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Des Moines, Iowa — More than 40 years ago, a scheduling quirk vaulted Iowa to the front of the presidential nominating process, and ever since most White House hopefuls have devoted enormous time and money to a state that otherwise would get little attention.

For most of Iowa’s history, activists have gathered in the winter to deal with politics, but no one outside the state paid attention until 1972, when Democrats established their caucuses in January. That made the party’s presidential preference vote the first in the nation, and candidate George McGovern, encouraged by his campaign manager Gary Hart, took advantage by campaigning in Iowa and finishing a stronger-than-expected second place. McGovern’s showing helped propel him to the Democratic nomination, and four years later it did the same for a little-known governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.

The Republicans joined Democrats with the early caucus date in 1976. Since then Iowa has drawn more candidate visits and media attention with each campaign.

The Democratic and Republican parties hold their caucuses at the same time — this year starting at 7 p.m. CST on Feb. 1. While the parties hold their caucuses simultaneously, they operate differently.

When Democrats attend a caucus, they break into groups that publicly declare their support for a candidate. If the number of people in any group is fewer than 15 percent of the total, they can either choose not to participate or can join another candidate group. That leads to some intense wooing and sometimes confusion as candidate representatives try to persuade others to join them and prevent their supporters from switching to another top candidate.

The results are the first step in determining delegates who are expected to support candidates at the national convention. A total of 44 delegates to the national convention are at stake. They will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote as well as on the vote in individual congressional districts, to candidates who get at least 15 percent of the vote.

For Republicans, it’s a much simpler matter of giving supporters of each candidate a chance to give a brief speech, then privately marking ballots. The ballots are counted, then communicated by a local caucus organizer to the state party using a new smartphone app developed for both parties. A total of 30 delegates to the party’s national convention are at stake. They will be awarded proportionally, based on the statewide vote.

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