- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 31, 2016

On Monday night at preciously 7 p.m. CST, several hundred thousand Iowans will gather at schools, community centers — and even the occasional living room — to huddle with their neighbors and set the country on the path to picking a president.

Some will come with signs and campaign buttons, others will have handwritten speeches extolling their picks, and some will come ready to strike bargains, looking to sway others’ votes in exchange for a homemade chocolate chip cookie or the promise of a delegate slot at the national convention.

These are the Iowa caucuses — the kickoff to the monthslong primary season — and will give early indications as to which candidates have momentum and which ones aren’t likely to make it far into the process.

For Democratic and Republican candidates alike, it’s the conclusion of months and months of retail politicking in the Hawkeye State, a place where Donald Trump has attended church and Hillary Clinton has chomped on a pork chop on a stick, where Jeb Bush has manned a grill and Martin O’Malley has sung the “Iowa Waltz” while strumming his acoustic guitar.

Just like the campaign itself, the caucuses can be marathon affairs, attracting the most die-hard politicos.

“It’s a long, drawn-out process, designed for deliberation, to make people really think about their choices,” said Dave Andersen, a political science professor at Iowa State University. “This clearly weeds out a lot of people, those who are not comfortable voicing their opinions openly, someone who is afraid of having their beliefs challenged — it can be a daunting and intimidating experience.”

Those who show up on caucus night are usually the most politically informed and those with the strongest ideologies and passion, Mr. Andersen said. The Iowa caucuses are not representative of the entire population, he said, nor are they meant to be.

“They’re not supposed to be an event where all of the people choose nominees. They’re an event run by the political party,” Mr. Andersen said. “The party really wants to bring in only the most committed, most informed people who care about it and its future.”

Therefore, if you’re late, you’re shut out. If you’re not registered either as a Republican or a Democrat, you’re also not welcome. Iowa’s biggest voting bloc, about 36 percent of people, are independents and not allowed to caucus. A registered Republican can’t attend a Democratic caucus, and a registered Democrat can’t attend a Republican caucus.

Only about one in five Iowans have plans to show up to their precincts Monday night, said Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines.

“The caucus is not an election. In a primary state, you have a 14-hour window to find the most convenient time to go and vote. A caucus is much tougher,” said Mr. Goldford. “You need to show up at 7 p.m. on a Monday night, hoping you’re not sick, or that your baby sitter shows up, or that there’s no blizzard. Once you get there, it takes about a half an hour on the Republican side and around two hours on the Democratic side. It’s more of a commitment of time and energy.”

It’s also a test of campaigns’ organization.

In Republican caucuses, each candidate is allowed to have a surrogate stand up and give a short speech pleading for votes. Some campaigns even write out sample speeches for their precinct captains to deliver. Once the speeches are made, voting is by secret ballot and the totals are announced.

There are 1,681 voting precincts in Iowa, and Sen. Ted Cruz, of Texas, who brags about having the best field operation, says he has operatives in 1,573 of those — with 1,300 precinct captains whose job it is to call on their neighbors to come vote for Mr. Cruz.

Mr. Trump, who is leading in the most recent state polls, is betting his name recognition and massive rallies will propel him to the finish line — that people will show up for him without much of the bricks-and-mortar ground game on which Mr. Cruz is relying.

“Trump is attracting many people who haven’t caucused before, and one thing we know is that people who have never done something before at the last minute, they chicken out,” said Mr. Andersen, who predicts Mr. Trump’s caucus turnout will be 5 percent to 10 percent lower than his poll numbers in the state because of this phenomenon. “Trump’s catering to unlikely voters, and he’s done a terrific job and spoken to this group, but I think he will have a big problem with attrition.”

On the Democratic side, organization matters even more. Caucusgoers are asked to stand up and be counted for their candidates — with all the Clinton supporters in one corner, O’Malley backers in another and Sen. Bernard Sanders’ supporters in yet another group.

But the kicker is “viability” — if a candidate doesn’t have at least 15 percent of the votes at that location, the supporters are disbanded. They can either go home or be wooed to one of the other candidates’ groups.

That’s tough for Mr. O’Malley, who has 4.4 percent support in Iowa, according to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls. He will struggle to get 15 percent support at many caucus locations.

The former governor, speaking on CNN’s town hall from Iowa last week, told his voters to “hold strong” on caucus night.

If his supporters don’t constitute 15 percent at a location, they will have the opportunity to recruit other supporters to their camp to gather the number needed to be viable, they can defect to a rival’s camp or they can leave without being counted.

“This is where the deals are cut,” said Barbara Trish, a political science professor at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. “If there is a candidate who doesn’t meet the thresholds, they know they won’t be delegated any seats — so members have the option to realign, to join another group or go home.”

She said in urban areas, the deal-making is often based on ideological appeals or offers of delegate positions to the regional, state and national conventions. In rural areas, the caucusgoers often know one another and make appeals based on personal ties.

Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton are locked in a tight battle, with polling showing her winning among traditional caucusgoers and Mr. Sanders attracting new blood.

If he can get those supporters to turn out and persevere through the caucus process, Mr. Sanders could repeat Barack Obama’s 2008 victory over Mrs. Clinton.

“We are going to win Iowa if there’s a large voter turnout,” Mr. Sanders predicted Wednesday.

He is doing everything he can to ensure that happens: renting cars, buses and vans to carry students from their college campuses to their hometowns to vote; shipping in foot soldiers from other states to get out the vote; and enlisting precinct captains to recruit friends and neighbors.

Mrs. Clinton, who has mobilized in the state before, has an organizational advantage in experience but tasted defeat in 2008.

“Traditionally, the caucus process benefits the candidates who get on the ground early and organize, organize, organize,” said Mr. Andersen. “Hillary has experience here, but it wasn’t a good experience. Obama worked harder and got more people energized with his candidacy.

“It’s my feeling she’s done it again this time and hasn’t devoted as much time and energy needed to win Iowa,” he said. “People here expect to be courted and to be talked to as individuals, and she hasn’t done a good job of that. Bernie Sanders is doing more campaigning in the Obama mode, catering to people not likely to be voters, energizing them and building a pretty impressive mobilization effort across the state. It’s going to come down to whoever has the best turnout operations — and a lot of that is dependent on enthusiasm.”

• Editor’s note: Political reporter Kelly Riddell’s husband, Frank Sadler, was the campaign manager for Republican presidential contender Carly Fiorina.

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