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Here’s What You Need to Know About the Iowa Caucuses

February 1, 2016, 5:09 PM UTC

Much of the world will be obsessed with the Iowa caucus results on Monday evening, and rightly so. We’re talking about choosing someone for the world’s most powerful and important leadership job. My plea is that, after months of media hype, we should all be informed consumers of the news, and aware of what the results tell us and don’t tell us.

Most people have no idea what a weird, squirrelly, convoluted process Monday’s 3,362 caucuses really are. In fact, most people don’t know the meaning of the numbers that are reported. As you settle down in front of the TV or computer, keep a few key realities in mind:

-The numbers don’t mean what you think. At the Democratic caucuses, attendees don’t vote. They indicate the candidate they support by going to different corners of the room. If a candidate attracts fewer than 15% of the attendees, that candidate’s supporters must move to one of the larger groups. Then, as the Associated Press explains, “Once the groups are determined, the number of ‘votes’ is determined by running the number who support each candidate through a formula that determines final votes based on a county-by-county analysis of Democratic performance in the last governor and presidential elections.” Got that? The number of “final votes,” which is the number reported to the media, is actually the number of delegates who will represent each candidate at a district or county convention.

This year, since Martin O’Malley probably won’t make the 15% threshold in most precincts, and with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders drawing almost equal support, how the O’Malley supporters break for the other two will be crucial. But that’s a number we’ll never know.

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Attendees at the Republican caucuses do vote, usually by paper ballot, and those results are reported. But in past years it has sometimes taken days or weeks for the numbers to be gathered. In 2012, for example, the TV networks reported on caucus night that Mitt Romney had won. Turned out two weeks later that Rick Santorum had won. For this year the Republicans collaborated with Microsoft (MSFT) to create an app (available to both parties) that enables caucus organizers to send results to party headquarters instantly. Whether they’ll use it remains to be seen. There have been years in which some precincts never reported results at all.

-The participants aren’t average people. Voting in a regular primary election is pretty easy; it usually takes a matter of minutes, and polls are open for 12 to 15 hours. But Iowa caucus-goers must show up at a specified time (usually 7 p.m.) and be willing to spend the evening. By the way, much of Iowa faces a 100% chance of snow tonight, 5-8 inches in Des Moines, for example. Caucus-goers, an atypically committed bunch in general, will have to be super-committed this year. A great deal of a candidate’s success reflects his or her ability to organize cars and buses to bring attendees to caucus sites and back.

-The results tell us a little but not a lot. As noted, Santorum won in 2012 but came nowhere near winning the nomination. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008 but soon flamed out; John McCain, that year’s eventual nominee, skipped the Iowa caucuses entirely. Bill Clinton skipped Iowa in 1992 and became president.

Watching election results is America’s favorite spectator sport, so let’s all have fun. But Iowa isn’t a typical state, and its voting procedures are nothing like what voters do elsewhere. In interpreting this year’s great leadership story, let’s keep the Iowa outcome, whatever it may be, in perspective.