It all begins with the Iowa caucuses in February. Iowa is not representative of the United States or of the Democratic party because Iowa is much more rural and far more white than the nation and of all the voters who will participate in the Democratic party primaries nationwide. The caucuses are unique and not really all that democratic, but they give as an early indication of who might win the nomination and they tend to narrow the field. Iowa has given big boosts to what seemed to be long-shot candidates such as George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

Iowa was one of only ten states in 2016 to still hold caucuses, a system of local precinct meetings where voters decide openly, by show of hand or by breaking into groups, which candidates they support and pick delegates who will vote at the state convention for each party. The other states conduct primary elections in which voters cast secret ballots for their candidates, and the results are used to work out the configuration of delegates at the nominating conventions. It looks like the number of presidential caucus states will shrink for 2020. Colorado, Maine, and Minnesota have already passed legislation to hold primaries instead of their traditional caucuses. Utah, Nebraska and Washington may also switch to primaries instead of a caucus system.

This is how caucuses were conducted in Iowa in 2016: 1,683 Democratic caucuses were held at more than 1,000 locations, such as school gyms or community centers. After a call to order, a caucus chair and secretary were elected. Then supporters spoke and made the case for their candidates. Caucus participants separated into groups in corners or parts of the room for their candidates of choice. The caucus chair added up how many supporters are in each cluster. Each presidential candidate had to meet a threshold of 15 percent of those present. If a candidate was determined not to be viable, that candidate’s supporters had to choose another candidate. During this re-caucusing process, supporters from the viable candidates try to persuade the non-viable candidate’s voters to move to their side. Once the re-caucusing is finished and all remaining candidates are deemed viable, the numbers are tallied. In 2016, results were sent to party headquarters using an app. Based on the percentages won by each candidate, delegates and alternates are selected to attend county conventions. Lastly, the caucus elected folks to various committees and platform resolutions were introduced and voted on. In 2016, the 1,683 precinct caucuses produced 11,065 delegates to county conventions. The county conventions selected delegates to the congressional district conventions and then the state convention. Eventually 44 national convention delegates were chosen at the state convention.

Changes are probably coming to the Iowa caucus system for 2020. The “Unity Commission” formed by the Democratic National Committee is recommending historic changes in the way Democrats conduct the Iowa Caucuses. The Iowa Democratic Party would be required to let people who cannot attend the neighborhood meetings on Caucus Night cast their presidential preference vote. The Iowa Democratic Party will have to figure out how this is to be done. Nebraska and Wisconsin allow for absentee participation in their caucuses. The other major change Iowa Democrats may be forced to make would be to report raw vote totals for each presidential candidate. That’s how Iowa Republicans report their Caucus Night results, but Democrats have a different reporting process for each precinct. It disqualifies candidates who lack at least 15 percent support and then calculates how many delegates each candidate sends on to county meetings.

Troy Price is the chair of the Iowa Democratic party. “Bleeding Heartland” is a good blog about Iowa Democratic politics.

At least one 2020 Democratic candidate is already hard at work in Iowa. Maryland congressman, John Delaney is spending a lot of time in Iowa and he says he will hold 400 to 500 events in the state before January 2019 — the point at which the race for president is traditionally thought to begin.