Supporters of 11 Democratic presidential candidates across Iowa are huddled in groups hoping their favorite reaches a threshold of support to move on to the second round of the Iowa caucuses.
The caucuses are the first major test in the 2020 presidential election as Democrats look for the one candidate who they hope can stop President Donald Trump from winning another term in November.
Hundreds of thousands of Democrats poured into nearly 1,678 precinct caucuses throughout the state, from tiny churches and community centers and college gymnasium in rural areas to large arenas in heavily populated urban areas like Des Moines, rallying behind their candidates and seeking to deliver enough votes to help their favorites qualify for precious delegates.
It was a night of American democracy in action, with voters spending the better part of a winter evening clustering in groups of supporters for Democrats Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and others in hopes of achieving “viability” to qualify for delegates.
Voters show their preferences by raising their hands or gathering in groups of like-minded supporters of the candidates.
The Democratic candidates are striving to reach what is called the "viability threshold" — the 15% of support needed to move on to the second round. Backers of any candidate who fails to meet that 15% are given a chance to throw their support behind their second choice at each caucus — a process that includes cajoling, horse-trading and seduction before a final statewide count is tallied and a winner declared.
Iowans living outside the state in such places as Florida, Arizona, and even overseas in Paris and Scotland, earlier made their choices in the first-ever satellite caucus.
But the bulk of Monday's contest is occurring in the U.S. heartland in the state of Iowa itself — a predominantly white state with less than 1% of the country's population that is hardly reflective of the nation's growing racial and ethnic diversity. But as is custom, the contest is first on the political calendar during the quadrennial campaign to win a four-year term in the White House.
As such, the Iowa winner could get a boost in other state contests that soon follow in the nominating process, or shove poor Iowa performers out of the race altogether.
Statewide polls of Democratic voters going into Monday's caucus showed a tight contest at the top between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-declared Democratic socialist, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a long-time fixture in Washington political circles who is making his third run for the party's presidential nomination.
The political surveys show two other challengers running close behind the front pair, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a one-time Harvard law professor, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a political centrist and the only gay candidate in the race, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of the neighboring state of Minnesota in fifth.
Many caucus-goers have said they are still undecided and analysts say a few surprises are possible.
Despite all the attention it gets, the Iowa caucus has not always been a reliable harbinger of who will win the Democratic Party nomination.
Bill Clinton had a notoriously poor showing in the 1992 caucus with less than 3% support and wound up winning the White House that November.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won the 2016 Republican caucus, but Trump was the nominee.
Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack says Iowans believe the purpose of the caucus is to narrow the large field of candidates so the rest of the country has few choices but good choices for the primaries to come. The northeastern state of New Hampshire votes next week, with the southern state of South Carolina and the western state of Nevada voting later in February.