Donald Trump

Turnout Isn't Everything, It's the Only Thing at the Iowa Caucuses

Can the Trump and Sanders campaigns mobilize the voters they need to win?


Bernie Sanders
Phil Roeder / Flickr

We are four days out from the Iowa caucuses. The Democratic candidates made their final pitches to voters at a town hall event on Tuesday, while the Republicans (minus The Donald) will take their parting shots at this evening's Fox News–sponsored debate.

For almost a year I've been advising readers not to put much stock in the polls. Among other reasons, I've said that people are apt to change their mind about who they're supporting many times over the course of the weeks and months leading up to an election, as they learn more about the various candidates, observe their performances in the debates, and view ads for and against. Poor showings in the early states can also push straggling candidates to throw in the towel, thus winnowing the field and changing voters' calculus.

But none of that likely matters in Iowa at this late stage in the game. By now, most people there know who they like. They not only have studied up on the various candidates, they've probably met some of them. I'll never forget watching a focus group in Des Moines in 2014: The moderator asked how many of the 30-some participants had personally shaken hands with Barack Obama while he was running for president. Virtually everyone indicated that they had. Iowa is, in many ways, a horse of another color.

So the time remaining for voters there to change their allegiance is running low. The only real remaining question is how many people will actually turn out—but the answer can make a hell of a difference.

The race on the Democratic side is extraordinarily close. The RealClearPolitics average for the state has Hillary Clinton ahead of Bernie Sanders by just two percentage points. Anything, it seems, could happen.

Yet whether Sanders is able to squeak out a win depends entirely on whether his supporters are motivated to show up Monday night and stick it out. As I wrote here at Hit & Run a couple of weeks ago:

Bernie Sanders is doing well in the polls at the moment. But if a lot of the people who say they support you don't show up to actually vote, those strong polling numbers mean very little.

Turnout matters, and it's not yet clear whether the largely grassroots Sanders campaign can compete with the Clinton machine at getting warm bodies to their polling places

This is an especially important question in places like Iowa that don't hold traditional secret-ballot primary elections. Caucusing is a far more arduous and time-consuming process, one that by its nature includes multiple rounds and can stretch late into the night. Importantly, at least on the Democratic side*, it's also a more public one. Supporters must literally stand under a sign or banner with their preferred candidate's name on it, for all their neighbors to see.

GOP frontrunner Donald Trump is leading by a reasonably solid margin in Iowa right now. (He's more than six points ahead of his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and nearly 20 points in front of Marco Rubio.) There are some very good reasons to be skeptical that he'll be able to match his polling performance on caucus night, however—and the biggest one is that his get-out-the-vote operation is untested, to say the least. Per The New York Times:

Some of Mr. Trump's Republican rivals have spent months calling and knocking on doors to identify potential supporters to draw them out to caucuses, but Mr. Trump does not appear to have invested in this crucial "voter ID" strategy until recently.

Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

Something called social desirability bias comes into play in Iowa, as well. A December study from the Morning Consult found that better-educated voters were more likely to say they were supporting the real estate mogul in totally anonymous online surveys than they were in live-interview telephone surveys. In other words, some people like Trump but are too embarrassed to say so out loud. It seems rather unlikely that all of these individuals would be willing to venture out on a cold February night to vote for a reality TV star*. 

As a new report from Monmouth University explains, for Trump to win Iowa, he will need the GOP caucuses to garner record-setting turnout numbers. If 170,000 Republicans show up—far surpassing the record-high 122,000 from 2012—Trump is expected to emerge victorious. But if the real number is more like 130,000—still a record, mind you—it "puts the race in a tie at 26% for Trump and 26% for Cruz, with Rubio at 15% and Carson at 12%."

Why does lower turnout necessarily spell bad things for Trump? Because his support is disproportionately strong among groups that tend to vote in low numbers—"disaffected folks who are only marginally attached to the political process," as The New Yorker put it, or "people on the periphery of the G.O.P. coalition," as per The Upshot blog at The New York Times. He does well among blue-collar types, among people who call themselves Republicans but are actually registered as Democrats, and among those who have turned out only "irregularly" for past elections. To believe he'll win is to assume these groups will buck history and show up en masse.

Despite all the reasons to be skeptical, though, I'm becoming increasingly nervous about what might lie ahead. 

I keep thinking back to the right-of-center conventional wisdom on the eve of the 2012 general. It held that, in order to win re-election, President Obama would have to repeat the miracle he achieved on Election Night 2008 by turning out unprecedented numbers of "unlikely" voters—young people, African Americans, and other demographic groups that have a track record of staying home.

Given all that had occurred in the four years intervening, that struck conservatives as thoroughly implausible. With the GOP's strong showing in the 2010 midterms, the collective national momentum seemed to be running against the Democratic Party. Surely Obama's base was disappointed in the candidate that ran on a platform of criminal justice reform and closing the prison at Guantanamo and then went through with none of it?

Of course, all those assumptions turned out to be wrong. Obama did repeat his GOTV miracle and won big as a result. In raw numbers, more blacks and Hispanics cast ballots in 2012 than they had four years before. Stated a report from Brookings, "Minority turnout determined the 2012 election."

The Trump campaign is betting it can accomplish something similar. Are they right? I have honestly no idea. As savvy politicos like to say, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior—right up until it isn't.

*CORRECTION 2/1/16: I originally wrote that it seems unlikely Trump supporters who won't admit they like him to a live interviewer would be willing to "plant themselves, in full view, next to a sign bearing a reality TV star's name." But only the Democratic caucuses require people to publicly show support for their favored candidate. The Republican caucuses allow people to give public speeches, but they also make use of a secret-ballot straw poll. I sincerely regret this error.

What does that mean, in practice, for Trump's chances tonight? It's still an open question whether his campaign machine has what it takes to get the vote out, especially with a snow storm advancing on the state. But given that his supporters won't necessarily have to make their Trump love known to all their neighbors, it would be valid to dial up your expectations for him at least a bit.