Democrats hoping to take on Donald Trump in this year’s US presidential election are gearing up for a battle that could determine the nature of the race and pave the way for the party’s nomination.
The famed Iowa caucuses are taking place Tuesday, AEST, where the field of Democrats will make their case and registered party members in the critical state will have their say about which candidate to support.
Essentially, this is the beginning of the end of the Democratic race.
The caucuses will render the first verdict on who among more than a dozen candidates is best positioned to take on President Donald Trump.
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, 78, has surged in polls recently to join other frontrunner and former vice president Joe Biden, 77, at the front of the pack. Slightly behind them in the polls is Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, 70.
Meanwhile former South Bend, Indiana mayor, Pete Buttigieg, billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and entrepreneur Andrew Yang remain in the race among a handful of others.
But not everyone is convinced the favourites can ultimately take on Donald Trump.
During a live cross to Iowa on the Today Show this morning, Karl Stefanovic gave voice to prominent concerns about the leading Democratic candidates.
“Bernie Sanders is 265 years of age, and old mate Joe Biden is not really in control of all of his faculties,” he joked.
“None of them are going to compete against Donald Trump, that's the reality.”
The advanced age of Sanders and Biden has been a sticking point for detractors, as has Biden’s gaffe-prone tendencies and his overly touchy nature which can sometimes seem inappropriate.
But US correspondent Charles Croucher conceded that the US president is vulnerable – a perception the likes of Sanders and Biden are looking to exploit.
“Donald Trump is vulnerable, his polls tell us that. We also know he is better organised, better funded and likes being in this situation. He has done it all before,” he said.
“We should know exactly who the nominee is in the next couple of months.”
And there’s a good chance whoever emerges today, ultimately becomes that nominee.
Not only can Iowa catapult an underdog’s campaign to prominence but the event is unusually predictive as every winner of the Iowa caucuses since 2000 has gone on to become the Democratic nominee.
The winner usually receives a boost in media attention and fundraising that can propel them through subsequent contests. An unexpectedly bad performance, meanwhile, can hobble a candidate.
What are the Iowa caucuses?
They’re essentially small local meetings where neighbours and strangers stand up to show their support for a particular candidate, and to persuade others to join them. Iowa’s 41 national delegates are up for grabs, but the real stakes for the candidates are all about momentum.
Some precincts could have hundreds of Iowans show up, and some may have fewer than 10. Any registered Democrat who will be 18 by election day can participate.
Congratulations to all the organizers and volunteers who have worked so hard to get out the vote in Iowa. Today is the day! Fighting for what you believe in is always, always worth it.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 3, 2020
How do they work?
There are essentially two rounds of voting in the caucuses.
Representatives of the campaigns have an opportunity to stand up and give a last-minute pitch for their candidate, and then the caucuses begin with a process known as the “first alignment”.
That’s where attendees gather in the designated area for their favoured candidate. In most precincts, any candidate that receives the support of 15 per cent of the people in the room is considered “viable” and moves on to the next round of voting.
The process later moves onto a phase known as “realignment”. It is the most crucial, and typically the most chaotic, portion of the night. Well-organised campaigns have volunteers, staffers and surrogates working the room, trying to win over caucus-goers from opposing campaigns whose candidate didn’t prove viable.
At the end of realignment, the caucus chair takes a final count of the room and transmits the numbers to the Iowa Democratic Party.
How are the votes counted and why does it matter?
The results in each precinct are used by the Iowa Democratic Party to calculate what’s known as the “state delegate equivalent,” or how many delegates each candidate gets at the Iowa Democratic Party convention.
That number ultimately translates to how many of Iowa’s 41 national delegates each candidate gets at the national convention.
Securing delegates is the pathway to the eventual nomination, but while Iowa is famed for its outsized influence, it still only represents one per cent of the total delegates.
There is another big day on March 3rd known as Super Tuesday when many states vote and another crucial day on March 17th when a lot of the remaining big states undertake a similar process.
If the Democrats haven't got a clear leader by that stage it will likely prove a messy and damaging race until the party convention in July, ahead of the presidential race.
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