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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
At 7 p.m. Central Time on Tuesday, four days from now, the first contest of the 2012 presidential nominating process takes place in Iowa. As you've heard countless times on this program and elsewhere, Iowans vote in caucuses; small political meetings held in 1,774 locations scattered around the state.
We asked NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea to prepare this basic how-to guide for next week's contest.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: A primary election feels very much like any other Election Day - polls are open all day and voters show up when they want. But a caucus is actually a meeting, with a schedule that starts at a certain time. Party business is conducted, and, at some point, voting.
Matt Strawn is the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. He starts with the basics.
MATT STRAWN: Well, the first thing is you need to be obviously an Iowa resident who is eligible to vote in the state of Iowa.
GONYEA: You need to show up at the proper precinct based on your address. You can participate if you'll be 18 years old on Election Day of November 2012. If you are a registered Republican, your name should already be on the list. If not, you can register as a member of the party on the spot regardless of your political affiliation.
The caucus then gets underway. There'll be an explanation of how the evening will proceed, then, speeches.
STRAWN: And each campaign has the opportunity to have one surrogate speak for anywhere from two to five minutes. It depends on what the precinct chair and that precinct allows. And then after those speeches, there's no questions that are asked from the attendees. And you go straight to the vote.
GONYEA: Voters get a blank slip of paper and they write the surname of the candidate of their choice on it. They then drop it in a ballot box.
STRAWN: In my particular precinct up in Ankeny, which is a suburb of Des Moines, we literally have a sequined red, white and blue shoebox with a hole slit in the top that we pass around the room and we drop our ballot. It sounds very cliche in Iowa but it's the truth. It's what we do.
GONYEA: Then each precinct counts the votes in front of caucus attendees. Results are then called in to the state party where precinct totals are added up and released to the public.
It's important to note that no delegates attached to candidates are selected in the Iowa GOP caucuses. So the event is really a beauty contest albeit one very important to the process of selecting a nominee.
Again, Chairman Matt Strawn.
STRAWN: A very significant beauty contest, straw poll, you know, whatever terminology you want to use.
GONYEA: Now to the Democrats where they have their own set of rules for caucuses. Though this year, the most obvious difference is that there's no contest for the nomination since President Obama is seeking re-election.
State Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky says the highlight of the evening will be an appearance by the president via video link to every single caucus gathering.
SUE DVORSKY: And he's going to talk to Iowa Democrats about why this matters, about what he's done, about what he wants to do moving forward, and then ask them for their help. Exactly the way he did four years ago.
GONYEA: Dvorsky says Democrats will be focusing on congressional and other races as well.
Right now, above freezing temperatures are forecast for much of Iowa Tuesday. That could help caucus turnout, which both Republicans and Democrats say would give them a boost at the very beginning of an election year.
GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Des Moines.
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