For true political junkies, tomorrow night represents something of a culmination of a multi-year buildup. After at least two years of speculation and ten months of formal primary season observing, we will finally get some tangible votes from the Hawkeye State.
Here is what I'll be looking for on the Republican side, followed by some final predictions.
What To Look For
- Trump's GOTV Efforts — After months of seemingly endless speculation about Donald Trump's unorthodox (underwhelming?) ground game operation, coupled with the realization that most of his support comes not from diehard grassroots activists but from economically disaffected brute populists only tangentially affiliated with the formal political process, we will finally get an inkling as to whether Trump can actually produce not just Twitter zombies but real, live caucus-goers. It cannot be emphasized enough just how different the caucus process is from a primary process. The 1681 caucuses all take place in a narrow Monday evening time slot, at locations that oftentimes differ from polling locations themselves, and can take up to an hour or two. Precinct captains speak on behalf of their candidates. The upshot is that this process is not for the politically fainthearted — a problem exacerbated for Trump by the fact that, per Ann Selzer's final poll for The Des Moines Register, he is the second choice of only 7% of likely caucus-goers. In other words, Trump loses to Cruz and is statistically tied with Rubio if we combine first- and second choices, and Trump's success thus hinges upon getting all of his truly core supporters to actually show up. If Trump can win in this format while investing little in the way of a meaningful ground operation, he will have forever changed the rules of how to do well in Iowa.
- Cruz's Ground Game Mastery — Much has been written about the Cruz camp's intensive Iowa operation. They are arguably running the most data-heavy, boots on the ground-heavy Iowa campaign ever run by a Republican, and arguably one of the two most prolific efforts in caucus history alongside Barack Obama's Hawkeye operation in 2008. Cruz has over 12,000 volunteers, nearly 1600 precinct captains, and the formal endorsements of the influential Iowa social conservative Bob Vander Plaats, radio host Steve Deace, and Rep. Steve King. Glenn Beck, former Virginia Attorney General and prominent conservative activist Ken Cuccinelli, and "Duck Dynasty" icon Phil Robertson are all also in Iowa this weekend to campaign for Cruz. Cruz's bus tour will reach all 99 Iowa counties tomorrow, the campaign's phone-bankers have reached a far-higher proportion of Iowa Republicans than has Trump's campaign, and if traditional retail politicking still matters, Cruz stands a great chance of prevailing tomorrow night. If he does indeed win, it would represent a potentially fatal blow to the cronyist ethanol lobby that has long taken advantage of Iowa's first-in-the-nation status to unceremoniously promote the mechanically corrosive product that Daniel Horowitz has described as "the anchor baby of our economic system."
- The So-Called "Rubio Surge" — Ann Selzer's final poll for The Des Moines Register, long considered the gold standard in Iowa polling, shows little signs of a final surge for Rubio. In fact, his support actually declined over the course of Selzer's poll, which factored in one day of polling following the last Fox News debate in which Rubio's performance was well-received. Rubio's goal must be to create a meaningful gap between himself and his "establishment lane" competitors, from where he would be able to capitalize upon momentum heading into New Hampshire. Unfortunately for Rubio, his support is very soft: per Selzer, only 47% of his support is locked-in, and his supporters have Cruz as a second choice by a nearly two-to-one margin. A lot can change inside an actual caucus site, depending on the persuasiveness of the various speakers. Rubio's best chance of outperforming seems to be to pick off Cruz voters disgruntled by Cruz's relative drop in the polls, which would require a concerted attempt to self-fulfill the prophecy of the (largely debunked) "MarcoMentum" narrative.
- The Carson Effect — I honestly have no idea why Ben Carson is still in this race. He has absolutely no idea what he is talking about when it comes to anything touching upon substantive policy, but he is somehow still the consensus fourth-place candidate in Iowa. Carson's favorability numbers are off-the-charts high, but to the extent his more mild-mannered church-going supporters have a final epiphany that Trump must be stopped, look for Cruz and Rubio to possibly benefit at the last minute.
- Rand's Relevance — Rand Paul has been bragging about how his millennial-centric base of support in Iowa will turn out in mass numbers and help him outperform his polling. On "Meet the Press" today, he complained about how the final Selzer poll did not properly account for anywhere close to all of his father's supporters from 2012 (where Ron Paul finished a close third behind Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney). Paul definitely had his best debate on Thursday, but no matter how much he tries to paint meaningful differences between himself and Cruz, Cruz is still the logical endpoint for libertarian-minded voters very concerned about stopping Trump.
- Establishmentarians — It will be interesting to see if any of the establishmentarian threesome of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and John Kasich notably outperforms relative to the other two, if only for purposes of momentum heading into New Hampshire.
- Turnout/Weather — The Selzer poll is predicated upon a record-breaking caucus turnout that plugged-in grassroots Iowa activists like Steve Deace find utterly implausible. If turnout is indeed that high, it will likely mean that Trump has successfully turned out many of his fringe supporters, with the likely effect of a bad night overall for movement conservatism. But while we should really only "unskew" Selzer at our own risk, it still must be noted that Iowa voter registration rolls show little in the way of notable increases since 2012, as streiff noted here on Thursday. Not only that, but present Weather.com forecasting for Des Moines shows a 65% chance of rain beginning right around the time caucusing starts tomorrow night. That rain will eventually turn into snow, as the night gets longer. Conventional wisdom is that Cruz will outperform Selzer's polling in a lower-turnout caucus night that disproportionately draws grassroots activists and passionate movement conservatives.
- Voter registration rolls and the prospect of bad weather both point toward turnout not increasing over 2012 nearly as much as the current polling has it doing.
- Ted Cruz will win the Iowa caucuses with 25-30% of support. Gov. Terry Branstad and his anti-free market/pro-crony capitalism ethanol lobbyist son Eric will be crushed, and it will be glorious.
- Donald Trump will substantially underperform his RCP polling average and finish in the low 20s.
- "MarcoMentum" is not real enough to catch Trump, and Rubio finishes around 15-17%.
- Ben Carson and Rand Paul finish neck-and-neck, with around 7-9% support.
- Chris Christie relies upon his bromance with ethanol king Terry Branstad (who is the living, breathing embodiment of the Republican Party Establishment) to modestly outperform the other establishmentarians.
- Carly Fiorina moves on to New Hampshire...I guess.
- Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee drop out on Tuesday, after shamefully "kneel[ing] before Zod" this past week.
- (In case anyone cares: Hillary Clinton will narrowly defeat the old socialist dude who honeymooned in the USSR and used to hang a hammer and sickle in his office.)