For several hours on Monday evening, the world’s attention will focus on the voters of a small, midwestern state with a population of less than half of London.
That’s because after eight months of campaigning, countless debates, blanket media coverage and several drop outs, the American electorate will finally enter the 2016 presidential election. The “phony war” is over. Hostilities will have finally begun.
Yet Iowa is a strange place to start, strikingly unrepresentative of the shifting social or demographic lines that are currently redrawing the country. It’s white, very white -- around 90 percent white, according to a 2014 U.S. census, while much of the state's industry centres on agriculture.
Iowa is also one of only 10 states that still use caucusing for voting. Rather than individuals casting ballots in private booths, caucuses are local group meetings in which voters openly discuss candidates with a final decision usually given by a show of hands.
This takes time and considerable enthusiasm for the democratic process meaning voter turnout is traditionally very low.
The state's status as the first to vote only dates back to the 1970s, but it's a convention now fiercely protected by Iowans. This is due in part to the prestige… but also because of the economic boost the state receives every four years when the world’s media descends.
Later this year at the Democratic and Republican Party conventions, delegates from each state will vote for the eventual presidential nominee.
Iowa has very little impact on this process –- its delegates make up only around 1 percent of the national total. Yet the state can still define the race, propelling a candidate on a trajectory to the White House (Barack Obama, 2008) or bring a campaign to a stuttering halt (Michele Bachmann, 2012).
As Democratic contender Senator George McGovern of South Dakota reflected during the 1972 election, “Iowa is terribly important. It’s the first test in the nation, where we get any test at all.”
As such, America will have a far sharper view on both the Democratic and Republican candidates by Tuesday morning.
Republican Donald Trump has been leading across all national polls since he declared his run early last summer. Should he win in Iowa, his path to the nomination is that much smoother.
A win would also send a strong message to Republican Party leaders and potential donors to his rivals' campaigns: don't waste time or money betting against Trump, he's going to win.
The Republican Party establishment has tried (and hitherto failed) to undercut the businessman's campaign for several months. Should the tycoon leave Iowa with a victory, the establishment may (reluctantly) give his bizarre campaign its backing, reasoning that Trump's coronation is inevitable.
As Professor Scott Lucas, lecturer in international politics, at the University of Birmingham, told the Huffington Post UK, "a Trump victory means that, with his lead in the forthcoming primary states, the rest of the Republican pack are chasing him. More importantly, it means that the Republican establishment are chasing him."
For the Democrats, Bernie Sanders has gained considerable ground on Hillary Clinton in recent months. Should the senator from Vermont win the caucuses, his campaign will go to the next primary states with genuine momentum while the Clinton campaign will be forced to examine its own strategy.
Sanders, however, has a far more difficult path to the nomination regardless of the result, particularly with Clinton likely to be strong in many of the upcoming primaries.
"A Sanders win in Iowa will be a feel-good boost for 'progressive' Democrats who don't just want a Hillary coronation,” Lucas said. “Rest assured that Hillary Clinton will still be the nominee in July on her way to the White House."