DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The long and sometimes arcane ritual of electing the next U.S. president begins on Monday in more than 1,100 schools, churches and libraries across Iowa, a state that wields political influence far greater than its small size.
After more than a year of up-close and personal evaluation of the candidates, Iowans will gather with their neighbors on what promises to be a cold wintry night to kick off the state-by-state process of picking the Republican and Democratic nominees for the Nov. 8 presidential election.
The starring opening-night role of the largely rural Midwestern state in the presidential drama, now four decades old, is a source of pride for Iowa voters, who spend months evaluating the candidates, looking them in the eye and asking questions.
"Iowans see it as a great privilege and a great gift. They take their role very seriously," said Tom Henderson, chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, home to Iowa's biggest city, Des Moines.
The caucuses will begin on Monday at 7 p.m. CST, and results are expected within two or three hours. Most gatherings will be in schools, community centers or other public locations, although at least two Republican caucuses will be in private homes and one Democratic caucus will be held at an equestrian center.
Turnout varies by community, with up to 1,000 people typically gathering in cities like Des Moines, while a few dozen or less may gather in more sparsely populated areas.
The state Republican and Democratic parties run their caucuses separately, although in some areas they hold them in different parts of the same building. Republicans will have more than 800 caucus sites, and Democrats will have about 1,100.
The two parties also have different rules. Iowa Democrats gather in groups by candidate preference in a public display of support, a tradition that can allow for shifts back and forth. If a candidate does not reach the threshold of support of 15 percent of voters in a caucus needed to be considered viable, that candidates' supporters are released to back another contender, leading to another round of persuasion.
Republicans are more straightforward. They write their vote privately on a sheet of paper that is collected and counted at the site by caucus officials. A surrogate or volunteer from each campaign may speak to their neighbors in a last-ditch plea for support, adding to the uncertainty going into the process.
Neither party is offering voter turnout estimates this year, although many Iowans predict the Republicans will surpass the 121,503 who turned out in 2012. In the last contested Democratic caucus, in 2008, excitement over Barack Obama's candidacy spurred a record turnout of 239,872.
Iowa, the 30th most populated state, and tiny New Hampshire, which holds the second nominating contest on Feb. 9, have traditionally served as early filters to winnow out the losers and elevate the top contenders for later contests.
But Iowa Republicans recently have had a spotty record at backing the ultimate presidential nominees. Neither the Republican winner in 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, nor the winner in 2012, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, managed to win the party nomination.
Iowa Democrats did back the party's last two nominees: John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008, which ultimately launched Obama's drive to the White House.
(Editing by Leslie Adler)
Related: 2016 presidential power rankings
2016 Presidential Power Rankings
Iowa kicks off 2016 U.S. presidential race with caucus tradition
14. Rick Santorum, Republican, former senator from Pennsylvania
It's sometimes easy to forget that Santorum won 11 states in his 2012 primary matchup with Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee -- including the Iowa caucus.
That's because he still hasn't even been a blip on the radar in the 2016 race.
He is facing stauncher competition this time around, and he has not solved his biggest problem from 2012: money. He raised less than $400,000 in third-quarter fund-raising and had just more than $200,000 in cash on hand, the kind of money that doesn't bode well for staying power in a crowded field.
The state that provided his biggest win in 2012, Iowa, also hasn't given him the same kind of love. Despite focusing on the Hawkeye State, he still barely registers in polling there, placing 11th in an average of recent polls. He has lingered around that level since he entered the race.
National polling average among Republican voters: 0.2% (11th)
Iowa: 1% (11th)
New Hampshire: 0.2 (11th)
South Carolina: 0.5% (11th)
Last month: 14
(Photo courtesy: Getty)
13. Martin O'Malley, Democrat, former Maryland governor
O'Malley has watched as Bernie Sanders has entrenched himself as the progressive alternative to Hillary Clinton, outflanking O'Malley's attempts to outflank Clinton from the left.
Despite a vigorous campaign schedule, O'Malley is still not well known nationally, and he has been unable to boost his poll numbers even in a three-way race.
O'Malley has an accomplished progressive record as governor, with achievements -- on immigration, criminal justice, same-sex marriage, and healthcare, among others — that he can legitimately tout to Democratic voters. But he hasn't been able to break out of the doldrums.
