Now real voters will finally get their say.
Will they caucus Monday for a bombastic billionaire or a self-described Democratic socialist, outcomes unthinkable just months ago? Or will more familiar campaign characters prevail?
Iowans’ answers could illuminate the most unpredictable presidential race in a generation.
More than a dozen Republican candidates, and three Democrats, have spent weeks here facing a barrage of voter anger and confusion. After the caucus, we’ll know which candidates can best corral that frustration into votes – and if this year’s race will be revolutionary, or something less.
But in these late hours, who will those candidates be?
“I just don’t know,” said Don Kass, Republican chairman of Plymouth County, Iowa. “I’ve been wrong about just about everything for a year.”
Said Dubuque County Democratic Chairman Walt Pregler: “I’d hate to predict the outcome. The game is different this time.”
Polls help, but just a little. Brassy New York real estate tycoon Donald Trump, reborn for this race as a Republican, and crusty Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent asking Democrats for their nomination, have strong shots heading into the campaigns first test.
If both Trump and Sanders were to win, Iowans will have said something profound: Disgust with Washington is so high that candidates well outside the mainstream are worth the risk.
But other outcomes loom as possible. Democrat Clinton’s experience could win, or Iowa’s conservative religious community could lift Texas Sen. Cruz.
Or an outright surprise may await. Republican Sen. Rubio of Florida might finish close to the top and steal the headlines. Maybe a complicated Democratic caucus will be so close it won’t provide a definitive front-runner.
The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Iowa Poll released Saturday night showed Trump with a 28-25 edge over Cruz. Rubio registered at 15 percent, Ben Carson at 10 percent and the rest at 5 percent or less. Trump appeared to be drawing support that would ordinarily go to establishment candidates, Cruz from the religiously motivated.
On the Democratic side, Clinton held a narrow, 45-42 lead over Sanders. Clinton fared best with older voters, Sanders with the young and self-identified independents.
Ann Selzer, who directed the poll, showed that voters across the board appear desperate for political change.
“They want disruption,” she said.
But pollsters, and the pros in Iowa, offer a warning: Surveys can’t tell us how many Iowans will caucus or how they might change their minds in the final hours before the caucuses kick off at 7 p.m. Monday local time.
People are going to decide at the caucus, when they’re talking to their neighbors.
Art Behn, Democratic chairman of Dallas County, suburban Des Moines
Trump and Sanders will rely on first-time voters, so a high turnout helps their campaigns. A lower turnout may mean a more recognizable outcome.
Whatever the result, the anger and frustration of Iowa voters is a certainty. The Star talked with dozens of Iowa political operatives and voters over the past two weeks. Virtually all spoke of worn patience, on one matter or another, with Washington.
“Clearly, voters and activists are disaffected,” said Barbara Trish, a Grinnell College political science professor.
“It’s an extraordinary time.”
Donald Trump’s unlikely candidacy remains the story of the 2016 presidential campaign.
The flamboyant, combative TV star and businessman ranks as the clear favorite here, despite vastly underspending his Republican opponents in the lead-up to Monday.
“Trump is real,” said Trudy Caviness, Republican Party chairwoman in Wapello County, Iowa.
Disaffected and upset Iowans crowd Trump rallies, whooping as he promises to force Mexico to build a wall on its U.S. border. His free-association, non-politically-correct remarks serve as a tonic for thousands of voters.
Trump “has the passion this country needs,” said Savannah Jones, a student at Iowa State University in Ames.
It’s a powerful elixir.
With Trump supporters, it’s not so much what he’s saying, it’s more he’s willing to say it.
Marshall County GOP chairman Pete Rogers
Rival campaigns marvel at Trump’s ability to dominate the free-media landscape through endorsements such as Sarah Palin’s or his abrupt decision to skip the last Republican debate and stage a benefit for veterans.
But more than any other candidate, Trump relies on his outsized media presence to draw first-time voters to Republican caucuses. He appears to lack the other tools of traditional caucus campaigns: extensive phone banks, volunteers, door-to-door canvassers.
“It’s going to depend on the job they do in getting their people to the caucus,” Caviness said.
If Trump’s campaign stumbles, Cruz stands ready to step in. He looks strong where Trump appears weak: His organization is considered the best in the state.
The senator followed the traditional Iowa playbook by courting religious conservatives, landing the endorsements of prominent ministers and talk show host Glenn Beck.
“His Christian values, his religious liberty . . . pro-life, he just speaks the truth,” Denise Hays said at a Cruz rally in Ankeny.
Yet Cruz appears to have lost his lead in Iowa. He ran afoul of many farmers for his equivocal position on tax subsidies for corn-consuming ethanol – he wants to phase out fuel subsidies over five years.
Trump’s criticism of Cruz’s Canadian birth has hurt the Texan’s effort. A pasting from other Republicans, such as former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, may have also damaged the Cruz campaign.
Cruz and Trump share one important trait – they’re considered outsiders, an enormously important attribute in this unusual year. Rubio, by contrast, seeks a respectable finish by arguing he’s in a better position to defeat the Democratic nominee.
