CLINTON, Iowa — Presidential candidates will face the first election in the nation for their party’s nomination not with an anonymous vote at a ballot box but with neighbors at community meetings in small towns and big across Iowa.
The Iowa caucuses have long been considered a bellwether for the success of presidential candidates, but the process likely remains vague to the rest of the country.
Only Iowa, Nevada and Wyoming still use the caucus system to nominate candidates.
Most of the talk about caucuses focuses on the selection of a presidential candidate, but the meetings decide much more than that, said Dan Smicker, chairman of the Clinton County Republican Party.
Each person at the Republican caucus must be registered to vote as a Republican and must reside in the precinct in which he is caucusing. Each precinct will elect a chairperson and secretary and select their leadership, Smicker said.
"Republicans will vote for Republicans. Democrats will vote for Democrats. The no-party people will control this election," Smicker said.
"Four years ago, when we were selecting a candidate, we had astronomical numbers," said Smicker. He estimated that nearly 3,300 people attended caucuses throughout Clinton County.
Though the Republicans have an incumbent president to support this year, Smicker still expects a larger turnout than in 2016.
"People have contacted the Central Committee," he said. "We have a website and
Facebook. We've got people coming out of the woodwork that we've never heard of before.
"I'm amazed that it's happening this early," Smicker said.
Bill Jacobs, chairman of the Clinton County Democrats, is hoping for a 25% increase in caucus numbers, at the least, but the party is planning for double the 2016 attendance.
“Voters should attend the caucuses not only to elect delegates to support their favorite presidential candidates but to discuss the party planks and to elect precinct leaders and delegates," said Jacobs.
With the eyes of the nation watching Iowa and its assessment of candidates, Iowans have become attuned to the political process, said Jacobs. "We really pay attention to what's going on."
That results in more visits from candidates, visits that Iowa might not get if it didn't have an early caucus. Of the Democrats still in the presidential race, 12 have visited Clinton, Jacobs said.
Each precinct will elect delegates, alternates and junior delegates to the county convention.
"We will submit planks to the platform," Smicker said. Planks can be ideologies or policy statements. Caucus goers debate the planks and vote for them to be part of the party's platform, Smicker said.
"The platform is what we stand for as Republicans in Clinton County,"
Smicker said. "[The planks] have to be discussed and approved by each precinct and submitted to the county. Then the planks will be voted on at district and state level.
Caucus-goers will also select local representatives for the county convention. "Everything we do as a state party starts at the local level," Smicker said.
Clinton County has 26 precincts and will have 26 caucuses.
The size of a caucus and the number of delegates it will elect to the county convention depends on the size of the precinct, Jacobs said.
Democratic caucuses in Clinton County range from about 125 to 180 voters. One of the more active precincts in Clinton County had 188 voters present in 2016.
Iowa does have a primary election as well, but it's not for the presidential candidates. On June 2, voters will select state and local officials for their parties.
The caucus is not a short, simple meeting to select a candidate. "It's a party building activity," Jacobs said.
Caucus night is Monday, Feb. 3.