The line of Democrats snaked out from the Loras College Fieldhouse, down the long sidewalk, up the stairs and halfway down the block on Alta Vista Street.

At the same time Monday night, a few miles to the west, nearly 1,700 Dubuque County Republicans packed Peosta Community Centre.

It was caucus night, and neither long lines nor forecasts of an approaching blizzard kept Iowans from turning out in record numbers to town centers, schools and restaurants to begin the process of choosing the next president.

Every four years, pundits raise the same arguments about whether it really makes sense to have Iowa kick off this process. The state is not demographically diverse, they say. The process excludes anyone who isn’t available at that particular date and time, they say. True and true. And the process is not particularly efficient, smooth and simple.

Yet there’s something unique and special about the Iowa caucuses, and it is for those very reasons that Iowa has a positive impact on the whole political process.

Iowa is a geographically manageable state for candidates to test the waters of popularity, organization and message. Iowans, for their part, turn out in good numbers to listen to and question these candidates. To use a baseball analogy, Iowa is sort of like spring training.

Between the two parties, about 350,000 Iowans turned out to caucus. That’s pretty impressive for a state of 3 million people. Republicans blew their attendance record out of the water by topping 180,000, a 50 percent increase over 2012. Democrats didn’t climb to the huge numbers of 2008 when 240,000 turned out, but participation was robust nonetheless with more than 170,000.

More than 10 percent of all Iowans gave up a full evening Monday to caucus.

It’s what takes place inside those halls and restaurants and school buildings that adds to the unique environment of the Iowa caucus. It’s fascinating to see citizens jamming the room — such as those who filled the dining rooms at Breitbach’s Country Dining in Balltown, the oldest Iowa restaurant in continuous operation — and speaking from the heart about their favored candidates. They aren’t politicians or polished speakers — just citizens talking to (and then arguing a bit with) their neighbors. You don’t get that with a primary election. That’s why caucuses are different — and special.

Iowans showed the nation on Monday night that they deserve this important role in the process. Hats off to all those voters who took their responsibility seriously and invested their valuable time and perspectives.

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