Iowa: start of the US election year: everything you need to know

Iowa regularly becomes a test balloon in the presidential election campaign. The first internal party primaries will take place here. They are ushering in the election year – this time under special conditions.

It could be the coldest US primary in history in Iowa. The weather service expects not only “extreme” and “life-threatening” icy winds to continue on the day of the vote on Monday, but also low temperatures of around minus 25 degrees. The small state in the American Midwest is the venue for the Republicans’ first-ever vote on their presidential candidate. It’s the start of the election year – the presidential election is taking place on November 5th. But the road to the White House is long and complicated.

Incumbent Joe Biden is likely to run again for the Democrats – he has no serious competition in his party. Among Republicans, the most prominent candidates are former US President Donald Trump, former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. All eyes are on her in Iowa right now. The winter storm has already thrown the election campaign into disarray in the last few days, with Trump and Co. canceling a number of appointments.

The frosty winter weather could also have an impact on voter turnout on Monday evening (local time). But why is the vote so important – and what happens afterwards? The most important questions and answers about the US election at a glance:

How do the parties choose their presidential candidate?

It is not the party leadership, but the base that chooses its candidate for the presidential election. The primary election voting process is complex and varies from state to state. The two major parties vote on the delegates who will then choose their candidate for the White House at the nomination party conferences in the summer. Voting takes place in the 50 states, the capital district and the overseas territories.

The Republican delegates will then meet in July in the metropolis of Milwaukee. To win, a candidate must gather at least 1,215 delegates behind them. Unlike the Republicans, the process this year is less exciting for the Democrats. The 81-year-old Biden should secure the necessary votes at the nomination party conference in Chicago in August without any major problems. He has internal party competition from author Marianne Williamson and Congressman Dean Phillips – but they are far behind in polls.

The Republicans also have a clear favorite in Trump – but the race here is a lot more exciting. Because it is also a question of whether the 77-year-old can meet the high expectations placed on him in the votes with good results. And even if it is considered absolutely unlikely, at least at the moment, it cannot be ruled out that Trump will somehow end up falling over the numerous charges against him. It is also interesting to see who will prevail in second place: Haley, who is considered at least a little more moderate and who, according to observers, is eyeing the post of Vice President, or the ultra-conservative DeSantis, who has recently lost significantly in polls.

Why is the Iowa caucuses so important?

The state is numerically of little importance for the candidate selection – the Republicans only have 40 delegates up for grabs here. But those who do well here can count on a tailwind in future votes. The decision is not made at polling stations, but at small party meetings, so-called caucuses. They take place in the evenings – in very different places such as churches or community halls. Voters generally have to appear in person. The events are organized by the parties.

Voting in Iowa is secret and there is usually no fixed list of candidates. Voters simply write the name of their favorite on the ballot paper. However, the arctic temperatures could deter some party supporters from actually voting. It is questionable who benefits from this. Because Trump leads in polls by more than 30 percentage points, his supporters could consider his victory a foregone conclusion and stay away from the vote. Haley and DeSantis would benefit from this. During the election campaign, DeSantis in particular focused on the rural state, where many evangelical Christians live. If he does poorly here, it won’t be a good omen for him.

What’s next after Iowa?

Immediately after Iowa, the next vote for the Republicans is just over a week later in New Hampshire. Here, Haley was recently surprisingly close to Trump in polls. If she can achieve a good second place in Iowa, that should give her a tailwind for New Hampshire. After that, there will be further primaries in states such as South Carolina and Nevada. A big milestone in the primary election campaign will be “Super Tuesday” at the beginning of March with primaries in several important states. The race can be decided at any time quickly and long before the party conference in the summer – for example if one or more candidates are eliminated.

Both parties have nominated their candidates – what happens then?

Voters can only vote indirectly on who will be the next president. This happens on November 5th. Your vote decides on the composition of the Electoral College, which then elects the president. In most states it works like this: The candidate who can secure a majority gets all the votes. Americans therefore speak of the principle “the winner takes all”.

What’s the deal with the electors?

The number of electors in a state corresponds to the number of US senators and congressmen sent from there and is therefore roughly based on the number of residents. Electors will vote on December 17th this year. They do this based on the result in their state – in many states the electors would otherwise face a penalty. To become president, a candidate must win at least 270 electoral votes. Because of the indirect electoral system, it is possible for a candidate to receive the most direct votes but still lose the election. The official result will not be announced in Congress until January 6th. The new president will then take his oath of office (“inauguration”) on January 20th at a festive ceremony in front of the Capitol in Washington.

Why is the presidential election so important?

No office in the Western world can hold a candle to the power of the US President. The president is head of state and government as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He has a largely free hand in foreign policy. The president can also make a lot of decisions in many other policy areas – from military operations to the imposition of punitive tariffs and the regulation of immigration and environmental protection. In addition, he can use so-called “executive orders” to intervene, at least temporarily, in policy areas that are otherwise reserved for the legislative function of parliament. But he needs Congress for measures that cost money or are intended to change laws.