Why are hundreds of journalists traipsing around rural Iowa, trying to beat each other to the big story of whether farmers and housewives in Appanoose, Emmet and Grundy counties will vote for Newt, Michelle or Mitt?

Rick Perry campaigns in Iowa

Why does anybody care about Iowa? To folks in California and New York it’s down there somewhere in the ”flyover states” between Manhattan and Hollywood. Many Americans wonder if it should be pronounced “Ohio” and aren’t sure if it’s next to Idaho or Indiana. It’s midwestern, largely rural and agricultural. The name of its state capital, Des Moines, is unpronounceable: Is it Dez-MOYNZ? Or maybe Duh-MOW-een? How about Dee-MOYN?

“During the fall and early winter of every fourth year, the United States turns its full attention to the state of Iowa,” writes Josh Clark for the website HowStuffWorks: “The Des Moines Register newspaper gets the kind of political clout that the Washington Post or the New York Times do when its editors reveal which candidates their paper officially endorses.

“Average Joes and Janes are interviewed by out-of-town national correspondents over coffee and pie in the local diner about what issues are most important to them. And almost every candidate in the presidential race virtually moves to the state to spend months campaigning throughout Iowa.”

Michelle Bachmann meets the press in Iowa

But why Iowa? And what is a caucus anyway?

Every four years, Democrats and Republicans — and for that matter, Libertarians, Greens and most of the other “third parties” — use

caucuses and primaries to select their party’s presidential nominees.

In the past, the appearance was that the choice was made behind closed doors in “smoke-filled rooms” by the party elite at national conventions. Primaries and caucuses are supposed to eliminate that impression — instead giving everyone a voice.

A candidate is chosen from a list of hopefuls. In the primaries, secret ballots are cast and the top candidate wins. In caucuses, the vote is taken in public meetings in living rooms, grade school auditoriums and fire station meeting halls. If a candidate wins a majority of the state primaries and caucuses, his or her national nomination is assured.

However, it’s not always that simple.

The 1924 Democratic convention

In the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, John F. Kennedy was selected on the first ballot. On the other hand at the 1924 Democratic convention in New York, it took 103 ballots over three exhausing weeks to nominate John W. Davis, who then lost to Republican Calvin Coolidge.

At conventions such as the 1924 Democratic event, there can be a deadlock between the frontrunners with some votes tied up by ”favorite son” candidates. For example, in 1932, Oklahoma voted for cowboy philosopher Will Rogers — although he had no chance of winning the nomination, much less the White House. By doing so, Oklahoma got to play “hard to get” — waiting to see what the front-runners would offer for their vote in one of those legendary smoke-filled rooms, behind closed doors.

A parade during the 1956 Democratic convention

Over the years, national conventions have seen a lot of pageantry and theatrics — and not just by the candidates. On the tenth ballot of the

1924 convention, the Kansas delegation unexpectedly threw its votes to California governor William McAdoo. Ecstatic McAdoo supporters led a noisy parade around the vast convention hall holding high the Kansas banner as all the other McAdoo states followed behind – everyone waving pictures of McAdoo and placards and banners proclaiming him ”Democracy’s Hope.” Finally, the chairman’s gavel brought order and voting resumed. Immediately, more chaos ensued as New Jersey threw its votes to New York Governor Al Smith. Another parade erupted with confetti streaming down from the balconies as New York and New Jersey led supporters up and down the aisles while a brass band played “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys are Marching.