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Updated Jan 15, 2024, 3:47pm EST
politics

The most crucial counties to watch on Iowa caucus night

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The News

DES MOINES — Every Republican agrees that this year’s caucuses won’t break the record turnout from 2016. The race is less competitive. Fewer candidates are paying fewer die-hards to turn out voters. And yes, it’s colder here than in the Arctic Circle.

“People thought it would be less than that anyways,” Ron DeSantis told Fox News on Monday, referring to the 2016 numbers. “With the weather, it likely will be less than that.”

In 2016, with both parties holding competitive races, 186,874 voters turned up for the GOP caucuses. That smashed the totals from 2012, when 121,501 people signed in to vote. There are more Republicans now, with the party adding over 80,000 voters to the rolls since the night Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump.

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David’s view

They could add more, because any Iowan of voting age can show up at a caucus site, which begin proceedings at 7 PM CT, and register as Republican. That’s one factor to watch tonight. Here are a few more.

Cruz Country. Cruz was the third caucus-winner in a row to get there by winning evangelicals. They made up two-thirds of the vote in 2016 and two-fifths in 2012, and Cruz turned out more of them than anyone else. Turnout in the state’s four northwest-most counties doubled between those races – from 3,475 votes to 7,247.Trump was a non-starter in Siouxland, running fourth overall in votes across those counties. How many voters turn out there tonight? DeSantis pitched his campaign directly to those voters – how many, after eight years, trust a social conservative alternative over Trump?

The Rubio Archipelago. Marco Rubio’s strategy in 2016 became a little notorious among Iowa conservatives. His campaign described a 3-2-1 battle plan – third place in Iowa would be enough to place second in New Hampshire then first in South Carolina. (It wasn’t.) He concentrated his in-person Iowa stops in vote-rich suburban counties, rejecting a time- and resource-draining trip across all 99.

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It paid off, a little. Together, the five counties won by Rubio — Polk, Story, Dallas, Johnson, and Scott — cast a third of the state’s Republican vote. The first three, containing the Des Moines suburbs and exurbs plus Iowa State University, were particularly weak for Trump. And this was with a competitive Democratic race the same day, and few liberals thinking they needed to pull a GOP ballot to slow Trump down.

Plenty think that way now, and a substantial share of Haley voters, according to the Des Moines Register’s poll, are moderates or Democrats who want Trump stopped. How motivated are they to turn out in the parts of Iowa where the population’s most compact and the commute to caucus sites is easiest?

MAGAland. Tens of thousands of Iowans who’d never voted Republican before 2016 voted for Donald Trump — twice. Their journey started in the 2016 caucuses, when Trump did best among voters without college degrees, and turned out the most new voters in shrinking industrial towns and rural areas. Evangelicals without college degrees went for Cruz; secular voters without them went for Trump.

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Those voters are everywhere, but if Trump’s most passionate voters are coming out, it’ll be visible in the 10 northeast-most counties, from Cerro Gordo (Mason City) to Clayton (Elkader). In this race, Trump only campaigned in the region once — a rally last weekend in Mason City. Haley never traveled northeast of Mason City, either. Did Trump loyalists turn out? Did Ramaswamy and DeSantis make any converts by showing up?

The Magic Kingdom of Expectations. You don’t even need to leave the house to get there! Trump’s rivals have gotten much more cautious about predicting victory, and moved on to the Monday night spin.

Haley methodically avoided setting any expectations, which got tougher after the DMR poll showed her moving into second place; today, her campaign put out a compilation of Trump describing polls that put him “60 points” ahead. (He was usually referring to national polls, as he never led by that much in Iowa.) DeSantis and top endorser Gov. Kim Reynolds have predicted an upset victory many, many times, and the candidate showed his ground game to reporters at this weekend’s rallies — carfulls of supporters who have been calling voters for months.

The conventional wisdom from Republicans who don’t want Trump is this: If he falls below 50%, he’ll look weak. If a majority of voters don’t support the president they mostly voted for in 2020, they can speculate anew about an anti-Trump coalition. A win by more than 13 points would break every GOP caucus record, but the race that they’d prefer to think about is 1984, when Walter Mondale won by a landslide, but Gary Hart’s 15% was good enough for second place, building enough momentum to win New Hampshire.

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Notable

  • Semafor’s Shelby Talcott and I reported from on the ground in Iowa last night, tracking the whole field’s closing messages.
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