There's one story in the news today, and it's Iowa. The first-in-the-nation caucuses officially kick off the 2012 campaign season. We've got a predictions thread going -- why not take a chance and venture a guess? But first, you may as well catch up on all the latest news and polling so that you can make as educated a guess as possible. Twenty-five delegates to the national convention are at stake tonight, but they are allocated proportionally, so winning a quarter of the vote will only garner a candidate seven delegates.
What's going on here?
If you're not clear on how caucusing works or how it's different from primary voting, here are the basics:
1. A caucus is basically an open forum of community members - voters most be physically present to participate, which means there is no absentee voting. There are more than 1,700 caucus locations across Iowa.
2. The event starts at the same time across the state -- 7 p.m. this year -- with "housekeeping," including reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
3. Representatives for each candidate have an opportunity to speak. This process means that people might show up intending to vote for one candidate, but can change their minds after they've arrived at the caucus location and had an opportunity to hear the representatives speak. It also highlights the importance of organization: If a candidate's campaign doesn't have anyone to speak up for him or her at each caucus site, it risks losing those caucus-goers to someone who showed up.
4. Votes are cast by secret ballot.
5. Results are tallied and called into the state party headquarters, which posts them online as they are received. Unlike Democratic caucuses, there is no viability threshold in the Republican process. This means that no one will be forced to vote for their second choice if their top pick doesn't do well enough.
Interestingly, the caucus results are simply a straw poll -- delegates to the party's national convention will not be bound to a candidate until later in the year, when county and district conventions are held.
The last poll before the vote, from the Des Moines Register, shows a three-way race between Romney (24 percent), Paul (22 percent), and Santorum (15 percent). This is the same poll that correctly showed Barack Obama taking the lead in Iowa in 2008, so it's got a fairly decent track record as far as polls go.
However, as Nate Silver notes at fivethirtyeight.com, predicting caucuses is a tricky business. Nonetheless, he's projecting that Romney will win with 21.8 percent of the vote. Ron Paul is in second with 21.0 percent of the vote. Note that these are not poll figures themselves, but projections created from combining, weighting, and averaging various polls.
Take these numbers with a grain of salt: 41 percent of voters haven't made up their minds about who they'll vote for tonight. Almost anything could happen.
What comes next?
TalkingPointsMemo has a guide to what you should expect to see following Iowa, depending on which candidate ultimately ends up winning the race. If Romney wins, says TPM, he is likely unstoppable as the nominee. If Paul wins, well, that helps Romney too, because it steals attention from the other candidates who are not Mitt Romney. And if Santorum emerges victorious, that's a big boost for him, but he's still got a lot of work to do. Scenarios in which other candidates win or do better than expected are also addressed.