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9 Facts About the Iowa Caucus

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Most of the time, Iowa is a relatively low key state. Sure, it might occasionally pick up national attention when the state makes waves in the sports world with an undefeated college football team or when it became the third to legalize gay marriage back in 2009. But for the most part, Iowa keeps a low profile. Unless, of course, it’s a caucus year.

After months of hype, the Iowa Caucus is finally here. Tonight, registered Democrats and Republicans will gather at designated caucus locations to cast a hypothetical vote for their preferred candidates. But what are the rules of the Iowa Caucus and why exactly do we place so much importance on the opinions of a state with a relatively small population? Here’s what you need to know before you tune in for unrelenting caucus coverage tonight.

1. While Iowa residents have been caucusing since the 1840s, the state has only been “First in the Nation” since 1972. So what changed to make the Hawkeye State such a kingmaker?

According to Slate, Iowa switched their caucus from spring to January in the late 1960s to allow enough time between the caucus and the district convention (30 days) as well as between the district convention and the state convention (another 30 days). Much to New Hampshire’s chagrin, this calendar change meant that Iowa had trumped them as first to take a crack at picking November's presidential candidates. Democratic candidate George McGovern hit Iowa hard during the 1972 caucus and ended up showing surprisingly well. (He got second.) After he went on to take the party’s nomination, candidates started taking Iowa seriously—but New Hampshire still didn't. In 1988, Governor John Sununu angered a lot of Iowans when he said, “The people of Iowa pick corn, the people of New Hampshire pick presidents."

2. Iowa ranks 30th in terms of state population, and most of the time, only 20 percent of registered voters show up to caucus. An exception to that rule was the 2008 caucus, when the close Clinton vs. Obama race resulted in 239,872 Democratic caucus participants—about 40 percent of registered Democrats in the state.

3. Iowa is a “closed primary” state, which means participants have to be registered as Democrat or Republican in order to caucus. However, voters can register on the night of the caucus at their designated location.

4. Almost 1700 caucuses will be voting in Iowa, but multiple caucuses usually share the same location. The Democratic Party has about 1100 locations while the Republican Party has nearly 700. They can take place almost anywhere: churches, schools, fire stations, restaurants, even private residences. Where Iowans go to caucus depends on where they live, much like voting—but in many cases, the caucus location is not the same place as the voting location.

5. One major difference in the Republican and Democrat caucuses? The way they vote. Republicans cast secret ballots, sometimes using paper ballots, and sometimes just by scribbling their favored candidate's name on a scrap of paper. Democrats publicly declare their support and assemble themselves in groups according to the candidates they back. Undecided voters are usually then asked to take a side, with decided people making impassioned pleas for their candidates.

6. Another difference: Republicans can throw their support to whichever candidate they prefer, even the most unpopular ones. But Democratic candidates must receive a minimum of 15 percent of the votes in the room in order to remain viable. If a candidate doesn’t receive 15 percent, his or her supporters are asked to choose someone else. The process is dynamic, with friends and neighbors trying to convince those supporting an invalid candidate to come to their side.

7. Unlike primary voting, there is no mail-in absentee option. Only people who are physically present for the caucus may participate—with one exception, new just this year. For the first time ever, the Democratic Party is allowing Iowans living abroad and military members stationed outside of the state to telecaucus, while the Republicans have announced their own system. 

8. The Iowa caucus isn’t a surefire indicator of which candidate will go on to win the party nomination, but for Democrats, it’s a good predictor. Democratic winners since 1972 who went on to get the party nomination include Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Bill Clinton (second term), Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (both terms). That means Iowa only got it wrong when they picked Edmund Muskie, Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin (a representative from Iowa).

9. When it comes to predicting the Republican nominee, however, Iowa’s accuracy rate plummets. Republican winners who got the party nomination include Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan (second term), George H.W. Bush (second run), Bob Dole, and both of George W. Bush’s terms. They got it wrong when they picked George H.W. Bush against Ronald Reagan in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988, Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012.

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Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
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History
Abraham Lincoln Letter About Slavery Could Fetch $700,000 at Auction
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, in which future president Abraham Lincoln spent seven debates discussing the issue of slavery with incumbent U.S. senator Stephen Douglas, paved the way for Lincoln’s eventual ascent to the presidency. Now part of that history can be yours, as the AP reports.

A signed letter from Lincoln to his friend Henry Asbury dated July 31, 1858 explores the “Freeport Question” he would later pose to Douglas during the debates, forcing the senator to publicly choose between two contrasting views related to slavery’s expansion in U.S. territories: whether it should be up to the people or the courts to decide where slavery was legal. (Douglas supported the popular choice argument, but that position was directly counter to the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision.)

The first page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Henry Asbury
Christie's Images Ltd. 2017

In the letter, Lincoln was responding to advice Asbury had sent him on preparing for his next debate with Douglas. Asbury essentially framed the Freeport Question for the politician. In his reply, Lincoln wrote that it was a great question, but would be difficult to get Douglas to answer:

"You shall have hard work to get him directly to the point whether a territorial Legislature has or has not the power to exclude slavery. But if you succeed in bringing him to it, though he will be compelled to say it possesses no such power; he will instantly take ground that slavery can not actually exist in the territories, unless the people desire it, and so give it protective territorial legislation."

Asbury's influence didn't end with the debates. A founder of Illinois's Republican Party, he was the first to suggest that Lincoln should run for president in 1860, and secured him the support of the local party.

The letter, valued at $500,000 to $700,000, is up for sale as part of a books and manuscripts auction that Christie’s will hold on December 5.

[h/t Associated Press]

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