No one – least of all me – knows what’s going to happen in Iowa tonight. But as the first real voting (in a manner of speaking) to take place during the current electoral cycle, the results are going to be hyped by the media to a far greater extent than the meager delegates totals at stake would seem to justify. . Indeed, no actual party convention delegates will be chosen at all tonight – that won’t happen until later in the spring – although it may be possible to make a rough approximation regarding how the 44 pledged Democratic and 27 pledged Republican delegate are going to be apportioned based on this initial round of voting. But it’s not the delegates that matter tonight – it’s the perception of who over- and under-performed the media expectations game. There’s a reason why Iowa, along with New Hampshire, will attract the lion’s share of the media coverage during the nominating process.
Already the media has blanketed the airwaves with a breakdown of polling trends, and detailed discussion of the likely geographic breakdown of candidates’ support. Can Cruz replicate Santorum’s 2012 showing in the more rural western counties that contain a healthy portion of the state’s evangelicals? Will Sanders’ support be overly concentrated in the student strongholds, rather than spread more efficiently to increase his delegate haul? What about Rubio? Recent polls suggest he might exhibit the last-minute surge that characterized Huckabee’s unexpectedly strong performance in 2008 or Santorum’s equally surprising climb from sixth place in the polls one week out to victory in 2012. Can Rubio replicate Romney’s 2012 strong showing among moderates and non-evangelicals in the eastern portion of the state. All this will be chewed over heavily by the talking heads tonight as we wait for returns to trickle in. (Caucusing begins at 8 p.m. eastern time).
But in addition to all those other questions, here’s why I think Iowa is important. Look at this chart based on data gathered by the Des Moines Register documenting the visits and campaign events conducted by the various candidates in Iowa this election cycle.
Days in Total Candidate Iowa Events Martin O'Malley 68 191 Bernie Sanders 60 155 Hillary Clinton 50 106
Rick Santorum 95 293 Mike Huckabee 81 222 Ted Cruz 56 152 Carly Fiorina 61 138 Rand Paul 42 120 Ben Carson 47 110 Marco Rubio 48 100 Chris Christie 36 80 Donald Trump 37 57 Jeb Bush 27 51 John Kasich 15 23 Jim Gilmore 2 2
As you can see, the moderate Republican candidates – Bush, Christie and Kasich – spent relatively little time in Iowa, preferring instead to concentrate on New Hampshire where the electorate is viewed as perhaps more ideologically compatible. On the other hand, Santorum and Huckabee have staked their candidacies on replicating their previous success in this state (Huckabee won in 2008, and Santorum in 2012.) If they perform as poorly as polls suggest they will, they are likely to be winnowed from the field as neither is expected to do well in New Hampshire. Cruz has also spent considerable time in Iowa, and he appears to have absorbed most of the Huckabee/Santorum coalition of more rural, lower-income evangelical and conservative voters.
Now look at the Donald’s visits. As befitting his fly-in (and over) big rally strategy, he’s only made 37 trips to Iowa and held a relatively scant 57 events. And yet polls indicate that he and Cruz are running neck-and-neck among likely Republican caucus goers. It is clear that The Donald is counting heavily on first-time caucus goers to turn out for him. The traditional approach to winning Iowa, and to generating that type of turnout, is to run the type of door-to-door campaign that Santorum conducted in 2012, when he visited all 99 Iowa counties. But The Donald is banking that his focus on a relatively fewer number of “huge” rallies will generate the same type of caucus turnout. Cruz, on the other hand, seems to have pursued the more traditional country-level strategy in an effort to replicate Santorum and Huckabee’s success.
One thing that Trump has going for him is that the delegate allocation rules are far simpler on the Republican side in Iowa than they are on the Democrat’s side; Republicans allocate their delegates in rough proportion to the total number of votes each candidate receives. So Trump is not going to be penalized the way a Democrat might be if his support is heavily concentrated in a few areas.
So far, The Donald’s strategy seems to have paid off, at least based on polling. But will it translate into actual votes? Stay tuned. Caucusing begins at 8 p.m. eastern time tonight.
Meanwhile, for Vermonters, I’ll be on Channel 3’s The :30 tonight sometime between 5:30 and 6 p.m. to preview the caucuses. and then I’ll be back on blogging later tonight.