This year, with a dozen Democrats in contention, there are at least two scenarios in which the Iowa result could definitively shape the way the Democratic race unfolds.
One of them is if former vice president Joe Biden pulls off a convincing victory. An Iowa win, coupled with Bidens durable lead in the national numbers, could position him as all but unstoppable going forward.
Another would be a big win by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is enjoying a surge in the latest polls. The contest would then become a scramble within the party to find an establishment figure who can stop Sanders. One possible beneficiary might be former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is spending staggering sums across the map to put into place a campaign strategy that would kick into gear when Super Tuesday arrives in early March.
What seems at least as likely as either of those outcomes, however, is that Iowa yields more of a muddle, producing a relatively close finish among the top three or four contenders. Complicating everything this year is a new set of party rules, which have the potential to add more confusion.
Iowa doesnt seem like the ideal place for Democrats to start their shopping for a nominee. The states registered Democrats are neither a cross-section of the United States nor representative of an increasingly diverse party that needs more young voter participation to win. According to data collected by L2, a private firm that maintains a National Voter File, nearly 80 percent of Iowas Democrats are white; their median age is 55 years old.
Some party officials are predicting that turnout will break records. But even if it does, the numbers will still be small in overall terms. In 2016, only about 1 in 4 registered Democrats participated.
One reason is that the caucus process itself is quirky and time-consuming.
Heres how it works: At 7 p.m. Central time on Monday, Feb. 3, Democrats will gather in 1,678 caucus sites across the state places such as school cafeterias, churches and libraries. For the first time, the party will also set up 90-plus satellite locations to accommodate people who work night hours or who have disabilities that prevent them from getting to regular caucus locations. Some satellite locations are also being set up for eligible Iowans in other states or overseas.
After a bit of speechmaking, caucusgoers will break into groups according to which presidential candidate they support. Any contender who fails to get at least 15 percent of those in attendance is deemed nonviable; his or her backers will get a chance to join the supporters of their second choice.
All this takes awhile. Then comes some messy math, which just about nobody understands and can involve occasional coin flips to pick winners when the vote counts result in fractional outcomes. At the end of the evening, party officials will allocate delegates to the state party convention according to the individual caucus results. The 2016 result was the closest ever, with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton receiving 49.8 percent of delegate equivalents and Sanders getting 49.6 percent.
This time around, and for the first time, the Iowa Democratic Party will also announce how many actual votes each candidate received in the two rounds of caucusing.
The move, which comes in response to complaints of unfairness from the Sanders campaign after 2016, is designed to make the whole process more transparent.
But it could actually create a new kind of chaos.
It opens the potential for a split, electoral college/popular vote kind of situation. One candidate might come out ahead in delegate totals which is the traditional definition of winning in Iowa while another runs up the highest overall tally of votes across the state. No doubt both would claim to be the victor.
Or the candidate who has the most votes in the first round might fall behind in the subsequent one, when supporters of nonviable contenders move to their second choices.
All of which could call more uncomfortable attention to the real issue: Iowas cherished and increasingly indefensible spot at the front of the campaign calendar.
If turmoil turns out to be all that Iowa has to offer Democrats this year, the loser may end up being the Hawkeye State itself.
Read more:
Jennifer Rubin: Why Iowa is so complicated
Paul Waldman: The Iowa caucuses are a crime against democracy
Karen Tumulty: Trump took aim at kids nutrition. He picked the wrong food fight.
David Byler: Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama want to stop Bernie Sanders. Can they actually do it?
Jennifer Rubin: An open letter to Iowa caucus voters