When it comes to presidential politics, Iowa is #1 in line, no matter what. Though it only serves up around 1 percent of the national delegates in presidential contests, pundits and political junkies have looked to the Hawkeye State for more than 40 years for an early indication of who will represent the party in the race for the White House.
With President Obama facing no Democratic challenger in his bid for a second term, all the attention at Tuesday's Iowa caucus will be focused on the Republicans vying to come out on top in Iowa: Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.
As of press time, libertarian rabble-rouser Paul was in the lead, in part due to his dedicated core of young supporters. Frequently ignored by the national media, Paul is an enigma in this year's GOP field thanks to his views on legalizing drugs and abolishing the departments of Education and Commerce, among others.
But according to the latest Public Policy Poll, Paul was leading the pack at 23 percent, followed by Romney at 20 and the fast-fading Gingrich at 14. Not surprisingly, Texas congressman Paul is well ahead with voters under the age of 45, with 33 percent of their likely votes compared to Romney's 16.
But the Huffington Post reported that what remains to be seen is whether those hard-partying college students intent on casting their votes for Paul will show up to the caucuses after whooping it up on New Year's Eve and slowly making their way back to campus after the long winter break.
Unlike most of the primaries over the next few months and the general election, Iowans will not walk into a voting booth and pull a lever, punch a card or swipe a touch screen to help vault one of the candidates into an early lead. In a quirky throwback to a previous time, they'll gather in meeting halls, school gymnasiums and even living rooms to hash out their choices, a scenario that could be disorienting for young voters who may be casting ballots for the first time.
With 1,774 caucuses statewide, any registered voter can show up at his or her local caucus meeting after pre-registering as a party member. Once there (the events begin promptly at 7 p.m. and last about an hour), they'll hear bids from representatives of the candidates and then chat with friends, neighbors and strangers about the strengths and weaknesses of the various candidates as well as about issues that concern them.
After everyone has said their piece, they'll vote in a paper-ballot straw poll and choose their delegates to the state convention. Those 40 Republican National Convention delegates don't have to immediately declare which candidate they support, but the press will quickly declare a winner based on the percentage of delegates won by each candidate.
Unlike in years past, most of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination have not lavished the same kind of attention on Iowa that past presidential hopefuls have. That's likely the reason why a recent Iowa State University/ Gazette/ KCRG-TV9 poll found that with just one week to go, nearly 38 percent of respondents said they were still trying to decide their vote, with another 34 percent saying they were leaning one way and only 28 percent locked in on the candidate they were definitely supporting.
In other words, no matter who has the lead going into Tuesday night, there could be a major upset in the making if the candidates' last-minute barnstorming blitzes have a big impact on Iowa voters used to lots of face time with their candidates.
Plus, the winner doesn't always take the prize, as in 2008, when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee came in first in Iowa, despite Romney's lavish spending of around $12,000 per vote. That's why candidates have historically spent months and months meeting Iowa voters and introducing themselves over and over in order to pass the most crucial Hawkeye exam: the likability test.
Once the dust clears, after months of campaigning and 13 televised debates, the national press will anoint a legitimate front-runner and a number of the candidates with the lowest totals will likely hang it up.
MTV is on the scene in Iowa! Head to Iowa.MTV.com for all our Iowa caucus coverage, and stick with PowerOf12.org throughout the presidential election season to follow Andrew Jenks on the campaign trail.