The Iowa presidential caucuses begin at 8 p.m. Eastern time (5 p.m. Pacific) at more than 1,600 sites across the state. The caucuses vary in length; small gatherings can be over in minutes, larger ones can last up to two hours.

The first results are expected at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, with most results in hand by 11 p.m. Eastern (8 p.m. Pacific time).

Seven Democratic candidates are mounting competitive campaigns in Iowa. They are Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; former Vice President Joe Biden; Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusets; former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; former tech executive Andrew Yang and former hedge fund investor Tom Steyer.

There will also be Republican caucuses, which President Donald Trump is expected to win handily.

Polls show an exceptionally fluid race among Sanders, Biden, Warren and Buttigieg, with Klobuchar trailing.

There are 41 Democratic delegates up for grabs, a tiny number considering a candidate needs 1,991 delegates to win the party’s presidential nomination. But Iowa is all about political momentum heading into the next contest: the New Hampshire primary Feb. 11.

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A unique balloting system, a muddled race

With many voters split along ideological and generational lines, and others still undecided because they were not sure who would be their best chance to defeat Trump, any of the four leading candidates could plausibly win Iowa.

Those four candidates — Sanders, Warren, Biden and Buttigieg — campaigned across Iowa over the weekend, making their final pitches to voters and, in some cases, reigniting divisions that had surfaced in the party four years ago. Sanders, considered the one to beat based on recent polling, drew most of the fire.

Much of the uncertainty heading into Monday night stems from the unique nature of Iowa’s caucus system. Attendees can rally behind another candidate on a second ballot if their preferred choice does not claim 15% in the initial round.

It is those voters who will play the most pivotal role Monday. Sanders, for example, might garner the most overall votes on the first ballot, but if one of his rivals could amass enough support from the lesser candidates, he or she could vault past Sanders on the realignment round.

The key question, then, is where do the backers of Klobuchar, Steyer and Yang, who have all been polling below 15%, go on that second vote?

But it gets even more complicated. Caucusgoers can also stand as “Uncommitted.” So those most determined fence sitters could emerge as power brokers on the second ballot.

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Welcome to Iowa — and hang on.

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, visits with people in the audience after speaking at a Get Out the Caucus event at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020.  (Gene J. Puskar / The Associated Press)
Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, visits with people in the audience after speaking at a Get Out the Caucus event at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, Iowa, Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. (Gene J. Puskar / The Associated Press)

Buttigieg: ‘Everything comes down to today’

It’s been a year since Buttigieg launched his presidential campaign and 10 days since he’s been stumping nonstop in the run-up to Monday night’s Iowa caucuses.

“Happy caucus day,” the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told a crowd of excited supporters at a canvass kickoff Monday morning in West Des Moines.

“It feels great out there. I don’t even know what time it is. We’ve done so many interviews. Everything comes down to today. All of the dates, all of the appearances, all of the conversations with friends and neighbors.”

No candidate has more riding on Iowa’s result than him.

Buttigieg spent much of the last week stumping in rural Iowa, drawing large crowds in sparsely populated counties that carry a disproportionate share of the state’s delegates. He’s built a strong organization to ferret out every supporter across the state: in rural Jasper County on Sunday, Buttigieg had 75 volunteers canvassing for him while Biden had just two, officials said.

Buttigieg has bet his campaign on a strong finish. If he places first or second — or at least ahead of Biden — he will have an argument to be the party establishment’s alternative to Sanders.

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But if not, he could be in big trouble.

Buttigieg has spent nearly all of his campaign war chest on Iowa and New Hampshire, with another $2 million on TV ads in South Carolina, where his poll numbers have barely budged. It has left him being outspent on Iowa TV in the final week before the caucuses. If he does not post a strong finish in Iowa, his path becomes far narrower.

On Sunday, Buttigieg predicted “victory” but, given several opportunities to define what it meant, declined each time.

“Let’s face it, we need a very strong finish here in Iowa,” he told reporters in Coralville. “This is our chance to show versus tell that we’re building the organization that can go on to defeat Donald Trump.”

Sanders and Warren still circling each other

One of the more consequential sub-primaries of Monday’s contest is the race between Warren and Sanders to become the progressive standard-bearer in the 2020 contest.

