Several Republican candidates are betting heavily on a good performance in the Iowa caucuses to either validate their top-tier standing or to propel themselves from further back in the race into contention for the GOP nomination. Two articles this morning demonstrate why it will be exceedingly difficult to predict over the next three months how any particular candidate will actually fare.
The Washington Examiner explains this morning that a majority of Iowans who say they favor one candidate or another are still open to supporting a different candidate by the time the caucuses are held:
According to the Monmouth University poll conducted late last month, only 19 percent of likely Republican caucus goers have settled on a candidate. Of the remaining 81 percent: 43 percent have a "strong preference," 19 percent have a "slight preference" and 18 percent are completely undecided. That means there are plenty of opportunities to advance, even for candidates who might appear to be insufficiently conservative. The key, Iowa Republicans say, is showing up….
On Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after the mini cattle call with [New Jersey Gov. Chris] Christie, [businesswoman Carly] Fiorina, [Florida Sen. Marco] Rubio and [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum ended in Orange City, 10 Republican candidates descended on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines to make their case to more than 2,000 Republican voters. Carson and Trump passed on the event. But the contenders who attended found a receptive audience open to being sold. That remains the case all over Iowa at this juncture of the campaign.
"I've got several that I like," said Marylee Vanderpool, 71, of Indianola, a community of about 15,000 situated 20 miles south of Des Moines. "I'm not locked in yet." …
That illustrates an important factor in trying to predict the outcome of the caucuses. As the candidates and voters engage each other more directly in the coming weeks, the polls could shift dramatically.
The article cites the experience of Santorum in 2012, who saw many undecided voters as well as those who were previously favoring other candidates consolidate behind him.
On top of the uncertainty of which candidate the caucus-goers will eventually get behind is another question – how many will actually show up? Politico this morning explains the diverging opinions on this and why it’s important:
Top Republican strategists are almost universally predicting a record-setting turnout at the 2016 Iowa caucuses, but there’s widespread disagreement between them over just how big turnout will be – and whether it will be high enough to lift political outsiders like Donald Trump or Ben Carson to victory.
Talk of turnout has been fueled by a 112-page Jeb Bush campaign document that leaked last week offering an unusually detailed glimpse inside the campaign’s caucus metrics. It revealed that Bush’s campaign is modeling a turnout of 128,542 caucus-goers – a record, but a narrow one with only 7,000 more voters than voted in 2012.
Other Republicans believe the actual number will be tens of thousands higher – enough of a wave to wash away Bush and his establishment-oriented campaign….
The article explains why the question of who shows up on caucus night is important:
Turnout models matter — a lot. They underpin a campaign’s strategic decisions about how to deploy resources or even whether to compete in the state. In 2008, for instance, Mitt Romney’s campaign hits its vote goals, based on their turnout expectations. But an unexpected tide of evangelical voters doomed him.
“We met our vote totals and still got creamed by [former Arkansas Gov. Mike] Huckabee,” said Matt Schultz, a former Iowa secretary of state, who was a county chair for Romney in 2008. “We met what we thought we needed to do to win the caucus.”…
There have been dramatic swings in caucus turnout before, most famously the 2008 race in which a Barack Obama swell brought roughly 240,000 to the Democratic caucuses, four years after about 125,000 had showed up. Among Republicans, less than 86,000 came to the 2000 caucuses but that number leapt to 118,696 in 2008.
Uncertainty in the nomination process is nothing new, but it’s easy to see how candidates banking on the wrong set of assumptions – that the person identified as a supporter a month ago is still a supporter and will actually show up at the caucus – could find themselves in deep trouble with vote totals well below what they and others expected. And that, as much as anything else, is likely to determine which candidates are dropping out after Iowa and which are moving on to New Hampshire.