What are the Iowa caucuses and how do they work?

Iowa's caucuses are upon us, which means millions of Americans are going to be talking about it and millions are going to be googling "What is the Iowa caucus?"

The caucuses take place on Jan. 15 and they make the official start to the presidential nomination process. 

It's the first time Republican candidates vying to unseat President Joe Biden in November will face their first real test at the ballot box on Monday. 

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What is a caucus?

A political caucus is just a gathering of people with a shared interest or goal. In Iowa, they manifest as a series of local meetings held throughout the state where participants conduct party business and usually indicate their preference for a presidential nominee to represent their party on the November ballot. 

There will also be an opportunity to select people to serve as delegates to the national party conventions this summer.

When exactly is it?

The Iowa Republican caucuses will be held on Monday, January 15. The caucuses begin at 7:00 p.m. local time, which is 8:00 p.m. ET. Iowa Democrats will also hold caucuses that day, but they will meet only to conduct party business and will not hold a presidential preference vote.

Why is this a big deal?

The Iowa caucuses in the past have launched some unexpected candidates toward the White House.

In 1976, Iowa propelled former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, the little-known one-time peanut farmer. In 2008, the state gave Illinois Sen. Barack Obama his first win over Hillary Clinton, one of the most storied names in Democratic politics.

So both Republicans and Democrats are holding caucuses in Iowa this year?

Technically, yes, but all eyes are really on the Republican side of the table. 

The Republican event will have an immediate impact on the presidential race as the caucuses tend to put the nail in the coffin for dying campaigns. 

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In a departure from previous years, the Democratic caucuses will be held only to conduct administrative party business and to start the process of choosing delegates to the national conventions. 

What's a delegate?

In the context of presidential elections, delegates are individuals who represent their state or community at their party’s presidential nominating convention. 

These delegates choose a presidential candidate to represent the national party in the November general election. They also approve the party’s platform and adopt rules governing the party. 

Delegates tend to be party insiders or activists or early supporters of a particular presidential candidate.

Who you should look out for

81-year-old Biden is expected to win the Democratic nomination. The president faces token opposition from Minnesota Democratic Rep. Dean Phillips and progressive author Marianne Williamson.

Donald Trump, 77, is the party's overwhelming favorite, though he faces several significant GOP challengers, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, 45, and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, 51. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.