Washington: The rough-and-tumble political slugfest that is the US presidential race intensifies Monday when residents of Iowa begin the state-by-state nominating process that builds to the national party conventions in the summer and, finally, the general election on November 8.
What happens at the Iowa caucuses?
The first votes in the 2016 election will not be cast in typical polling booths. Instead, Iowans in nearly 1,700 precincts will gather at Monday evening in locations such as fire stations, libraries, churches and even private homes to hear speeches from candidates' representatives and voice support for their favourite candidate. Republicans and Democrats hold separate caucus meetings.
Is the process the same for both parties?
No. For Republicans the caucus ends with a private vote. It's more complicated for Democrats. In what can be rowdy affairs, participants cluster by choice of candidate and try to persuade others to switch sides. After a first tally, supporters of candidates who didn't receive the minimum threshold of backing - usually 15 per cent of attendees - can either leave or join another candidate before a final vote count is taken.
And this somehow leads to a party's nominee for president?
Each of the precincts is allocated a certain number of delegates. The precinct votes determine how many delegates will represent each presidential hopeful at Iowa's 99 county conventions, where in turn delegates are selected for district, then state and, ultimately, the national nominating conventions. A similar process takes place in the other states. So, yes, the long and winding road to the nomination really does begin on a winter night in Iowa.
What's so special about Iowa?
It grows more corn than any other state, and its annual state fair in Des Moines is renowned for its wide variety of food-on-a-stick offerings, many of them deep-fried. As for its first-in-the-nation caucuses, critics of Iowa's outsized presidential role argue that the Midwestern state with 3 million residents is whiter, older and more rural than the national average.
But studies have also found that on many indicators - including average pay and the percentage of the population with a college degree, along with quirkier measures such as per capita beer consumption - Iowa falls more or less in line with the rest of the US.
Iowans must flock to the caucuses, right?
Despite all the attention, only one in five party members in the state actually takes part, according to an analysis by Drake University in Des Moines.
Do candidates who win the caucuses go on to get the nomination?
The media coverage of the results can work to the benefit or detriment of campaigns, giving them momentum for other state victories or making the path to the nomination that much steeper.
However, a win in Iowa can be short-lived. Republicans Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum came in first in 2008 and 2012, respectively, but eventually lost the party nominations to John McCain and Mitt Romney. Then again, Iowa Democrats threw their support in 2008 to Barack Obama - at the time considered a relative outsider - rather than the candidate perceived as inevitable, Hillary Clinton.