Sanders and Warren recently clashed over a private remark that she said he had made last year — telling her a woman could not win the White House — and that he denied. Although she played down the matter during the January debate, she confronted Sanders afterward in a scene captured on camera and a hot mic.

“You called me a liar,” Warren told Sanders.

That moment was the exception. For the most part, these two leading liberals in the race have stayed away from direct confrontation for the last year. That has partly been strategic. Sanders has a solid base, and Warren has sought to first grow her support without trying to take directly from him.

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But make no mistake: The path to the Democratic nomination for both candidates involves eventually consolidating the base of the other, if not driving them from the race entirely.

And the first part of that primary within the primary begins Monday.

Whoever finishes first in Iowa will then have momentum — and likely a financial boost — heading into New Hampshire and beyond.

Why voter age could be a factor

One of the biggest predictors of who will finish first, second and third will be not just who votes but also how old those voters are.

Age has been one of the biggest divides in the 2020 race, especially between Biden and Sanders. Young voters have generally swooned for Sanders, and old voters have flocked to Biden.

The New York Times/Siena College poll last month showed Sanders, 78, carrying a sizable 40% of voters younger than 30. That was the highest percentage for any candidate for any age group. Support for the Vermont senator declined in each successively older age bracket down to single digits — 9% — among those who are 65 or older.

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It was the opposite story for Biden, 77, who captured a 32% plurality of those who were 65 or older. His worst group was voters younger than 30. He carried only 10% of such voters.

The same split has been present in poll after poll. The Des Moines Register/CNN poll in early January showed Sanders with 38% of voters younger than 50 — and Biden with 37% of voters older than 65.

Typically, older people are more reliable voters. But caucuses are different, and much of the differences in polls that show different leaders can be traced to different projected models of who will actually turn out Monday.

County chairs predict a Sanders victory

The leaders of Iowa’s county Democrats are a group that has long been in search of a candidate to fall in love with. Since 2018, they have harbored suspicions about septuagenarian candidates and have longed for somebody fresh and new.

And now many of them think that Sanders, a member of Congress for three decades, is going to win the Iowa caucuses.

In conversations last weekend with 24 of 99 county chairs, 14 said they believed Sanders would place first in Monday night’s caucuses. Six predicted Biden would win, while four said they still could not say who would win.

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“I suspect that Bernie will end up in first place, as the polling indicates,” said Nathan Thompson, party chairman in Winneshiek County. “It’s consistent with what I’ve seen in northeast Iowa.”

Several acknowledged that their favorite candidate was not likely to win.

Marjie Foster, the Decatur County chairwoman, said she planned to caucus for Klobuchar but predicted she would finish behind Sanders and Buttigieg.

Terry Kocher, the Humboldt County chairman, said he expected Biden to win but was hoping that Buttigieg, for whom he will caucus, does well.

And Rachel Bly, a co-chairwoman in Poweshiek County east of Des Moines, predicted a split decision, with one candidate taking the most delegates and another winning the most raw votes.

“Sanders has pockets of support, but won’t necessarily carry the rural areas or get delegates in as many places as some of the others,” she said. “He may win the numbers game, but not the delegate game.”

Will candidates drop out after Iowa?

Iowa traditionally winnows the field, extinguishing the hopes of more than one candidate. But with so many Democratic hopefuls dropping out in the lead-up to the caucuses, few in the party expect to see more than one contender to quit after Monday night. And even that may be overstating it.

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With each of the major candidates having already qualified for the debate Friday in New Hampshire, and the state’s primary taking place on the following Tuesday, the challengers will likely want to at least give that state a shot.

So what will be the impact of Iowa? It will reward the winner, giving him or her a shot of momentum and a burst of contributions.

But the bigger effect of the caucuses this year could be who they hurt.

Klobuchar has been to all of Iowa’s 99 counties and needs a strong showing to continue in the race; Buttigieg has surged with the state’s heavily white electorate but without a solid performance may not be able to find his footing in more diverse states later this month; Warren has spent considerable time in the state and also needs liftoff here because of her relatively weak standing in the coming states.

And Biden will go on if he finishes out of the top two in Iowa, but he will have missed his best early opportunity to take command of the race — and may find it hard to find his footing in New England, home to two of his rivals.