Iowa voters will start caucusing Monday at 8 p.m. EST, and the first numbers to watch will be turnout.
The more people show up for the first votes of 2016, the more unpredictable the final result. Should someone win comfortably, it’s expected clear results will be available by about 9:30 p.m. EST. If it’s close there’s no telling when a winner could be apparent. In 2012, the Republican race was so tight that it took till about 2 a.m. EST for Republicans to say Mitt Romney had squeaked by – but when final votes were tallied later, it turned out Rick Santorum was the winner.
In 2008, though, when Barack Obama won the Democratic race and Mike Huckabee won the GOP caucus, results were in much earlier.
Entrance polls will give some indication of where voters are leaning, and those are expected to be available roughly 15 to 30 minutes after the caucuses begin.
In the Republican race, real estate mogul Donald Trump remains the favorite. A new Quinnipiac University poll released Monday had Trump with 31 percent, while Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had 24 percent. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was third with 17 percent.
Among Democrats, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., had 49 percent to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 46 percent.
Sanders’ showing depends heavily on first-time caucus-goers, a difficult number to predict. Republican turnout in the last two caucuses was around 120,000, but Democrats got nearly twice that many in 2008.
Anyone who turns 18 by Election Day can caucus. Voters will head to one of 1,681 precincts. Republicans will take a secret ballot vote. Democrats have a more complex system that requires a candidate to win 15 percent of those present. If not, that candidate’s supporters can choose another candidate – which is why backers of Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland who’s been far behind in polls, will be closely watched.