Ted Cruz’s meteoric rise, explained – Updated by Andrew Prokop on February 2, 2016, 1:24 a.m. ET

Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty

Xinhua/Yin Bogu via Getty

Yes, Donald Trump lost the Iowa caucuses. But the GOP establishment shouldn’t cheer yet — because someone they hate just as much emerged triumphant.

Ted Cruz has only held elected office for three years. But in that short time, he’s had quite an impact. He’s helped shut down the federal government. He’s wooed power brokers on the religious right. And he’s made a remarkable amount of enemiesin the capital.

Now, this Canadian-born, Cuban-American senator from Texas — who was unknown nationally as recently as May 2012 — has won the first Republican presidential nomination contest.

It’s not yet clear whether Cruz can duplicate his Iowa success in other states. Other recent GOP candidates who have relied on evangelical support, as Cruz did, have stumbled in other regions of the country. And the party elites who so loathe himwill fight hard to impede his rise.

But Cruz is now unmistakably a top contender in the Republican presidential contest. So it’s worth getting up to speed on his background — and on what his meteoric rise would mean for the party.

Cruz rose from an obscure childhood to top Republican elite circles

Rafael Edward Cruz was born on December 22, 1970 in Calgary, Alberta, to an American mother and a Cuban émigré father (making him, by scholarly consensus, an American citizen by birth). Around his fourth birthday, his parents split up — but they got back together a few months later after his father Rafael converted to Christianity and decided to change his life. His mother Eleanor, too, became born-again, and the family moved to Houston, Texas, where Cruz spent the rest of his youth.

By Cruz’s account in his autobiography A Time for Truth, he was a unpopular child, “too competitive and cocky about academics,” and “lousy at sports.” For his first thirteen years, he went by “Felito” (a shortened diminutive of his first name, Rafael). But, as Cruz tells it, “other young children were quite happy to point out” that his name rhymed “with every major corn chip on the market.” Eventually, he decided to go by “Ted” — a nickname he’s used ever since.

Around tenth grade, Cruz realized he was interested in law and politics — and, as he tells it, he became a staunch free market conservative. He joined a group called the Constitutional Corroborators, where he “spent hundreds of hours” studying the Constitution and other founding American documents, and learned economics from a group now called the Free Enterprise Institute. These experiences, Cruz wrote, “combined with my father’s life experiences fleeing oppression and seeking freedom, helped me realize where my passion lay.”

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How Exactly Do The Iowa Caucuses Work? – Updated January 31, 2016 9:20 PM ET Published January 30, 2016 8:08 AM ET

Precinct Chairwoman Judy Wittkop explains the rules during a 2008 Democratic caucus in Le Mars, Iowa.

Precinct Chairwoman Judy Wittkop explains the rules during a 2008 Democratic caucus in Le Mars, Iowa. — Dave Weaver/AP

Iowa’s process of picking their choice for president is complicated. We try to demystify it in this space.

Here are the basics:

What is a caucus and how does it work? 

The short answer:

It’s essentially a neighborhood meeting of sorts — for politically active, like-minded people. Unlike the kind of voting most people are used to — which only takes a few minutes and involves pushing a button or pulling a lever in the secrecy of a voting booth — Iowans have to devote an hour or so of their evenings to the process. The caucuses on the Democratic side are also much more out in the open — everyone knows who you voted for and possibly why. This is why ardency of support is important. That’s because in Democratic caucuses, you don’t vote with your fingers, you vote with your feet. (More on that in our long answer below.) For Republicans in Iowa, the process is much simpler and more orderly. Someone from the campaigns might speak for their candidate, but then voting happens by an informal secret ballot. Think: Folded over pieces of paper passed in and collected.

The long answer:

Democrats: 1,683 Democratic caucuses will be held at more than 1,000 locations. They start at 8 p.m. EST and can last an hour or more. There are 44 delegates to the national convention that can be won through this process, which takes months. None are assigned on caucus night. Note: Eight more unpledged party leaders and elected officials get to go straight to the national convention from Iowa. They don’t have to go through the state’s complicated delegate selection process — and they can vote for whichever candidate they want at the convention. Because of that power, they’re colloquially referred to as “superdelegates.”

Here’s what happens on caucus night:

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Presidential primaries set to begin with Iowa caucuses – January 30, 2016 10:53AM ET

The long and sometimes arcane ritual of electing the next U.S. president begins on Monday in more than 1,100 schools, churches and libraries across Iowa, a state that wields political influence far greater than its small size.Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at Jan 31, 2016 3.45

After more than a year of up-close and personal evaluation of the candidates, Iowans will gather with their neighbors on what promises to be a cold wintry night to kick off the state-by-state process of picking the Republican and Democratic nominees for the Nov. 8 presidential election.

The starring opening-night role of the largely rural Midwestern state in the presidential drama, now four decades old, is a source of pride for Iowa voters, who spend months evaluating the candidates, looking them in the eye and asking questions.

“Iowans see it as a great privilege and a great gift. They take their role very seriously,” said Tom Henderson, chairman of the Democratic Party in Polk County, home to Iowa’s biggest city, Des Moines.

The caucuses will begin on Monday at 7 p.m. CST, and results are expected within two or three hours. Most gatherings will be in schools, community centers or other public locations, although at least two Republican caucuses will be in private homes and one Democratic caucus will be held at an equestrian center.

Turnout varies by community, with up to 1,000 people typically gathering in cities like Des Moines, while a few dozen or less may gather in more sparsely populated areas.

The state Republican and Democratic parties run their caucuses separately, although in some areas they hold them in different parts of the same building. Republicans will have more than 800 caucus sites, and Democrats will have about 1,100.

The two parties also have different rules. Iowa Democrats gather in groups by candidate preference in a public display of support, a tradition that can allow for shifts back and forth. If a candidate does not reach the threshold of support of 15 percent of voters in a caucus needed to be considered viable, that candidates’ supporters are released to back another contender, leading to another round of persuasion.

Republicans are more straightforward. They write their vote privately on a sheet of paper that is collected and counted at the site by caucus officials. A surrogate or volunteer from each campaign may speak to their neighbors in a last-ditch plea for support, adding to the uncertainty going into the process.

Neither party is offering voter turnout estimates this year, although many Iowans predict the Republicans will surpass the 121,503 who turned out in 2012. In the last contested Democratic caucus, in 2008, excitement over Barack Obama’s candidacy spurred a record turnout of 239,872.

Iowa, the 30th most populated state, and tiny New Hampshire, which holds the second nominating contest on Feb. 9, have traditionally served as early filters to winnow out the losers and elevate the top contenders for later contests.

But Iowa Republicans recently have had a spotty record at backing the ultimate presidential nominees. Neither the Republican winner in 2008, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, nor the winner in 2012, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum, managed to win the party nomination.

Iowa Democrats did back the party’s last two nominees: John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008, which ultimately launched Obama’s drive to the White House.