(CBS) – The nation’s first presidential primary contest, the Iowa Caucuses, set for February 3, and it could set the tone for the rest of the election season. The stakes are high for Democratic candidates competing in a crowded field.
Drake University students in Des Moines held a mock caucus last week to practice, putting their candidate preferences and skills of persuasion to the test.
“This will happen in 1,678 rooms all across the state next Monday (Feb. 3),” said Iowa Democratic Party Chair Troy Price.
The tradition dates back to 1972, when Iowa caucuses became the first nominating contest, and it’s a format that thrives on passion and grassroots organizing.
Caucus-goers will gather in precinct locations across the state on Monday night, from gyms to church basements. Attendees divide into groups based on their top choice for President. Supporters of individual candidates give speeches and try to convince undecided voters to join their corner.
To be viable on caucus night, a candidate needs the support of at least 15 percent of attendees.
In Drake’s mock caucus, only Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg met that threshold in the first round, leaving other candidates’ supporters scrambling.
While some were persuaded to shift their support to a different candidate, others including some Sanders supporters chose not to realign with another campaign.
“We end with 66 in Buttigieg and 87 in Warren. Electing 9 delegates, that would have given 4 to Buttigieg and 5 to Warren,” said Tanner Halleran, a mock caucus leader reading the results.
The other candidates came up empty-handed in this exercise, but Monday will be the real test for the campaigns.
“What the caucuses do is provide a glimpse into unexpected strengths and unexpected weaknesses. That’s what the caucuses reveal. It’s up to the rest of the country to decide what to do with that information,” said Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford.
Professor Dennis Goldford says the key question candidates will have to answer is about their expectations.
“Did you do better than expected, or worse than expected,” he described.
Iowa has launched Democratic candidates from Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, picking two presidents and seven eventual party nominees in contested White House races.
The Iowa State Democratic Party will be expanding satellite caucuses this year, in an effort to expand accessibility. There will be a total of 87 satellite locations, compared to just four in 2016.
Another change this year will lock in caucus-goers who have selected a viable candidate, so they can no longer move to support another candidate.
President Trump will face his own test with Iowa’s Republican caucus-goers, even as GOP leaders in states such as South Carolina, Nevada, Kansas, Arizona, and Alaska opt-out of holding primary contests.
In addition to selecting presidential preference, the caucuses will begin the selection process of delegates and provide an opportunity for political party organizing.
For more on what a caucus is, visit CBS News.