Sioux County 2012 Republican caucus

Caucus-goers sign in during the Republican precinct caucuses for Sioux County's Orange City 2, Holland/West Branch and Sherman precincts held Jan. 3, 2012, at city hall in Orange City, Iowa.

Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal file

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SIOUX CITY | After bursting onto the national political map in 1976, the Iowa caucuses have remained a key early-state contest in the process of picking a U.S. president every four years.

The caucuses have maintained their first-in-the-nation status in the line of state votes that winnow the field of candidates. Many a candidate has dropped out within a day of faring poorly in Iowa, while others have emerged with wind at their backs while moving onto New Hampshire and other contests.

Caucuses have been held in Iowa since 1846. It was the 1976 surprise second-place finish by little-known Jimmy Carter in Iowa that gave the caucuses their clout. Carter, a Democratic governor from Georgia, won the presidency that year.

That candidate-making heft has caused some states to jealously seek to drop Iowa down later into the process. But Iowa has weathered those battles, remaining one of the few states where candidates come again and again to prove their bona fides with grassroots activists in the Republican and Democratic parties.

The process means that Iowans get some of the first looks at candidates in what are often small campaign events at cafes and libraries. They can directly ask questions and size up the answers.

When caucus night arrives, a swarm of political reporters drape the state as the action plays out in more than 2,000 precincts in 99 counties. They know that no candidate who has placed below third in the caucuses has ever won the party's nomination later in the summer.

The next Iowa caucuses are slated for January 2016, which means the next 15 months will be rife with presidential officeseekers.

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County and education reporter

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