National polling average among Democratic voters: 2.2% (3rd)
Iowa: 4.3% (3rd)
New Hampshire: 2.6% (3rd)
South Carolina: 1.5% (3rd)
Huckabee has continued an attempt to endear himself to conservative, evangelical voters. But he's clearly falling short.
The first part of his presumed theoretical path to the nomination -- winning Iowa, the state he captured in 2008 -- is in serious limbo. He polls just eighth in the Hawkeye State, and he has kept slipping there over the past two months.
This Republican field may be too crowded for a candidate like Huckabee. He is extremely popular with evangelical conservatives, but many of those conservatives look as if they're flocking to candidates such as Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
National polling average among Republican voters: 2.5% (T-7th)
Iowa: 2.2% (8th)
New Hampshire: 0.7% (10th)
South Carolina: 2% (T-9th)
Fiorina surged after she stole the show with a stunning performance during the first lower-tier Republican debate in August.
But over the past few months, she has had trouble sustaining that magic amid more scrutiny. She has dipped from her third-place standing in national polls at the height of her climb to just ninth now. She has fallen again from the main debate stage to the "undercard" affair.
Still, she has experience as a business executive that few others in the field can point to, and she has been one of Hillary Clinton's fiercest critics.
National polling average among Republican voters: 2.2% (9th)
Iowa: 1.3% (10th)
New Hampshire: 4% (7th)
South Carolina: 2% (10th)
Paul climbed back onto the main debate stage after a publicity -- and poll -- boost that followed his decision to skip the latest "undercard" debate.
Still, he has not been able to break through from his initial plunge over the summer and early fall. Of particular note is his drop in Iowa, where he has fallen from second (9.8%) in July to fifth (3.8%) now. (His fifth-place standing in Iowa, however, was good enough for a place on the main Fox News debate stage.)
He has to hope he continues to build momentum — he also has a Senate reelection to start thinking about.
National polling average among Republican voters: 2% (10th)
Iowa: 3.8% (5th)
New Hampshire: 3.7% (8th)
South Carolina: 2.5% (T-6th)
Carson continues to fall after a stunning rise that peaked in October, when he became the first Republican since July to overtakeDonald Trump for first place in a national poll.
Like Trump, Carson is a Washington outsider who has shown that he can appeal to a broader electorate. And like Trump, even some of the more controversial things to come out of Carson's mouth have seemed to help his fund-raising and poll numbers.
But his time in the intense spotlight looks as if it might have finally taken its toll. He has dipped back to fourth place nationally and in Iowa, with scrutiny over his potential as commander-in-chief piling up as he has seen more established candidates like Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) rise. And his campaign has been thrown into disaster with the resignation of top aides.
His national poll numbers have dipped about 17 points over the past three months.
National polling average among Republican voters: 7.8% (4th)
Iowa: 7.2% (4th)
New Hampshire: 3.3% (9th)
South Carolina: 9% (5th)
Christie has seen a bit of momentum sapped over the past month in the first-primary state of New Hampshire, where he is counting on a strong finish and where he has put in the most time of any GOP candidate.
Amid a barrage of attacks from rival candidates and their allied interests, Christie has seen his poll standing in the Granite State dip about 4 points over the past month. He's now sixth there, compared with fourth last month.
Kasich is the biggest mover in this month's power rankings, jumping to seventh from 11th after a fresh surge in New Hampshire.
He has overtaken Marco Rubio in the state and sits third behind Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. There's a legitimate chance he could come out on top of a clustered bit of Republican establishment-type candidates.
Those who talk up Kasich believe he is a Christie-type without the baggage of the past year and a half -- that is, a successful governor with a record to point to and clear bipartisan appeal. He also has a plethora of experience from serving nearly two decades in Congress, including foreign-policy areas and his time as chair of the US House budget committee.
But that same bipartisan brand could hurt Kasich with the GOP base. He is to the left of most GOP candidates on immigration reform, and he expanded the federal Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act -- two issues that could doom him with hard-line conservatives.
National polling average among Republican voters: 2.5% (T-7th)
Iowa: 1.8% (9th)
New Hampshire: 11.5% (3rd)
South Carolina: 2.5% (T-6th)
Sanders is another big mover in our power rankings -- and he has a legitimate shot to provide shocking upsets to Hillary Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Sanders is peaking at the right time. His momentum, and the grassroots support and donations behind it, have evoked comparisons to the 2008 rise of Barack Obama, then an Illinois senator.
But Sanders still faces daunting challenges against the behemoth that is Clinton and her campaign. There are questions about whether he's a legitimate threat in the long haul and about his viability as a potential nominee in a general election.
