RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We talk a lot about the Iowa caucuses and look ahead to what's going to happen because voters there will be first up in choosing who they want to be president. The Iowa caucuses have been first since 1972.
NPR's Sam Sanders tried to find out why and to figure out why they're called caucuses.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Simple question - why are the Iowa caucuses first? I asked that all across the state of Iowa recently, including at Duncan's Cafe in Council Bluffs.
Do you know why Iowa caucuses are the first in the nation?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, I do not.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know myself why they're number one really (laughter).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I'm not really entirely sure how it came to be that way.
SANDERS: Have you ever caucused?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't think so.
SANDERS: You don't think so?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know anything about this. I'm sorry.
SANDERS: So you don't even know if you've caucused?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't even know what a caucus is to tell you the truth.
SANDERS: Clearly, this calls for an expert - or several.
So first things first, tell me your full name and your title.
DAVID YEPSEN: OK. I'm David Yepsen. For 35 years, I was a political writer for the Des Moines Register.
SANDERS: Yepsen is the Iowa politics writer of record. He helped answer a few questions. First of them being - what exactly is a caucus?
YEPSEN: And a caucus - it's a neighborhood meeting. In fact, the term caucus is thought to be a Native American term - an Algonquin term for meeting of tribal leaders.
SANDERS: It's more than just a vote. People gather and talk about why they're supporting the candidate, and they try to convince other people to support their guy - or gal. The process can sometimes take hours.
I also chatted with Kathy O'Bradovich.
KATHY O'BRADOVICH: Political columnist for the Des Moines Register.
SANDERS: She acknowledges that Iowa didn't really happen on purpose.
O'BRADOVICH: The really important thing to remember about Iowa is not that it's first because it's important. Iowa is important because it's first.
SANDERS: It started in 1968.
O'BRADOVICH: It happened after the 1968 national convention - Democratic National Convention, which was marred by violence over the Vietnam War and racial tension. And the Democratic Party nationally and in Iowa decided they wanted to change their process to make it more inclusive.
SANDERS: Part of that meant spreading the schedule out in each state. Because Iowa has one of the more complex processes, they had to start really early.
YEPSEN: And precinct caucuses would have to be in, my gosh, February.
O'BRADOVICH: And it turned out that they were going to be first in the nation.
SANDERS: Settled that one. Next question - is it fair? Just a warning, there's probably no consensus for this. But Jim Jacobson (ph), at a diner in Iowa City, he said this.
JIM JACOBSON: Is it fair that Iowa goes first? What's fair in politics? I mean, seriously. Yeah, Ok, we're like 97 percent white, and we're really rural, and we don't look like a microcosm of America. But so what?
SANDERS: Let's take that first thing he points out, Iowa's whiteness.
JACOBSON: We're, like, 97 percent white.
SANDERS: Officially, non-Hispanic whites make up 87.1 percent of Iowa's population according to the most recent census data.
But J. Ann Selzer, she says that's actually kind of OK.
J. ANN SELZER: The idea that because Iowans are white and older, they're going to vote for older white people is not borne out. In both parties, candidates of color have often done quite well in Iowa.
SANDERS: Selzer is the top pollster in the state.
SELZER: Well, look at Barack Obama. Jesse Jackson did well. Alan Keyes did well on the Republican side.
SANDERS: Even Jeff Kaufmann, the head of the Iowa Republican Party, he kind of says the same thing.
JEFF KAUFMANN: This is going to be awfully odd, to have a Republican chair suggest you look at what Barack Obama has to say about Iowa. But I'm guessing Barack Obama has no problem with the diversity that we reflect. And I'm guessing if you talk to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, my guess is that they're not going to have a problem.
SANDERS: But there's another issue of race, not just who Iowans are voting for, but which Iowans are voting. Both parties say they're reaching out more to Latinos, Iowa's fastest-growing racial group. But in West Liberty, Iowa, a town that is majority Latino, I met a guy who had actually never even heard of the word.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I don't even understand that word caucus. What does that mean - a cactus or what?
SANDERS: Down the street, same kind of answer.
So you've never heard of the caucuses?
MARIA LUNA: No (laughter).
JACKIE GUZMAN: It's new.
SANDERS: It's new?
GUZMAN: It's new to us, yeah.
SANDERS: Why is it new to you?
GUZMAN: I never heard it, never heard the word.
SANDERS: Until right now?
SANDERS: Wait, I was the first person to tell you the word caucus?
SANDERS: That's Maria Luna (ph) and her daughter Jackie Guzman (ph). Maria owns a shop in West Liberty.
LUNA: Right now, we're in Mangolandia (ph).
SANDERS: I like that. What does that mean?
They sell frozen fruit snacks and other stuff with a lot of mangoes. Luna, the store owner, isn't an American citizen yet, so she couldn't vote in the caucuses, even if she wanted to. But her daughter Jackie Guzman says she can caucus. But she told me that no one has ever come to West Liberty to tell her how. Jackie and her mother Maria think that's wrong.
LUNA: Nobody says anything, and nobody talks about it. And we see no -nothing, then we're not going to be nothing - and do nothing.
SANDERS: Another thing with Iowa, the state has a relatively small population, 3 million in the whole state. And it's very rural. A lot of American voters these days live in big, urban areas.
DANTE CHINNI: When we get to general election next November, about 45 percent of the vote is going to come from places that I call big cities or urban suburbs. That's a lot of the vote. There are none of those in Iowa.
SANDERS: That's Dante Chinni. He's a director of the American Communities Project at American University. I asked him - given those numbers, what state would be ideal?
CHINNI: Georgia, maybe.
SANDERS: For two big reasons...
CHINNI: First of all, you have diversity, a much more diverse state. The other thing that Georgia has is - it has Atlanta.
SANDERS: And when you look at states that have that mix - more racial diversity and a mix of rural and urban, there are actually a few options.
CHINNI: Pennsylvania is a very good option. Colorado is an interesting state. My home state of Michigan - Ohio's a really good one.
SANDERS: But here's a thing - if you look to bigger states for more diversity, you could end up with a caucus state that's actually too big. With Iowa, it's small enough for every candidate to make their way all across the state and advertise on the cheap. Small candidates can compete with the big dogs in Iowa from day one. And there's another thing.
ANDY MCGUIRE: The real reason we're first in the nation now is because of what we do. We take this real seriously.
SANDERS: This is Andy McGuire, head of the Iowa state Democratic Party.
She says Iowans contest a candidate like no one else.
MCGUIRE: You know, we ask really good questions. We ask follow-up questions. We look them in the eye like I am you right now. It's real. It's one- on-one vetting of candidates. Are you for real? Not a TV spot, not money - what's in your heart?
SANDERS: Whether you believe that Iowa voters are better at this, that they deserve the privilege more, it probably doesn't even matter. David Yepsen says we're stuck with Iowa.
YEPSEN: Iowa's first because of inertia (laughter). Most people in the country don't like this process. But the country finds it difficult to agree on an alternative way to do this.
SANDERS: And Iowa really doesn't want to let it go.
Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.