The electronic billboards leading from the Des Moines airport are full of campaign messages – some on behalf of the candidates themselves, some addressed by interest groups to the candidates. On a farm along Route 80, the interstate highway that bisects Iowa, a Bernie Sanders poster is fastened to a hay wagon, not far from a Donald Trump yard sign. Legions of students at Grinnell College are wearing Hillary Clinton T-shirts, and a woman in Jasper County has plastered her streetside mailbox with Clinton stickers.
For nearly a year, Iowa has been the setting for the spending of a flood of dollars, the filing of thousands of news accounts and the logging of a remarkable number of candidate appearances. In all, presidential candidates have spent nearly 800 days here – an astonishing 79 days alone by former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who won the Republican caucuses four years ago but very likely will not tally more than 2 per cent in this year’s contest.
All that time, money, polls and talk – it builds to a climax tonight, when several hundred thousand people will attend caucuses in 1,774 voting precincts in all 99 counties. These events, comprising the first political contest of the 2016 presidential election, will occur in school libraries, church basements, fraternal lodges and even in Becky Pettig’s living room in the tiny community of Deep River – perhaps the last caucus to be held in an individual home. By midnight tonight some questions will be answered, but many new ones will be posed.
Here’s what to watch for:
Keep an eye on turnout. Caucuses are different from elections, requiring vast campaign organizations to move people to evening political events that, even though Iowa has been conducting them for a generation, remain intimidating. Republican caucuses are relatively brisk affairs (walk in and express your preference in a secret procedure) but Democratic caucuses are far more complicated, far more public and far more lengthy.
A big turnout probably favours businessman Donald Trump in the Republican caucuses and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic caucuses. A smaller turnout probably favours Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Sanders; their supporters are more motivated and will turn out in bad weather while others may not.
“Historians are always debating the importance and size of turnouts in American elections,” says Sarah J. Purcell, a Grinnell College specialist in American history. “But in a caucus it is very important. There is a big difference between attending a caucus and merely casting a vote. And because the process is so forbidding it takes a lot of energy, time, attention span and investment in the outcome to participate in an Iowa caucus.”
The turnout factor is shaped not only by how many appear at caucuses, but also by who appears at these events. For Iowa Democrats, for example, Ms. Clinton leads among women and those over age 45, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll conducted by the respected Marist Institute for Public Opinion.
Who comes in third in the Republican contest? Most analysts believe Mr. Trump and Mr. Cruz are in a race for first place, with an advantage to Mr. Trump in recent days. The question is who follows these two, whose struggle has become increasingly acrimonious. It is most likely to be Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who at Thursday’s Iowa debate appeared especially combative and who retains a slight chance of catapulting himself above Mr. Cruz. There also are faint signs of movement from both former governor Jeb Bush of Florida and Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Third place is an important indicator of the future course of the campaign. Mr. Trump is in a strong position nationally, and so is Mr. Cruz, but the candidate who comes in third likely will get a strong boost for campaign contests in the future, with the chance of emerging as the principal alternative to the two leading candidates, who generally draw from the same voter groups, especially white evangelical Christians and those who identify with Tea Party activists.
What is the effect of Iowa on New Hampshire, which holds its primary a week from Tuesday? Sometimes it is great, but more often it is not. Two candidates who emphasized religious-conservative issues in recent caucus campaigns, former governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas (2008) and Mr. Santorum (2012), won here in Iowa, but faded in New Hampshire. So, too, did George H.W. Bush in 1980 and Senator Bob Dole of Kansas in 1988. In fact, after Mr. Bush defeated former governor Ronald Reagan he claimed an irresistible tide of momentum, saying he had “the Big Mo.” Sometimes there is no mo to be had.
Mr. Cruz is not expected to soar in New Hampshire, though defeating Mr. Trump would substantially enhance his chances there. If Mr. Rubio has a strong performance tonight his position in New Hampshire would improve substantially. The same applies to Jeb Bush and to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, both of whom have put on major efforts in New Hampshire. Keep an eye, too, on Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who according to some poll soundings may be in a position to make a Granite State breakthrough.
On the Democratic side, Iowa is but a prelude to a rematch in New Hampshire, where many of the same conditions will apply, with each candidate gaining an asset, which for Ms. Clinton is the legacy of her 2008 victory and her husband Bill Clinton’s strong performance in 1992, and which for Mr. Sanders is a home-region advantage because his state of Vermont abuts New Hampshire for the entire length of its eastern border.
Then again, a sound victory by Ms. Clinton, which is possible but not likely, might very well hurt Mr. Sanders in New Hampshire. There independent voters, who can participate in either contest, might conclude that Mr. Sanders is a lost cause, defect from him, choose to vote in the Republican contest and, because of their contempt for Mr. Trump, vote for an establishment, moderate-leaning Republican. The candidate most likely to benefit from this: Mr. Kasich.
(Re-posted by permission)