03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iowa Caucuses 101

For all the media attention on the Iowa caucuses, my bet is that it's unclear to most people just how the Iowa caucuses work. Even to a lot of Iowans it's a mystery.

"How many delegates does each candidate get?" a diner asked Gwen, of Gwen's Diner in Lisbon, Iowa.

Gwen scratched her head. "I'm not really sure," she said. "Somebody just tells you*."

So for those of you looking for the quick-and-dirty run down of caucusing, here's a primer.

Both Republicans and Democrats caucus for their candidates on the same night, sometimes in the same place--a public building like a school or library, or someone's home.

Democrats show their support by standing in a group with other people who endorse their candidate. If their candidate doesn't have a big enough proportion of supporters, they can either go stand with another group or remain undecided. Caucus-goers have an opportunity to discuss their choices and try to persuade others.

In contrast, Republicans do a straw poll, writing their choices on a slip of paper.

At the end of the process, candidates with enough supporters elect delegates to represent them at the county. The number of delegates each precinct can send varies from one to eight.

Eventually, delegates will go on to the party conventions in the summer. Of course, by that time some of the candidates may have dropped out of the race, or delegates may have changed their support, which means that candidates selected in January aren't necessarily Iowa's choice at the party conventions in the summer.

Instead, the caucuses simply give top candidates a boost as they go into the New Hampshire primary. It also makes a media event: with a contest, a winner and a loser, the morass of campaigns turns into a story.

Below are some fun caucus facts.

Average low, January 3: 12F
Expected low, January 3, 2008: 20F
Population of Iowa: 2,982,085
Number of anticipated caucus goers: 300,000
Time the caucuses are called to order: 6:30pm
Time the caucusing starts: 7pm
How many hours a caucus usually takes: 2-4
Minutes allowed to form a preference group: 30
Percent a Democratic candidate must receive to earn delegates: 15
Minutes allowed to re-choose if your candidate doesn't receive enough votes: 30
Number of single-spaced pages in the Democratic Party's 2008 Iowa Caucus Guide: 13 the Republican Party's 2008 Caucus Guide: .5 webpage
How much money the 2004 caucuses brought to Iowa: $50-60 million
How much money the 2008 caucuses are estimated to bring to Iowa: that, plus tens of millions dollars more
Number of news organizations approved to attend caucus night 2008: 2,500+
Number of bald eagles I've seen flying over Iowa this week: 2

* The real answer, of course, is (# of members in a preference group X Total # of delegates elected at the caucus) / Total # of eligible caucus attendees = # of delegates to be elected

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