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To get a sense of what it’s like to live in Iowa right now, think back to Canada’s 2015 federal election.

The 11-week race was the longest in Canadian history, and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals spent a total of $43 million on their campaign, including TV, radio and digital ads.

In Iowa, a state with 8 per cent of Canada’s population, the Democratic candidates vying for the presidential nomination have already outspent that – an estimated US$44 million over the last year, or CAD$58 million – on TV ads alone.

That’s not including millions more spent on radio, print and online ads. Or spending in any of the other 49 states.

“People feel bombarded,” Nick Cleveland, a 40-year-old food manufacturing worker from central Iowa who can recite billionaire Tom Steyer’s TV ad off the top of his head and regularly finds his mailbox stuffed full of political flyers, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“It’s the most ridiculous waste of money.”

The 12 Democratic candidates campaigning to take on U.S. President Donald Trump this November will be looking for a break-out moment in Iowa, the first state to cast votes in the party’s primaries. The caucuses begin tonight at 8 p.m. EST, with the first results expected by 9 p.m. EST.

Public polling suggests an extremely tight race with at least four front-runners: former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Other polls suggest Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former tech executive Andrew Yang could have strong showings.

But understanding why Iowa gets so much attention can be difficult.

The state is largely rural and 90 per cent white – hardly a microcosm of the United States. To win the Democratic nomination, a candidate needs to secure a majority of the 3,979 delegates – people chosen to represent the nominee at the party’s convention in July. The magic number: 1,991.

Iowa awards just 41 delegates, or one per cent of the overall count.

The reason for all the spending and attention is simple, according to Wayne Petrozzi, a professor emeritus of politics from Ryerson University.

“They are first. And Americans have loved to see their election campaigns the way they look at horse races and other sporting events. And being first, you think you set the tone, you’re out of the gate, getting momentum,” he said.

“I think it’s all air.”

Iowans don’t necessarily see it the same way. Cleveland said he understands the criticism, but he thinks Iowa is a useful political barometer for a different reason.

“Politically, Iowa isn’t owned by any party,” he said. “If you look at Iowa and what has happened here over the last 30 years, it’s not been just red or blue. We’re considered a purple state for a reason. At any time we could vote for someone else,” he said.

In the past 10 presidential elections, the state has flipped between the two parties five times. Iowans helped elect Trump in 2016, Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008 and George W. Bush in 2004.

Obama’s victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses is widely considered a turning point in his political rise. Cleveland remembers Obama visiting living rooms across the state and says his message of hope motivated him – a registered Republican -- to participate in Democratic caucuses for the first time.

“I think Iowa is a great filter. If you look at the majority of Americans, we’re not left or right. We’re people like me,” said Cleveland.

FRONT-ROW ACCESS

Democratic candidates have toured Iowa since last summer. They’ve flipped burgers at the state fair, knocked doors and even shaved heads in hopes of making a personal impression.

Voters don’t take that sort of access for granted, according to Stephanie Calease, a 34-year-old stay-at-home mom who recently moved to Iowa from Illinois.

“It’s a completely different world,” she said. “There are people who are for or against Iowa being the first in the nation. Being on the ground here, you see a lot of enthusiasm and people who want to be very informed voters. That is the good aspect of it.”

Calease saw nearly every candidate in person, which allowed her to judge them not just on their platforms, but also on her personal impressions. She was finally sold after seeing Buttigieg in person.

“He just blew me away and he was exactly what I was looking for in 2020,” she said. “I just like that he’s pragmatic. When you’re a Democrat who’s been around a lot of conservatives, you learn that you can work with those voices if you don’t go too far to the extreme.”

Despite being an introverted person, Calease felt motivated enough to knock doors for Buttigieg. Besides being inspired by his message, she felt the need to do something to help beat Trump.

“I do not like where our country is at right now, and I decided I couldn’t step back and let it happen,” she said.

Knocking on her neighbours’ doors has given her a first-hand look at what Iowans are feeling ahead of the election. She says many remain undecided.

“They don’t like to commit to someone before they’re confident. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people who make up their minds on caucus night,” she said.

Linda Mitchell Keairns has similar motivations. She’s been knocking doors – also for Buttigieg – every weekend since last November, save for the holidays. She sees a stark divide in engagement amongst Iowans. Some are extremely involved in this election, while others feel disconnected.

“It just depends who they are. There are some people who are very, very passionate about it … other people are just riding it out.”

HOW DO CAUCUSES WORK?

In Iowa, primary voters don’t fill out ballots. Instead, they meet at 1,678 precinct locations -- public spaces such as schools and community centres -- and physically gather in groups to pledge support for one candidate or another. This process is called caucusing.

All voters must be registered Democrats in Iowa, but registration is available at locations on the day of the caucus.

A candidate needs 15 per cent of the room’s vote to remain in the race. If a candidate doesn’t receive that support, their voters can split up and move around the room to back another candidate. Voters who support a viable candidate as their first preference are not allowed to realign.

This process is fluid, and many voters come in with a first and second choice. It can also be noisy, with precinct leaders for each candidate passionately trying to convince undecided voters to walk over to their group.

Caucusing has been criticized for forcing people to physically attend the events – a challenge for people with disabilities, night jobs or those who are on active duty. This year, the party is allowing 87 satellite caucuses that will allow voters to participate virtually.

Delegates are awarded to candidates based on how much support they receive by the end of the night.

WHO WILL WIN?

What could happen tonight remains anyone’s guess. The race remains deadlocked, though some polls have shown Sanders surging ahead of Biden in the crucial final weeks.

Politics professor Wayne Petrozzi expects the top four will be split between Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren.

“The only one who might have a bit of a problem, I suspect, would be Klobuchar,” he said.

“She’s been trying to position herself as a moderate, she’s been shy on the fundraising, and she needs something to begin to improve her fundraising. A win would definitely do that.”

If Klobuchar fails to clinch at least the fifth spot, Petrozzi says, “I suspect she will disappear.”

Cleveland has lingering doubts about the relatively strong polling numbers between the leading progressive candidates, Sanders and Warren.

“I think the progressives are in for a loss. I don’t know anybody who’s even thinking of voting for a progressive,” he said. “I think the younger folks will come out and caucus for Bernie, but I wonder how many will go to that room.”

For what it’s worth, Bernie Sanders won 21 delegates with 49.6 per cent of the Iowa vote in 2016, barely less than Hillary Clinton’s 49.9 per cent and 23 delegates.

After tonight, the political spotlight will swivel to New Hampshire, which will hold the country’s second primary vote on Feb. 11. Only an estimated US$6.3 million has been spent on television ads in New Hampshire, about 14 per cent of the TV-ad spending in Iowa.

Cleveland admits that, while the deluge of ads and campaigning can be overwhelming at times, it’s also kind of nice to be the centre of attention.

“Because other than that, we’re flyover country. We like whenever we get attention every now and then.”