Iowa caucuses: What voters are thinking on Election Day

A significant contingent of Iowa voters are undecided, Marco Rubio could still surprise the Republican front-runners, and the Clinton campaign strategizes with an app.

Dave Weaver/AP
Votes are tallied during a caucus of precinct 42 near Smithland, Iowa, Jan. 3, 2012. More than 40 years ago, a scheduling quirk vaulted Iowa to the front of the presidential nominating process, and ever since most White House hopefuls have devoted enormous time and money to a state that otherwise would get little attention.

It’s caucus day in Iowa, and the crisp air is crackling with anticipation. After all the months of organizing, fundraising, speechifying, advertising, and polling, actual voters will finally have their say.

Iowa will settle nothing, but the results will still matter – a lot. The winners will head into the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 with momentum, while those at or near the bottom will be hard-pressed to keep going.

Both parties’ races in Iowa are close. Much will depend on turnout. Do the big, enthusiastic rallies for the two populist iconoclasts – Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders – signal a willingness to show up at a caucus, or will the more traditional campaigns, like those organized by Sen. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton, carry the day?

Caucuses, after all, are not like primaries. Voters must show up at their precinct site by a specific time – 7:00 p.m. CST – prepared to sit through speeches before they can vote. Chilly temperatures and impending snow could keep people away. The higher the turnout, the greater the chances for Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders, analysts say.

Here are three other factors to watch:

First-timers and late deciders. Polls are “a snapshot in time,” as those in the business like to say. Voters who decide late, or change their minds at the last minute, can make for some upsets once the actual votes are counted. First-time caucus-goers can also be unpredictable; after all, they don’t have a history of turning out.

Take Mike P., a retired Home Depot worker from Waterloo, Iowa, who has never caucused before, but is planning to this year. He says he’s worried about national defense after seven years of President Obama.

“So far, I’m with Marco Rubio,” says Mr P., who declined to give his last name. At first, he backed Trump, but decided in recent days that the brash billionaire is “just too much.” So here he is, at the Florida senator’s event Sunday afternoon at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He says he likes the “intensity” in Senator Rubio’s eyes when he speaks, and “can see that he’s smart and honest.” But after the event, he still won’t say if he’s firmly with Rubio.

Another fence-sitter at the Rubio event in Cedar Falls is realtor Christopher Haley. On Saturday, he saw Trump, and after seeing Rubio on Sunday, he said he was leaning toward Trump, because he’s outside the Washington establishment.

Mr. Haley likes the fact that Rubio came up through the tea party movement in Florida. “But lately, we’re thinking even more outside than that,” says Haley, his wife at his side. “We respect Donald Trump for his business dealings, and we think he has a good view of the world.”

But Haley says he wants to check out one more candidate: Senator Cruz of Texas, polling second in Iowa behind Trump.

The latest Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll, released Saturday night, found that 9 percent of likely GOP caucus-goers had yet to make a choice, and an additional 36 percent could still change their minds before Monday night. In a tight race, that volatility could make for some surprises.

Expectations. Both Trump and Cruz have set high expectations for themselves. Trump’s life in business and now in politics is all about “winning.” Just a few weeks ago, Cruz appeared to be heading toward victory in Iowa, with strong support from Evangelicals. And Cruz’s campaign has been touting his extensive turnout operation in Iowa and other early states, organizing dormitories of volunteers called “Camp Cruz.”

Rubio has been quieter about his operation, and thus if he performs better in Iowa than the polls indicate – the Des Moines Register had him in third place with 15 percent – that would give him momentum heading into New Hampshire. Trump is far ahead in the polls there, but second place is up for grabs. A breakout moment for Rubio in Iowa could be enough to hand him second place in the Granite State – and a shot at seeing mainstream Republican voters coalesce around him.

“Electability” has been a theme in Rubio’s closing argument to Iowa voters. “Being angry is not a plan,” he says in Cedar Falls, alluding to Trump. Later, he takes aim at Mrs. Clinton.

“Hillary is not qualified to be president of the United States,” he says, referring to her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of State. “She thinks she’s above the law.”

“If I’m the nominee, we win,” he says.

The rules of the game. Iowa Republicans hold a secret ballot at their caucuses, but the Democrats don’t. Under their system, caucus-goers physically stand in a part of the room designated for their candidate. If a candidate does not reach 15 percent of the total, he or she is declared “nonviable,” and his or her voters must pick a second choice.

Thus, supporters of former Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is polling in low single digits among Democrats, may well have to go with their second choice, either Clinton or Sanders. That group of “swing caucusers” could be critical in a close precinct that selects an odd number of delegates.

But the Clinton campaign is hedging its bets, and has an app that would solve the problem in a different way: According to CNN, the app would “count the number of supporters for each candidate and send caucusers to O'Malley's side if it keeps Sanders from winning an extra delegate.”

The Sanders campaign is counting on the passion of its volunteers to carry their candidate over the finish line. On Sunday, that was on full display in Marshalltown, Iowa, when Sanders paid a visit to his campaign’s field office there.

Sanders was mobbed as he walked down the main street. When he entered his campaign’s downtown storefront, the windows quickly steamed up as volunteers and staff packed inside to see the man. Cheers rang out as he rallied his troops.

Among those standing outside were a group of volunteers who had driven in from Tennessee a few days before. Christina Besh of Chattanooga is taking vacation time from her job as a nurse at a Veterans’ Administration clinic to help Sanders.

“I left my husband and kids at home,” says Ms. Besh. “I feel kind of guilty, but they told me, ‘You’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t do this.’ ”

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