What If? Trump Could Redefine How To Win Iowa
Republicans in Iowa are preparing to caucus in a little over two weeks — Feb. 1 — and they're wondering if this year is really going to be different because of Donald Trump.
On Monday night, the Osceola County Republican Committee met at the Pizza Ranch in Sibley, the county seat. Sibley is in western Iowa, the more socially conservative, more Republican part of this first-in-the-nation caucus state.
After the usual buffet supper of pizza and fried chicken, Kolby DeWitt from the state Republican Party was giving instructions for the upcoming caucuses. "We'll make it as quick and painless as possible," he promised the county committee members.
DeWitt handed out manuals for running precinct caucuses to local Republican leaders because, unlike a primary run by the state, caucuses are run by the state parties.
Also, whereas voters participate in a primary by showing up to their usual polling place to cast a ballot at any time of day, caucuses require a higher level of commitment. They are meetings, held at libraries, churches, gyms and the like, with a time commitment.
"We have a lot of people that are going to be caucusing for the first time," DeWitt said. "Whether they've been a Democrat in the past, an independent, or never even registered to vote. Just make sure to let the people know that it's not like a primary or a general. You show up at 7 o'clock. You're going to be prepared to be there for a couple of hours because there's a lot of other things than just a presidential vote."
For Iowans who have participated in the past, it may be routine. Four years ago approximately 120,000 Iowa Republicans caucused.
How many first-time caucus-goers are expected this year? "Some are saying 15 percent higher; some are saying 30 percent higher. But we're estimating somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent higher turnout than in 2012," DeWitt said.
The question is, what is going to draw so many people to the Republican caucuses. Traditionally, the way candidates win over Iowans is one small group at a time.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina was taking that approach this week at the Midwest Deli in another western Iowa county seat, Holstein.
"I know that you Iowans, I have come to learn, take your caucus responsibilities very seriously," Fiorina told the crowd of some 50 adults and a small class of kindergartners.
"So, maybe some of you have already made up your mind to support me or someone, or maybe most of you are still thinking about who you're going to finally caucus for. But I will tell you this: In your heart of hearts, every single one of you cannot wait to see me debate Hillary Clinton," Fiorina insisted to the approving crowd.
Fiorina — who is polling in single digits in Iowa — said she can beat Clinton, and, without naming them in this comment, said that Iowa front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump cannot.
"We're not going to beat her with someone who divides this party. We're not going to beat her with somebody who routinely insults women and everyone else," Fiorina said.
After speaking for about a half-hour, she took questions for another half-hour, including one from one of the kindergartners.
"My name is Carli. Can I be president, too?" a small girl said into the microphone. "She wants to be president. Absolutely you can," Fiorina responded. It's a scene of retail, face-to-face politics.
And it's what voters are familiar with in Holstein, which is home to fewer than 2,000 people.
"This is a great little town. We all know each other," said Mark Leonard, who works in the cattle business and banking and is active in Republican politics.
"We probably know the party registration of everybody here. In a little town like this, nobody here uses the turn signals because everybody knows where you're going anyway," Leonard added.
When asked about the arithmetic of the kind of campaigning that Fiorina was employing — a half a day to reach 50 people, with not too many days left — Leonard explained that it reaches the most important voters.
"Do remember too, though, the population that will caucus is relatively a small group of people. And those people do go to these events," he said.
Gretchen Cooney, a bereavement counselor, said that people like her, who show up at events like Fiorina's, tell their friends.
"As we get word out of who [Fiorina] is and what she stands for, she may see 50 people here, but if each of us talk to so many, I mean it just grows and grows," she said.
Ever since Democrat Jimmy Carter put the Iowa caucuses on the map 40 years ago by playing this kind of political small ball, and winning, this has been the Iowa way.
It's the way Ted Cruz is campaigning, as he edges out Donald Trump in the polls in Iowa.
In socially conservative Sioux City, the Woodbury County GOP Committee met Wednesday night to plan for its caucuses. Committee members don't endorse candidates, but some, like Suzan Stewart, said they like the Cruz approach.
"Cruz just completed like a 16-city tour of northwest Iowa. He's the only one that's done anything like that this time," she said.
The candidate who is certainly not doing anything like that is Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he held a huge rally in Cedar Falls, a city in eastern Iowa.
Unlike Fiorina in the Midwest Deli, Trump took no questions. His policy statements are often one-liners.
"That Iran deal is the dumbest deal I think I've ever seen. I don't think I've seen anything like that," Trump told the capacity crowd of about 1,000 that came to a college gym to see him.
The message here, even before Trump got to the stage, was don't just rally — caucus.
Tana Goertz, his Iowa co-chair who met Trump when he fired her on the TV show The Apprentice, urged supporters to bring friends and neighbors along. "If you can fill your car with a carload of people, we would be grateful. For those of you that have minivans, we're going to love you even more if you pack your minivan full of people who are going to go caucus for Donald Trump," she said.
Iowa State Sen. Brad Zaun gave this exhortation: "These rallies, and everybody that's out there, it's useless if you don't go to the Iowa caucuses and caucus for Mr. Trump."
There are so many students here, including high school seniors, and so many untraditional Republican supporters, skeptics doubt they'll show up promptly before 7 p.m. on Feb. 1.
"You know the theory is they'll wait for five hours in a line," Trump acknowledged on a night when people stood out in freezing cold temperatures to see him. "But they won't caucus. OK? I think they're gonna caucus, but let's see what happens."
People get tickets to Trump events online, so the campaign gathers contact information that way, and the Trump campaign has picked up some experienced Iowa campaign hands to work on getting out the vote.
If this mass movement approach works — inspire the crowd, get them to caucus like it's a tailgate party — then a big turnout on Feb. 1 would spell a very strong Trump showing.
Traditional Republicans here may prize the process of caucus campaigning; Trump, who devotes a serious chunk of his speech to citing poll results that he says show he is well ahead everywhere else, is all about winning.
"And if we win Iowa, I think we're going to run the table," Trump told the crowd.