Still, if he captures victories in the first two voting states, the door to the nomination that was long thought closed could creak even more open.
National polling average among Democratic voters: 37.2% (2nd)
Iowa: 45.8% (1st)
New Hampshire: 53.3% (1st)
South Carolina: 29.5% (2nd)
Bush, once viewed as the clear front-runner, has seen Trump sap the momentum he had built after his official campaign announcement in June. His poll numbers have slumped across the board -- his 17 percent national average in July has dipped 12 points over the past six months.
But lately there have been signs of life in what had been a stumbling candidacy. With increasing frequency, he has been assailing Trump on the campaign trail, attempting to cast himself as the main establishment alternative to the real-estate mogul.
It's starting to pay off, as he has seen a slight poll bump over the past month nationally and in the key state of New Hampshire.
Bush has showed, too, that he is a dynamic fund-raiser. And he retains significant resources that could prove to be a game changer in the long haul.
National polling average among Republican voters: 5% (5th)
Iowa: 3.7% (6th)
New Hampshire: 8% (5th)
South Carolina: 10.5% (4th)
Off strong early debate performances, Rubio quickly became a rising establishment favorite for the Republican nomination.
But he has stagnated somewhat over the past two months. Ted Cruz has surged far ahead of him in Iowa. Kasich has surpassed him in New Hampshire, and Bush and Christie are nipping at his heels. Nationally, he's far back of Trump and Cruz in third.
That leads to a concern on the minds of many in the Republican political establishment: Which early state can he actually win? His campaign is counting on a long slog, but such a path to the nomination would be unprecedented.
National polling average among Republican voters: 11% (3rd)
Iowa: 12% (3rd)
New Hampshire: 10.5% (4th)
South Carolina: 12% (3rd)
From November to December, Cruz jumped 7 points nationally, 15 points in Iowa, and 8 points in South Carolina.
But a war with Trump -- something he had stressed he would not do -- has started to take a bit of a toll in the first-caucus state of Iowa. After Cruz took the lead from Trump there last month, Trump has leapfrogged Cruz to take back front-running status in the Hawkeye State.
Still, Cruz's under-the-radar campaign has put him in sneakily good position to capture the nomination. And his eye-popping fund-raising numbers mean he will most likely be in the race for the long haul.
Cruz inspires a flood of enthusiasm among the GOP base, and he may be the best-positioned candidate from within the political sphere to back up the notion that he's not a typical politician, that he is the outsider the base wants despite his day job in Washington.
National polling average among Republican voters: 19.3% (2nd)
Iowa: 27.5% (2nd)
New Hampshire: 13.3% (2nd)
South Carolina: 19.5% (2nd)
Trump has lit the political world on fire since his entry into the race last summer. And he has showed surprising staying power -- we're now on month No. 8 of the Trump show.
The summer of Trump, which turned into the autumn of Trump, has become the winter of Trump. And he's perhaps in his strongest position yet, seemingly primed to capture the first four voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
There's a clear appetite among Republican primary voters for someone like Trump, who entered the race to controversy surrounding his position on illegal immigration. Business Insider discovered more of that when we followed him on the trail for a week last year.
"I'm going to win, I think," Trump told us last month.
National polling average among Republican voters: 36.2% (1st)
Iowa: 33.2% (1st)
New Hampshire: 33% (1st)
South Carolina: 36% (1st)
Clinton is No. 1 here because she has proved formidable in polling and fund-raising and has a clearer path to the nomination than anyone on the GOP side.
But Clinton enters the election facing perhaps the biggest challenge to her candidacy.
The summer provided sign after sign of her potential vulnerabilities as a candidate. She saw Sanders sap enthusiasm -- and supporters -- in key early states like Iowa and, especially, New Hampshire. Her popularity plunged. And she trailed a host of leading Republican candidates in theoretical general-election matchups.
She turned things around in the fall. She was up overwhelmingly in Iowa.
That's no longer the case. Sanders could hand Clinton her second shocking loss in a row in the Hawkeye State, and he looks primed to win in the Granite State. In that case, Clinton will have to hope her "firewall" -- her strength in states with more diverse Democratic electorates -- holds up.
National polling average among Democratic voters: 52.5% (1st)
Iowa: 45.8% (2nd)
New Hampshire: 38.6% (2nd)
South Carolina: 62.5% (1st)