Anger isn’t enough.
Marco Rubio tells audiences at every stop
In 2016, though, electability gets you the bronze medal. Gold and silver may be out of reach for Rubio, and for the other GOP candidates.
Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have spent weeks in the state, to little effect. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has largely ignored Iowa, betting instead on New Hampshire. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush made a late effort here, largely with millions for TV ads, but he isn’t expected to come close to a top-three finish.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson may be a late surprise, although his front-runner status ended some weeks ago. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is moving up in the polls in New Hampshire, may also finish in the top five in Iowa.
Onetime Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has some organization here and may exceed low expectations. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky hopes for a large student turnout, always a gamble in Iowa.
Even with nearly 20 years as chairman of the Democratic Party in Iowa’s most populous county, Tom Henderson said he couldn’t tell what was happening this year.
Sanders’ people are largely younger and new to party politics. Many come as independents who can sign up as Democrats on Monday night. These are party outsiders.
It’s hard to detect the strength of his campaign. It’s hard to gauge what’s happening.
Tom Henderson, chairman of Democratic Party in Polk County, Iowa’s most populous
Interviews with party chairmen from nine of the state’s 11 largest counties find them inevitably referring to 2008. That year, it appeared Clinton had a fast track to the nomination.
She brought scores of workers to the state, typically young people paying their dues in Iowa with an expectation that would land them jobs in Washington.
But then-Sen. Barack Obama attracted true believers, inspired more by his candidacy than their career hopes. Obama won Iowa going away and ultimately outdistanced Clinton in the months of primaries that followed.
Old Iowa political hands see a similar, if not identical, contrast today. Clinton clearly learned the lessons of eight years ago. Much of her ground campaign is staffed by veterans of other Iowa campaigns. And she garners particular excitement from older female voters, who see her as their best chance to elect a woman to the White House in their lifetimes.
But Sanders, a seemingly cranky 74-year-old obsessed with economic inequality, musters a certain mojo of warmhearted cool. He’s a hit on college campuses – after all, he’s promising free tuition at public colleges – along with young and independent voters more broadly. Clinton typically draws hundreds at public appearances; Sanders gets thousands. Like Obama in 2008, many of his volunteers came from out of the state to pitch in.
Iowa’s Democratic caucus rules may favor Clinton. The number of delegates from any precinct is determined before the first voter shows up. Sanders’ greatest support gravitates toward college towns. But that concentrates his numbers into precincts that can yield only so many delegates.
Still, Democratic county officials see signs of a formidable Sanders organization.
It sports almost as many field offices as Clinton’s. His people can be found at community events just as often as the opposition can. And Sanders hired Pete D’Alessandro to coordinate his Iowa team. Originally from Illinois, he’s worked in Iowa campaigns and a Democratic governor’s administration since 1998. D’Alessandro, pros say, knows Iowa.
Still, party insiders see a slight advantage for Clinton, but it comes with an asterisk: Old-guard party workers readily admit that gauging Sanders’ strength is beyond their grasp.
“Eight years ago, I could say it was turning for Obama by this point,” said Thom Hart, chairman of the Scott County Democratic Party. “This year, I don’t know. . . . Bernie’s people have stayed away from the party. They could be totally under the radar.”
A handful of county chairmen have endorsed former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Although he trails in the polls by a mile, they say he shouldn’t be counted out. John Kerry went from a distant third to winning the caucuses seemingly overnight in 2004.
Supporters of all three report voters’ anxiety about the field. How, many wonder, might Sanders overcome America’s allergy to the term socialist? Clinton’s decades atop national politics come with accumulating baggage. Might something yet emerge from her handling of State Department emails that could tank her prospects?
“It’s not so much an anti-Hillary thing,” said George Ensley, the Democratic chairman in Boone County. “It’s the worry about what the Republicans might hit her with.”
No one can predict the impact Iowa will have on the eventual nominee in either party. While some losing candidates are almost certain to drop out after Iowa, the eventual winner here doesn’t always capture the nomination.
All the top-tier candidates can claim plausible paths to the nomination after Iowa returns to normal.
For now, the rest of the nation awaits its turn in the Mixmaster. Imagine Cruz or Trump in a November race against Sanders, for example, and buckle up.
Those candidates’ promises of radical change would dominate that race, and perhaps worry millions of Americans who aren’t watching Iowa. The candidates represent potential presidencies dramatically different from anything a living American has seen, a fact the campaigns boast about.
The mere possibility of such a matchup has billionaire Michael Bloomberg, a former three-term mayor of New York, launching trial balloons about an independent or third-party run for the White House.
Indeed, so-called establishment politicians now desperately war-game the remaining campaign, looking for alternatives if the outsiders race ahead.
But – if nothing else – Iowa’s results will help us understand whether both parties’ elites can still dictate nominees. With just a few hours to go, the answer seems to be no.
“It’s all about the outsider. They’re the frustration candidates,” said Chris Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa.
“The underlying emotional frustration of the electorate,” he said, “may be greater than we think.”
Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc
Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon