Iowa goes first in the presidential sweepstakes. It’s a pretty silly way to pick a nominee — out of 3 million people in the state, maybe 200,000 will show up at caucuses to vote. Yet the nation’s eyes will be transfixed on Iowa on January 3.

Do we really need to care what happens in Iowa next Thursday? The short answer is “yes.” For why, look no further than M.E. Springelmeyer, whom the Rocky Mountain News sent to Iowa 9 months ago to cover the caucuses. He’s been writing Back Roads to the White House ever since.

In the third of a three part series on Iowa this week, he tackles the question, Why Iowa, asking, “What makes these average Iowans so important? Who gave them all the power? And what is the power?”

Sprengelmeyer traces the history of the Iowa caucuses — which only date to 1972 — and describes the extraordinary efforts the candidates make to grab the crown. As to the first,

According to an authoritative history by the Des Moines Register’s venerable political columnist David Yepsen, the modern caucuses evolved as a reaction to the Democratic Party’s tumultuous convention in Chicago in 1968. The convention, marred by violent anti-Vietnam War protests, left a bitter, not-so-democratic impression of decisions being made by secret cabals in smoke-filled rooms.

“The Democrats adopted a series of rules requiring that plenty of notice be given about county, district and state conventions — and that party members be given plenty of time to file and debate platform resolutions,” Yepsen wrote. Iowa Democrats decided to hold precinct caucuses in late January so there’d be time to winnow down decisions through the counties before the state convention in June.

He credits Gary Hart as the “father” of the current Iowa campaign strategy. Back then, Hart was the campaign for George McGovern. He noticed that Iowa’s caucuses were ahead of New Hampshire’s primary :

Hart spearheaded an aggressive — and unprecedented — ground campaign in Iowa, which borders McGovern’s home state of South Dakota. On caucus night, McGovern couldn’t beat the national front-runner, Sen. Edmund Muskie. But his second-place finish was a major surprise that drew the attention of the few national reporters paying attention. McGovern gained momentum, went on to win his party’s nomination, and an Iowa springboard strategy was born.

In Iowa, the politicians try to personally meet every potential caucus-goer. They open offices in as many counties as their funds will allow. They speak at town hall meetings and high school gymnasiums, even if only a few dozen people show up.

As candidates travel across the state shopping for votes literally one at a time, they have to listen. They have to respond. And in many cases, they’re forced to shape their platforms to match what Iowans want or need — not just what the country as a whole needs. Or else. This is the way representative democracy is supposed to work. Politicians are supposed to listen to people’s needs. And they do. In Iowa, at least, the people can demand to be heard.

Iowa is not representative of the county. It’s neither ethnically or socially diverse. But it’s first. And it’s first in an unusual election year. Consider,

It might take another generation for both the Democratic and Republican party contests to be this wide-open. The last time the race for the White House began without an incumbent president or vice president in the competition was 1952.

Also consider the huge media presence in attendance in Iowa during the next week:

Iowa is like one big square convention center hosting every major Democratic candidate, most of the Republican candidates, and an international media mob expected to reach well past 2,000 by caucus night next Thursday.

I’ll be one of those 2,000 media observers. I leave for Des Moines Monday (just in time for New Year’s Eve) and will stay until Friday, the morning after the caucuses. I’ve got my Iowa press credentials and a reserved spot with an electrical outlet and internet connection at the Iowa Events Center, where the “big board” will be on election night. The board is the first place the caucus results are posted as they come in. I’m also planning on attending a caucus and meeting as many Iowans as I can. I’m also interested in observing and writing about what the Big Media folks are up to.

I’ll be blogging at TalkLeft and at Crooks and Liars, and posting items I think might interest Coloradans here at 5280’s Elevated Voices. I hope you’ll check in often, and if you have suggestions as to what you’d like to read about, you can leave them here in the comments.