Let the games begin - marathon US presidential campaign kicks off
Next week's Iowa caucus kick-starts a marathon US presidential campaign and with the likes of Donald Trump centre stage, it won't be dull.
Finally, on Monday, America begins the process of selecting who will vie for the White House in the November election.
It's impossible to be certain of the outcome after all these months of the candidates at first playing nice with each other, and now, in the home stretch of primary season, brawling with a ferocity that Conor McGregor would be jealous of.
The citizens of Iowa will, as always, be the first in the nation to have their say on Monday, when the Iowa caucuses take place. The majority of states elect a candidate via the traditional primary - one citizen, one ballot, quick and easy for the voter - but some states hold caucuses, where citizens come together in appointed precincts to discuss who their chosen candidate will be, and then cast a unified vote. Get-out-the-vote efforts in caucus states are imperative because the gatherings can go on for hours, so active commitment to a candidate is key.
The Republican and Democratic hopefuls have spent a huge amount of time meeting voters in the Midwestern, evangelical state of Iowa during the past year, hoping that a win will fuel their campaigns with a momentum that will carry them to victory, or something close, in the other states. New Hampshire votes next on February 9, then South Carolina on February 20, for Republicans and February 27 for Democrats, and the rest of the states in fairly quick succession as spring rolls in.
So, who's the next president of the United States going to be?
Could it be President Donald Trump? The self-obsessed 69-year-old New York real-estate mogul and reality TV star with the dyed comb-over has shocked his way to the top of the Republican heap by vowing to "make America great again", his signature slogan which covers all those pesky media questions asking exactly how he plans on doing so. Though he has given voters a starting blueprint: he'll ban all Muslims until we figure out "what's going on" with Islamic terrorism, he'll round up and boot out all illegal immigrants, and he'll make Mexico pay for a "beautiful" wall to seal the border up once and for all.
As far as Trump's Republican opponents? "Stupid" and "low-energy" are some of his kinder opinions. The WWE era has truly arrived in American politics thanks to 'The Donald', and Republican voters have responded enthusiastically: one national poll on Wednesday had him leading by 40pc, vastly outpacing his nearest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, at 11pc.
Incredulous as it seems, this time next year it could be a Trump administration preparing to welcome the annual Irish contingent to the White House in March - if he chooses to keep that tradition.
Or could it be President Hillary Clinton? She was the chosen one in 2008, until an upstart named Barack Obama came along.
Clinton (68) is the marginal Democratic favourite again this time around, but eight years have taken a toll in a number of ways: controversy (and an FBI investigation) over the private email system she used while she was Obama's Secretary of State; ongoing Republican fury over the deaths of US diplomats in Benghazi in 2012 at the hands of Islamic militants while she was in charge; and a left-of-centre primary challenger, Senator Bernie Sanders, who at 74 years of age has energised the progressive "youth" wing of the Democratic Party that was so instrumental in securing Obama's victory.
Still, it could well be another President Clinton being sworn-in next January, setting off an historic presidency in numerous ways: America's first female president, the first First Lady turned president, complete with a husband, Bill Clinton, whose role -First Gentleman? - would surely be as out-sized as he remains.
Not even the wisest political minds can say with any certainty who will occupy the White House next January, but one thing is for sure: voters this time around - at least so far - have thrown out the traditional political play-book in favour of a new script, where words like "experience" and "establishment" are taboo.
And one name - Trump - has dominated all since he first announced his candidacy last June with a vow to "beat" every country at every single thing, and to stop Mexicans from exporting their rapists and drug dealers across the US border.
The more outrageous and offensive Trump is, the more he seems to resonate with Republican primary voters, who traditionally veer far right in their viewpoints.
At some point, when all is said and done, there will be instructional books written about Trump's quest for the White House, which many thought would be over and out by now due to his big, politically incorrect mouth.
Instead, after a series of Twitter-fuelled attacks against the Republican "establishment", which loathes Trump, and bizarre alliances with evangelical voters and the working-class whose jobs are being "taken" by immigrants, Trump has rocketed to the top of the Republican heap over such pedigreed candidates as Jeb Bush (George W's brother, who Trump calls a "disgrace"), and telegenic Florida Senator Marco Rubio who, in Trump's estimation, "sweats more than any young person I've ever seen in my life."
Even voters of faith, according to the polls, are willing to overlook that Trump has been married three times - his five children have three mothers - and has expressed support for abortion rights in his past life as a New York personality who hung out with the Kardashians and other celebs with loose moral codes.
None other than the granddaddy of American evangelicals, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, enthusiastically threw his support behind Trump a few days ago, telling his flock: "In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment." (Yes, New Yorkers are howling with laughter.)
If Trump wins Iowa as the polls say he will, then goes on to victory in New Hampshire and dominoes the rest of the states, moderate Republican establishment leaders will have to swallow a large spoon of medicine and get behind his quest for the White House.
If Clinton eventually outpaces Sanders - a likely result, given her strength on a national level - she'll have to do a better job exciting the Democratic base, which will have to turn out in force to seal a victory.
Trump and the Clintons used to be friendly - Bill and Hillary attended Trump's third wedding in 2005 - but all bets are off now. Trump has shown a fondness for throwing the kitchen sink with his persistent reminders about Bill's chequered past with women, and Hillary has called Trump a "dangerous" threat to American security with his anti-Muslim stance.
A Trump Vs Clinton match-up would be an epic encounter, but we're not there yet. Voter volatility is at an all-time high in America, and nothing can be taken for granted.
Primary colours: How the system works
The process to nominate a candidate is usually called the primaries, but there are also caucuses - like in Iowa on Monday. States choose whether they want to hold primaries or caucuses. Most of them hold primaries but states like Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota and Maine use the caucus system.
At a caucus, members of a political party meet in person at an appointed time and location to discuss the candidates and debate their merits. The voting for candidates happens either by raising hands or by separating into groups, with the votes being counted manually. In contrast, a primary is much like a regular election.
The caucus system was the original way in which political parties chose candidates. However, people began to feel that the secret ballot was a more democratic system by the beginning of the 20th Century.
At the heart of the process is the system of delegates. Each state has a certain number that represent it at the national conventions of both the Democrats and Republicans later in the year. It is at this event the party's presidential nominee is chosen. The delegates of each state are "awarded" to one of the presidential candidates. Some states use a winner-take-all approach and award all their delegates to the winner of the caucus or primary in that state. Some states award delegates in proportion to the percentage of votes the candidates receive.
But there are exceptions. Some - "unpledged delegates" for the Republicans, "superdelegates" for the Democratic - are not bound by the results of the caucus or primary in their state. They are free to vote for the candidate of their choosing.