Every four years, usually just after the New Year, all eyes turn to Iowa. The news media converge -- light bulbs flashing, microphones clipped to their lapels -- to tell Americans which way the Midwestern state is voting for the nation’s next president.
The Iowa Caucus is a sometimes confusing presidential nominating system that some believe has major weight in tipping the scale in one candidate’s direction or the other. But politicos and reporters aren’t the only ones getting into the mix. Many Iowa colleges and universities are using the presidential spectacle in their backyard as a vehicle for civic engagement and research.
Some are placing their presidential bets, some are cataloging reactions to Michele Bachmann’s gaffes, and others are analyzing the presidential propaganda.
The Dow can plunge at any moment. NASDAQ can ping pong from high to low in just a day. The stock market is no sure thing.
The University of Iowa's market is no different. Rick Perry is plunging at the moment, and Bachmann has ping ponged around the rankings. Herman Cain is on a surprising uptick in just the last two weeks.
The university’s Iowa Electronic Markets  (IEM) have been pitting political candidates against one another in a real money political prediction market since 1988. Anyone interested, and with cash to spend, can invest from $5 to $500 in the market, pinning hopes on any number of candidates. This year, the markets are tracking the 2012 races for president , the Republican nomination  for president, and U.S. Congressional majorities .
The Republican nomination market is split into the overall national nominee and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses, a coveted prize for any candidate hoping to secure the presidency. The IEM, in addition to paying out cash to the smartest, or perhaps luckiest, investors, is used as a research and educational tool, just one of many ways Iowa professors and instructors are using the presidential spectacle right in their backyard as a vehicle for civic engagement and research.
The IEM’s ticker looks a little different from the ones flashing in New York’s Times Square. For example, the ticker for the Iowa Caucus for the Republican presidental nomination market reads: IA_BACH 0.106 (Bachmann trading at about 11 cents); IA_ROMN 0.735 (Mitt Romney trading at 74 cents); and IA_Perry 0.326 (Perry trading at about 33 cents).
Right now in the Republican caucus, available assets include Bachmann, Cain, Newt Gingrich, Perry, Ron Paul, Romney and “rest of field.”
Joyce Berg, IEM director and professor of accounting, explained that each asset is worth up to $1 and the Iowa markets function like any other market. “Buy low and sell high” is the goal, she said.
The markets’ fluctuations  are fueled, oftentimes, by media coverage. When New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie recently announced  that he would not be running for president, the price of the “rest of field” stock asset dropped dramatically, going from about 20 cents to 5 cents in just a day or so, Berg said.
And when The Washington Post reported  on the former name of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s family ranch, the candidate’s market price plummeted. Perry and Romney had been neck and neck until the investigative piece ran this month, she said.
The amazing thing, Berg said, is that the markets -- sometimes confused for a different way of polling public perception -- are on average 75 percent more accurate than most voter polls.
And the markets are a one-of-its-kind experiment. It is illegal to bet on elections in the United States, but the university has a special exception from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission because, Berg said, it is used as a teaching and research tool. Students track the IEM for classes and others are doing research that incorporates the markets’ numbers .
With the Republican caucus set for Jan. 3, it is clear that the event will retain its status as one of the first big tests for any political candidate. Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor, said the caucus forces candidates to get out in the street, knocking on doors and shaking hands. “They talk directly with people and have that campaign bubble later on,” he said.
Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University, is teaching an online course about the caucus that he built from scratch. About 300 students are currently enrolled and it is basically a Iowa Caucuses 101, explaining everything from the differing Republican and Democratic structures to the long history of the nominating event to critiques of and reasons for the caucus.
“There are some who will find their Waterloo in Iowa,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt rebuffs accusations some have thrown Iowa’s way. For example, some have said Iowa is “much whiter, much older” than other states in the country, making it less than desirable as the first litmus test for the presidential nomination process. But Iowans, he said, are much more than that -- they come to the table with high expectations, with on-the-ground, grass-roots politics ranking atop the list of priorities for most Iowans.
“We winnow out candidates who either don’t have the staying power or stamina or nerve or fire in their belly to run for president. So they start talking about running for president and they say, ‘Oh, I have to start in Iowa and kiss little pigs and go to all these cafes?’ ” He said. “It saves the rest of the country the pain of having the people who aren’t going to be very good and tromping around and annoy them, so we let them come here and annoy us.”
Barbara Trish, a Grinnell College political science professor, said the department hosts a class about the politics of sport. At the end of the semester, students are going to flip that around -- “the sport of politics” -- and “look at politics as a sport with the horse race surrounding the caucuses being our primary example.”
Iowa researchers have used the caucus as a window into predicting the outcome of the national nominations for president and the ways in which Americans perceive the candidates.
Caroline Tolbert, University of Iowa political science professor, was the co-director of the Hawkeye Poll from 2007-2009. During her tenure as co-director, the Hawkeye Poll was the first to show Barack Obama had the edge on Hillary Clinton as the caucus neared, a prediction that ran against the grain of every other poll and media forecast out there. Nearly all the national polls had Clinton edging Obama out. It also pinpointed Mike Huckabee as a strong contender for the caucus nomination before he gained any strong national support as a front runner.
The poll is now run primarily by students who pinpoint “likely caucus voters” in Iowa and surveys them. The polls are released in October and November.
“When our Hawkeye Polls in ‘08 showed Obama tied with Clinton in the Iowa caucuses, it was the lead story on Google news for a day,” Tolbert said. “For undergrad students at a Big Ten university to create knowledge that is getting information inside the beltway and into the mainstream news is a good place to be.”
Tolbert is co-author of Why Iowa?, and she said Iowans have a disproportionate impact in picking a president because they often are first and the media attention is so intensive in the aftermath. This time around, she said Romney looks strong going into the caucuses, but lost a bitter contest with Huckabee last time around. She said Perry has an opening to snatch some positive popular opinion in Iowa.
But for now, she said, it’s important for her as a professor to use learning opportunities, like the caucuses, wherever they may lie.
“Whether you are a marine biologist by the ocean or people here in Iowa with the caucuses,” it’s important to “help these students critically think and seek answers when there isn’t an apparent answer,” she said.
Trish, at Grinnell College, is following up on a caucus project she began in 1996, which was the last time there was a competitive GOP contest and an uncompetitive Democratic race in Iowa. She is posing the question: How much does campaign organizing matter in terms of a positive outcome? She said the difficult thing to quantify this time will be all the organizing that is now done online, with the advent and prevalence of social media.
“The conventional wisdom is that to succeed in Iowa you need to organize,” Trish said. “But in a nutshell, organization doesn’t matter in the way we think it does but maybe the perception that it matters is still important.”
Also searching for answers is Dianne Bystrom, the director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics .
They will be looking at the quantity of the media coverage and see if there is any correlation with polling numbers. Bystrom said she has done research on every woman who has run for president since Elizabeth Dole in 2000. The data has been fairly consistent since then, Bystrom said, with women more often receiving negative coverage and less coverage overall.
Donna Hoffman, the political science department head at the University of Northern Iowa, is working on a study to see if the stereotypes of Iowa Republicans who attended the Ames Straw Poll  actually ring true. So far, it’s looking like it, she said. Iowa Republicans who commit time to take part in the poll are more likely to express favorable views of the Tea Party and to be evangelical Christians.