Miller Center at the University of Virginia tonight has been posting some great pieces of political history to go along with the Iowa caucuses. That includes Truman's September 1948 whistlestop campaign speech in Chariton, Iowa.

The usual platitudes are there. But in the speech, Truman takes aim at the people he hopes will vote for him.

You stayed at home in 1946 and you got the 80th Congress, and you got just exactly what you deserved. You didn't exercise your God-given right to control this country. Now you're going to have another chance. If you let that chance slip, you won't have my sympathy.
Truman won the election, of course, including Iowa.

Iowa: Caucuses officially begin

Posted at 7:00 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Here we go. It's 7 p.m. and the Iowa caucuses have begun. We could start receiving results starting in an hour or so.

Iowa: Paul, Romney, Santorum lead CNN entrance poll

Posted at 7:20 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

CNN reports: Early results of CNN Iowa entrance poll: First tier is Paul, Romney, Santorum. Actual votes, projections within the hour.

UPDATE: CNN says Paul & Romney tied at 24%, Santorum 18%; Gingrich 13%; Perry 11%; Bachmann 7%

Iowa: CNN poll shows Paul, Romney, Santorum tie

Posted at 8:08 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

From CNN:

Final Iowa Entrance Polls show Paul, Romney virtually tied, Santorum 3rd. Gingrich 4th. Data here.

Iowa: Bachmann trails badly in home county

Posted at 8:31 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann touted her Iowa credentials and ties to her hometown of Waterloo as she sought victory in the Iowa Caucuses. But even there, she is not doing well.

At 8:30 p.m., data showed the Minnesota congresswoman at only 8 percent in her native Black Hawk County, far behind Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who are in a virtual tie statewide in the Iowa caucuses. Bachmann had about 6 percent statewide.

The latest:

Iowa: Santorum strongest with middle income voters

Posted at 9:09 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Trolling through some of the CNN polling of people going in and out of the Iowa caucuses tonight and I'm surprised by the strength of candidate Rick Santorum among middle income people.

Santorum had the support of more than half those with incomes between $30,000 and $100,000. (Click on the chart for a larger view).


Ron Paul is close behind in middle class support. Mitt Romney, though, is significantly behind both those candidates.

The question: Will Santorum's apparently strong middle class support extend to people of similar incomes in New Hampshire and beyond?

Here's a look at some demographics from the Associated Press:

As the caucuses began, an entrance survey of early arrivers suggested that Romney, Paul and Santorum were in the top tier of vote getters.

About a third of early arrivers said they most wanted a candidate who could defeat Obama, and they tended to favor Romney. Paul held a broad advantage among the nearly one in four who called the selection of a true conservative their top priority, and he also made a strong showing among younger and first-time caucus-goers.

Supporters of the tea party made up about two-thirds of the electorate, and were nearly evenly split among Paul, Romney and Santorum.

The economy and the federal budget deficit were top issues for caucus attendees, more important than abortion or health care.

Iowa: Romney, Santorum tied with 88 percent results in

Posted at 9:54 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

With nearly 90 percent of the voting completed in the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are tied with 25 percent of the vote while candidate Ron Paul is running about 21 percent, the latest CNN data show.

UPDATE: CNN projects Ron Paul 3rd in Iowa. Gingrich 4th, Perry 5th, Bachmann 6th.

Iowa: 100 votes separate Romney, Santorum

Posted at 10:00 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

With 93 percent of precincts reporting, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are in a dead heat to win tonight's Iowa Republican caucuses.

Both candidates have about 25 percent of the vote with Santorum about 100 votes ahead. That works out to roughly 1 extra vote for Santorum in each Iowa county.

Candidate Ron Paul has told supporters tonight that he'll be one of the top three heading to next week's New Hampshire primary.

A frustrated Newt Gingrich came in fourth, far behind the top three. He told supporters he'll continue on to New Hampshire and lashed out at Romney.

Iowa: Bachmann says she's still the one to beat Obama

Posted at 10:35 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Despite a poor showing in tonight's Iowa caucuses, Michele Bachmann indicated she's still in the presidential race, telling supporters, "I am the true conservative" who can defeat President Obama.

Urging backers not to believe pundits, the Minnesota congresswoman said there were "many more chapters to be written" in the presidential contest and "I prefer to let the people of the country decide."

The party, she added, needed 'fearless conservative" to take on Obama, "a candidate in the likeness and image of a Ronald Reagan."

After winning a key Iowa straw poll in August, Bachmann fell steadily in the polls, especially after Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race.

Tonight, Bachmann tonight came in sixth, capturing only 5 percent of the Iowa caucuses vote and only 7 percent in Black Hawk County, where she was born.

UPDATE: Despite Bachmann's comments indicating she was staying in the race, her campaign manager was less sanguine, telling the Associated Press he wasn't sure if Bachmann would continue the campaign.

Iowa: Key Bachmann aide unsure if campaign will go on

Posted at 10:54 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

Latest from the Associated Press:

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Michele Bachmann's campaign manager says it's hard to tell whether she will continue her campaign after a bleak showing in the Iowa caucuses.

Asked if he could say with certainty whether she would go forward with her candidacy, Bachmann campaign manager Keith Nahigian told The Associated Press: "I don't know yet."

He added: "It's hard to tell, but everything is planned."

Bachmann was in last place among six candidates in the nation's first Republican presidential nominating contest in early Tuesday night. It was a sharp turn for the Minnesota congresswoman after finishing in first place during the Iowa GOP's summer straw poll.

Iowa: Perry to reassess campaign after poor showing

Posted at 11:02 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

After winning only 10 percent of the vote in tonight's Iowa caucuses, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told supporters he will return to Texas to reassess his presidential campaign.

CNN reports:

Perry, speaking before his supporters at Perry headquarters in West Des Moines, Iowa, said he will return home to Texas and asses the results of the votes in Iowa to decide if there is a path forward for him in the presidential race.
Perry's entrance into the race was a blow to the efforts of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Both sought votes from the party's conservative wing.

Tonight in Iowa, though, it appears many of those votes went instead to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Iowa: No recount seen in close caucuses vote

Posted at 11:18 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Rick Santorum has only an 11 vote lead over Mitt Romney. But don't expect any attempt to recount votes from tonight's Iowa caucuses.

"There is no mechanism for a recount," Iowa GOP spokesman Dough Heye told CNN.

Iowa: Santorum, Romney duel to a draw

Posted at 11:50 PM on January 3, 2012 by Paul Tosto
Filed under: Iowa, Politics

After more than 120,000 votes cast in the Iowa Republican caucuses, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney found themselves in a dead heat, separated by fewer than 20 votes with nearly all precincts reporting.

Both candidates can claim wins out of Iowa as the Republican campaign as it heads for the New Hampshire primary next week.

About Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto

Paul Tosto writes the Big Story Blog for MPR News. He joined the newsroom in 2008 after more than 20 years reporting on education, politics and the economy for news wires and newspapers across the country.

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