As the United States of America proceeds towards its presidential election this year, the state of Iowa steals the headlines for the first polls to determine the presidential nominees are to be held there.
The Iowa caucuses, as they are known, form an intricate part of the entire election process to be held in the small state of Iowa, located 350 miles west of Chicago and having a diverse economy.
What are caucuses?
The caucuses, unlike the primaries, have a more feel of "direct democracy". Instead of going to the polling stations to cast their secret ballots at any point of the day, those attending the caucuses must arrive at the venue at a particular time to take part in a live process.
While the Democrats have around 1,100 caucus sites, the Republicans have 900-plus of them.
Democratic vs Republican caucuses
In Iowa, the caucuses of the two parties do not function in the same manner and the participants at the caucus are disproportionately picked from dedicated supporters of the party.
The Republican caucuses have a more a populist look where party supporters assemble and the representatives of the candidates' campaigns give short speeches before the attendees who then decide on a particular candidate through secret votes.
The Democrats' practice at the caucuses is different. Their caucuses have no secret ballots and the attendees simply gather at various corners and form physical clusters in support of each of the candidates.
They then speak to convince supporters of the less popular candidates to attract them to their sides before the final count of support is taken.
Difference with primaries:
The caucuses are dominated more by party activists and doesn't present much of a representative picture of the general voters. The primaries work more like the average election featuring secret ballots, voting booths, etc. whereas caucuses, as has been said earlier, has a more "direct democracy" outlook.
Moreover, while primaries are organised and sponsored by state governments, caucuses are held and financed by state parties.
Significance of Iowa in caucuses:
Since the caucuses in Iowa form the first important step in the key race for the White House, the presidential candidates always look towards a good beginning so that they can remain psychologically ahead and gather a momentum in due course.
A poor show in Iowa and it makes the candidates' chances that much difficult in sustaining support, most importantly, financial.
For the record-keepers, Democrat Bill Clinton is the only leader from either side who went on to become the US president in the last 40 years despite losing Iowa. It shows the significance of Iowa, despite the state contributing to just two percent of the delegates required to become a Democrat nominee.
In 2008, Barack Obama had prevailed over the heavyweight Hillary Clinton in this version in his long march to the presidency, leaving a serious psychological impact on the latter. Joe Biden, the vice-president, couldn't get even one per cent vote.
There is another side, too. The Republican John McCain had finished fourth with just over 13 per cent in 2008 but yet managed to become the party's presidential nominee at the end with some good show later.
This time, the Democrats are seeing Hillary Clinton in a virtual tie with Bernie Sanders, Vermont's junior Senator while former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley trailing by far.
The scenario is more puzzling in the Republican camp where although real estate moghul Donald Trump has a small advantage over Texas's conservative senator Ted Cruz, but people like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich and others are also in the contention.
Tonight will be an exciting one as Iowa will show the way for an absorbing battle ahead.