Iowa. It's a four-letter word you'll probably be really sick of hearing by the end of this month.
It's also the most important spot in the political universe right now. With the Iowa Caucus coming up on Feb. 1, most presidential candidates are going to be laser-focused on a first-in-the-nation contest that could help cull the field, provide a boost to lagging or surging campaigns or shock the system of candidates who think they're unstoppable.
Iowa is the place where voters get an up-close-and-personal view of the candidates, who have to sell both their ideas and their "want to have a beer with" credentials to a skeptical, seen-it-all electorate that expects to be wooed and often takes its sweet time making a final decision. The Hawkeye State gets so much attention because, well, since 1972 it has always been first in line. And in a year when we still have 15 candidates in the mix, the day after Iowa might finally result in some attrition, as aspirants who've been squeaking by face the reality that the race is not theirs to win.
But given the small fraction of the state's 1.93 million registered voters experts believe may turn out this year -- a number pegged at around 280,000 -- is Iowa really that important?
"One of the complaints about the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary is that they don't do a good job of predicting who will get the nomination and win the general election," University of Iowa's Timothy Hagle told MTV News. Hagle, an associate professor in the school's political science department and author of "Riding the Caucus Rollercoaster" -- which chronicled the last presidential contest in the state -- said the caucus is a vital part of the process, though, even if it's not really intended to pick the eventual winner.
"You have to rely more on surrogates and advertising in larger states, but here you can get around and meet one-on-one with voters in ways you can't [in other states] and you have to be here, show up and convince people," Hagle said. "Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire like to look a candidate in the eyes and shake their hand and see where they stand."
You Can't Win In Iowa If You Don't Play The Game, Or Can You?
When Des Moines Register statehouse reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel asks Iowa voters who their favorite candidate is, she often hears the following: "I haven't met everyone yet."
"These people started coming here last summer and Iowans have been exposed to them for months with a lot of face-to-face time and so you find some really well-informed people who will be casting ballots during the caucuses," she said.
By Pfannenstiel's calculations some of the candidates who've logged the most time in Iowa are the ones who are barely polling on the national scene, including: 2012 winner Rick Santorum (75 days), Mike Huckabee (61) and Martin O'Malley (53), all of whom are hoping that a decent showing in the state could pump some much-needed life into their flagging campaign.
Of the three Democratic contenders, leading candidate Hillary Clinton has spent the least time in the state (34 days), while her chief rival, Donald Trump, has around 25 days under his belt. Given their double-digit leads in national polls, both have spent time shoring up their support in other crucial early states in the expectation that a win (or close finish) in Iowa will help start a steamroller effect that will carry them to the nomination.
"He does't have a strong ground game and he's not reaching out and talking to people in town halls and answering questions in relatively small venues," he said. "It's usually bigger venues and he's using more advertising, which is not usually done."
That might explain why Ted Cruz -- currently in the midst of a six-day bus tour that will help him touch down in all 99 counties in the state by Feb. 1 -- surged to a lead over Trump in Iowa in December.
One of the things that makes Iowa unique (and unpredictable) is that voters are notorious for playing their cards very close and making last-minute decisions, another factor that forces candidates to come back time and again in an effort to close the deal. "A lot of voters pick their candidates early or they'll have a top 2-3," said Hagle. "I've been on both sides. I've picked some candidates months early, but in 2012 I didn't decide until I wrote my name on the piece of paper."
While Republicans vote by secret ballot, the other X-factor is on the Democrat side are "viability groups." If a candidate doesn't get 15 percent of the vote on caucus night, they are considered not viable and either have to try to convince their friends and neighbors to join them or they have to hook up with another candidate's voters. "If O'Malley isn't viable will his vote go to Clinton or Sanders?" Hagle wondered.
Either way, Hagle said we're likely to see some serious movement in the polls over the next four weeks, with Cruz looking like a good bet to come out at or near the top thanks to a string of important endorsements and a strong ground game. On the Democrat side, Sanders appears to be firing up young voters, though Clinton has a much bigger staff and a 10-20-point lead in the state that sorely disappointed her in 2008 when she came in third during her first presidential bid.
What's Really At Stake? Bragging Rights.
Despite all the hype (and counter hype), here's the thing about Iowa: In the past there were no national delegates at stake in the caucus, which used to basically serve as a statewide straw poll, with delegates selected later. Due to a rules change, this year's national convention delegates for both parties will actually be tied to the caucus results, making it that much more important.
So, after 11 months of debates, announcements, mudslinging and baby kissing, Iowa marks the point at which a lot of average voters really start to pay attention to the nominating process because it's the first chance to participate and get some hard data on who's hot and who's not. And after a year of fundraising and spending it might also be the place where some candidates see the money spigot turned off if they don't place or even show.
That's why Pfannenstiel said that on Monday there were five candidates on the ground in the state and, according to her calculations, since last summer there have only been three days when no candidates were in Iowa. "Just about everything [has surprised me so far]," she said about the experience covering the election.
"Being on the ground here is so different than reading about it. Being in someone's living room and watching a presidential candidate speak to a group of 20 shows you the mind-blowing access people have to theses candidates. I've totally been swayed. I'm a believer in the value the caucus brings."