Let's face it, the U.S. electoral process is screwy. You've got caucuses, primaries and straw polls (all at different times of the year), delegates and conventions and electoral colleges, and none of it makes any sense at all. But since I'm talking about caucuses and why they mean diddly squat, I'll keep on point.
First let's examine the difference between a caucus and a primary:
Caucuses, especially in Iowa, are like down-home get-togethers where people gather at different venues, meet with the different candidates, and decide who they want to support. They then pick delegates to ship off to the various conventions.
Primaries, are the statewide elections held at official precincts where people get to vote in secret.
While some states use caucuses to determine who their presidential nominee will be, others use either primaries or a combination of both, and the dates for the caucuses, primaries and conventions span months.
The reason why there is so much frenzied interest in the Iowa Caucus is that Iowans are the first ones in the election process to choose, not that their choices make much of a difference in who eventually winds up gaining the nomination. After all, since 1976 only three Iowa GOP caucus nominees have actually won. Gerald Ford got that honor in 1976, then Bob Dole twenty years later in 1996, and finally George W. Bush in 2000. In fact, John McCain came in 4th, by a very slim margin. And Iowans still have the 99 county elections, state elections and finally the national convention to deal with.
The major problem with caucuses is that people like Ron Paul have the ability to galvanize the youth who have all the free time to bus it over to Iowa and spend the 3 plus hours it takes to hash it out. The more diehards you have show up, the more likely it is you will win. I still have no clue what the bizarre appeal is to his mostly young followers who cleave to him like a calf to its mama's teat. But he is most definitely popular.
I look at the Iowa caucuses this way, it might be nice to win Iowa, which is a little like winning the Golden Globe or SAG award for Best Actor, but it's the coveted Academy Award that matters most.
The schedule of 2012 electoral events .