- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The snowstorm that hit the Washington area last week gave the State Department yet another reason to delay releasing a tranche of embarrassing Hillary Clinton emails, ensnared President Obama’s motorcade in the rush-hour disaster that turned half-hour commutes into three-hour nightmares, and revealed how unprepared area governments were to deal with weather they knew full well was on its way.

It should also serve as a reminder of what often happens to those hoping and planning to attend Iowa’s caucuses every four years. The weather predictors tell us that Iowans can expect freezing temperatures and a 60 percent chance of snow on the evening of Feb. 1. Iowa weather on caucus night is predictably unpredictable and tests the mettle of those who are saying today that they plan to attend to give their candidate the boost he or she will need as the presidential race officially begins.

Iowa is a heck of a place, as unlike the D.C. bubble as anyone might expect. Midwesterners are tougher than D.C. federal bureaucrats and cope better with the winter weather that has always been a part of their lives, but those not deeply committed to their candidates sometimes do decide to stay home on caucus night. Various campaigns call them, bang on their doors and drag them if necessary to their caucus. This is why when the experts try to predict how the Iowa caucuses will turn out, the talk quickly turns to the strength of the various campaigns “on the ground.”

Such talk is particularly important this year because of the distinct difference in the appeal of the two candidates apparently vying for first place in Iowa. Donald Trump has drawn big crowds in Iowa as elsewhere, but many he attracts are not traditional caucus attendees. Their willingness to get out into the snow and cold on caucus night will depend both on the depth of their support for Mr. Trump and his campaign’s ability to identify and deliver those who may otherwise stay home. It is dangerous to depend on self-starters to win, and getting those who have never or rarely attended the caucuses in the past is tough. It’s why pollsters and professionals want to know how regular caucus attendees feel about the candidates because they, unlike newcomers, can usually be counted on to turn out on caucus night.

The common wisdom among non-Iowa pundits has been that Mr. Trump is all show, draws crowds because he’s more a celebrity and an entertainer than a real candidate, and that many of those who stand in line for hours to see his performances won’t show up on caucus night. The fact that in some Iowa counties more people have attended one Trump rally than have ever voted in the county’s caucus is seen as interesting, but irrelevant.

Ted Cruz, seen by most observers as Mr. Trump’s chief competitor in Iowa, draws his support from ideological conservatives who tend to be regular caucus attendees, know what is expected, and seem at first glance are more likely to show up and vote on caucus night than Trump aficionados.

David Yepsen, who has spent decades covering the caucuses for the Des Moines Register and is regarded as the go-to expert on all things Iowan, recently told reporters that he believes Mr. Cruz has the best “on the ground” operation in the state. If Mr. Yepsen is right and if the weather experts know what they’re talking about, Mr. Cruz may find himself in the catbird seat when the results are tabulated on caucus night. Those familiar with Iowa politics don’t dispute Mr. Yepsen’s claim, but warn against underestimating Mr. Trump. The Donald is no fool and has enlisted some of the state’s most able organizers on his team. His state director, Chuck Laudner, put together the Rick Santorum organization that surprised everyone in Iowa and nationally four years ago.

Tonight all eyes will be on the Des Moines debate stage and the lines of attack the candidates unleash against each other, but when the debate ends and the cameras go dark, the serious campaigns will focus on fine-tuning the organizations they have spent so much time and money putting together. They will be hoping they’ve managed to identify their supporters and will be able to actually deliver them on caucus night while keeping an eye on the local weather forecasts and praying that the weather gods will deliver the fair skies they’ll need.

David A. Keene is Opinion editor at The Washington Times.

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