DES MOINES, Iowa – Stepping into a polling booth and pulling a lever or pushing a button is too easy for Iowans.
Instead, the state's leadoff presidential caucuses are more of an event, complete with labyrinthine twists and turns that begin a year or more in advance of the chilly winter night when Democrats and Republicans gather separately in their precincts to vote.
Two Iowa professors are helping make sense out of the caucus process that often puzzles voters, candidates and political operatives.
As political science professor Steffen Schmidt puts it: "The Iowa caucuses are really kind of like a novel, there's so much going on."
Schmidt, who teaches at Iowa State University in Ames, is offering an online course about this winter's caucuses that has enrolled students and adults. That online course is open to college students and those not enrolled in the university.
At the University of Iowa in Iowa City, professor David Redlawsk also is teaching courses and a seminar that focus on the caucuses. Among those courses will be an intensive three-week course that starts Dec. 26, just as interest in the caucuses will likely be peaking. That course is also open to students and non-students.
"We'll be stumbling over candidates," Redlawsk said. "It's going to be very, very exciting."
The courses explore what's made the leadoff event such a phenomenon. Students study how polling, interest groups, campaign strategy and the media have helped create the modern-day caucuses that began in the 1970s.
The courses include plenty of bookwork, but students also are encouraged to attend the many campaign events held throughout the state.
The caucuses are Jan. 3 for Iowa Republicans. Iowa Democrats tentatively are scheduled for Jan. 14, but they are expected to move it ahead.
On caucus night, Democratic voters gather in school auditoriums, churches and other meeting halls, dividing into smaller groups based on which candidate they support. Each candidate's supporters then attempt to persuade other party members to switch their allegiance before the voting begins.
Although all the courses offer the big picture, they will also explain the Byzantine details of caucus night, such as the Democrats' rule that requires a candidate at each site to have the backing of at least 15 percent of those gathered for their support to count. If they don't meet the 15 percent threshold, a supporter can pick another candidate or quit the process.
The rule doesn't apply to Republicans, who gather separately from the Democrats. For Republicans, caucusing is more like a straw poll and conducted by secret ballot.
Students offered a variety of reasons for taking the courses.
Mike Juntunen said he enrolled in one of the University of Iowa courses because he's researching how candidates who finish second in the Iowa caucuses have translated that achievement into political gains.
—In 1972, George McGovern finished behind Edmund Muskie in the caucuses, but the strong showing propelled McGovern toward the Democratic nomination.
—In 1980, Ronald Reagan finished second to George H.W. Bush but claimed the GOP nomination. Bush eventually became Reagan's running mate.
—In 1984, Gary Hart finished a distant second to Walter Mondale, but gained momentum for a win in New Hampshire that gave Democratic nominee Mondale a scare.
—In 2004, John Edwards, also a 2008 presidential candidate, finished second to John Kerry, and became Democrat Kerry's running mate.
As head of the student group, Hawkeyes for Edwards, Juntunen said he thinks understanding past elections could help him build support for Edwards.
"I think it helps me explain to people why this election isn't moot, why it is a heavily contested election," he said. "You can make a very compelling argument."
His classmate Sarah Smith, who is enrolled in the same class as Juntunen for university freshmen, said she began volunteering for Rudy Giuliani after a campaign staffer spoke to the class.
"I never knew how to get involved," she said. "Everything just goes hand-in-hand — what you learn in the class is real life, it's so much more important than (what) you can learn in the textbook."
The online course at Iowa State has drawn students from outside Iowa, including Arnie Arnesen, who hosts a radio and TV political talk show in New Hampshire.
Arnesen said she enrolled in the course to better understand Iowa's system and how it relates to New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
"The problem is I can't only watch what's going on in New Hampshire to understand what's about to happen here, because Iowa ends up playing a very critical role in winnowing down the field," she said. "The more knowledge of the Iowa caucus system I get, I (will) get to inform my audience."