With Iowa and New Hampshire races close, a hustle for turnout
Most polls show a very close race among the top candidates in both parties, so the outcome hinges on which campaigns are best at turning out their supporters.
"The forecast for Thursday: temperature in the mid-20s to mid-30s with clear skies," it reads.
For Iowa in mid-January, that's a downright heat wave. And if the skies really stay clear, watch for a potential record turnout of more than 250,000 people in the first nominating contest of the 2008 presidential campaign.
With most polls showing a very close race among the top candidates in both parties, the outcome hinges on which campaigns are best at turning out their supporters. Among the Democrats, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is counting on young voters and independents to caucus for him. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is counting on women and older voters. Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is counting on men and on experienced caucusgoers. All three have equal support among union households, according to the latest Des Moines Register poll. And by appearances, it's a tie in organizational strength.
"Given the number of phone calls and people knocking on doors, they're all very active," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "I don't think any one organization has any advantage over any other."
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney seems to have the edge over Mike Huckabee in organizational strength and in getting supporters to their caucus sites Thursday night. Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, began organizing in Iowa almost a year ago, while Mr. Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, began to surge only in November and has not had much money or ground strength until recently.
"Romney has the best political minds in the state of Iowa geared up to work for turnout for him on caucus night," says Mark Leonard, who chairs the Ida County Republican Party, in conservative western Iowa. Mr. Leonard is personally backing former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, but says he feels Romney will win the Republican Iowa caucuses.
Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, a major social conservative organization in the state, believes Huckabee can make up for his deficit in organization with the fervor of his supporters. In the Des Moines Register poll, Huckabee beats Romney 2 to 1 among social conservative voters.
But pollster John Zogby says he's not seeing any greater strength of support among Huckabee voters than he is among Romney's backers. The most interesting question out of Iowa on the GOP side, he says, may be who comes in third. That race, between Arizona Sen. John McCain and Mr. Thompson, is tied at 12 percent each as of Jan. 1, per Mr. Zogby. If Mr. McCain is able to eke out a third place finish here, a state where he has barely campaigned, that could give him a boost going into the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 8, where he and Romney are tied.
"There's this really interesting dynamic with McCain," says Zogby. "It's not just simply that McCain is gaining a couple of points here and there, but every point he gains is among either moderates or independents or older voters, meaning they're coming mainly out of Romney's column."
As Thompson also edges up, he's taking votes away from Huckabee, Zogby adds.
In these final days, perhaps the biggest shot of adrenaline went to the Obama campaign, when the Des Moines Register's final precaucus poll put him seven points ahead of Clinton, 32 to 25 percent, with Edwards at 24. Four years ago, the Register's caucus-eve poll correctly forecast the surprise outcome, showing Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the lead.
But no sooner had the Register come out with its big Obama lead than the other campaigns cast aspersions on its finding that 40 percent of caucusgoers this year will be independents – a finding that benefits Obama. Normally, caucuses are attended by party activists who register either Republican or Democrat. Opposing camps agree that high interest in this year's caucuses will boost independent turnout, but they doubt it will be 40 percent.
The last few days have seen the candidates hammering home their final pitches to Iowa voters. For Democrats, the theme is change, particularly in healthcare and foreign policy, with each of the leading candidates arguing that they are best able to bring it about.
In polished 40-minute stump speeches across Iowa, Clinton has ticked off a list of achievements – from her days as a young lawyer for the Children's Defense Fund to her years as first lady and senator – that she says make her more experienced than her rivals at taking on special interests.
"Some people say you get change by demanding it, some people say you get change by hoping for it," she said in Cumming, Iowa, implicitly critiquing Edwards and Obama. "I believe you get change by working really hard for it."
Obama has argued that Clinton is too much of a Washington insider. As a former community organizer on the south side of Chicago, he has told Iowans, he best understands the struggles of ordinary people and has the "right kind of experience" to shake up the establishment and restore hope and unity to America.
"The real gamble in this election is playing the same Washington game with the same Washington players and expecting a different result," he said in a Des Moines speech, alluding to Clinton. "You can't at once argue that you're the master of a broken system in Washington and offer yourself as the person to change it."
Edwards, for his part, has adopted an increasingly belligerent tone, casting himself as a bare-knuckled brawler for working Americans who will "never" negotiate with the health insurance industry and other corporate interests.
"We are not going to allow corporate greed to steal our children's future," he said in Boone, Iowa. "The only way we're going to get their power is to take their power away. What I would tell all of you is, you better send somebody into that arena who's ready to fight."
Edwards set up the most grueling final day of campaigning for himself, with the first event scheduled for 1 a.m. Wednesday, and 12 events planned every couple of hours after that for the rest of the day.
Kucinich has instructed his supporters to back Obama if he (Kucinich) does not meet the 15 percent support threshold required at Democratic caucuses.
Four years ago, Kucinich told his supporters to back Edwards, which might have helped Edwards to his second place finish then.
As for the Republicans, Romney has asserted that his acumen as a business leader, his fiscal prudence as Massachusetts' governor, and his turnaround of the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics has prepared him to lead the country through challenging times. "I have a record of bringing change to almost every enterprise I've taken part in," he told Iowans in Altoona.
Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, has appealed to Iowans as a self-avowed "Christian leader" most in step with the values of social and religious conservatives.