So what is a `caucus,' anyway?

THIS APPEARED IN THE 2/8/88 WORLD EDITION It is almost impossible to explain the peculiar American political institution called the Iowa caucus. Its like does not exist elsewhere.

What happens is that on Monday, Feb. 8, registered Iowa Democrats and registered Iowa Republicans meet in each of the state's precincts. Each of these meetings is called a ``caucus,'' an Americanism that was probably borrowed from the language of native Algonquin Indians. The word refers to a conference attended by local leaders of each party. These meetings can last for hours. At the end, they elect delegates to respective party county conventions to be held in March.

At the county conventions, delegates are elected to congressional district conventions, which then elect delegates to state conventions in June.

At most, some 200,000 voters attend the Feb. 8 caucuses out of a state electorate of over a million.

Delegates elected at the Democratic Party caucus are required to identify their presidential preferences. At the Republican caucus, a ``straw vote'' - an unofficial poll taken to determine the group's general opinion - is taken.

The results at the caucuses are not binding on the delegates ultimately elected in June at the state conventions, but they indicate preferences as of February. This produces more journalistic attention than is deserved because it is the first test of voter inclinations. Irrationally, the Feb. 8 caucuses can make or break a budding presidential candidacy.

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