The Iowa caucuses – the traditional beginning of the presidential nominating process – will take place in school cafeterias and union halls and libraries across the state, and the very weirdness of the process promises to make it difficult to predict the results in any political year, much less such a decidedly weird year as this one.
Of course, the basic outlines of the two races are set and well-known.
On the Republican side, businessman Donald Trump holds, as he might say, a huge lead over the Texas senator and tea party favorite Ted Cruz and a minibus full of other rivals.
Democrats, meanwhile, see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton locked in an unexpectedly tight race with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avowed democratic socialist, as former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley trails far behind.
To understand what might happen in Iowa on Monday night, though, it helps to know a bit about four key elements: the process, the politicians, the polls and the people who will be caucusing.
What will happen Monday night in Iowa is far more complicated and time-consuming than your typical trip to the polls.
Iowans won’t just go down to their local fire hall and cast a ballot. They will take part in arcane rituals that are vastly different for Republicans and Democrats.
Things are simpler for the Republicans. They gather at 900 caucus sites across the state and listen to speeches from supporters of the various candidates, then write down the candidate of their choice.
Democrats, meanwhile, show up at 1,100 caucus sites and find themselves perhaps engaged in some old-fashioned political horse-trading.
Those who are ready for Hillary will stand in one corner, those who feel the Bern will stand in another, and the lonely souls who rally for O’Malley will gather in a third.
If any of those candidates fail to get the support of 15 percent of those participating, voters for the low-polling candidates get to make another choice. In practical terms, that means that advocates for Clinton and Sanders will go begging at the feet of those who support O’Malley, pleading with them to move to another corner.
In other words, supporters of O’Malley – who is polling at 4.4 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics.com average of Iowa polls – could end up deciding a close race between Clinton and Sanders.
And if you think that isn’t democracy as you remember learning about it from social studies class, well, you have a point.
Then again, the central players in these dual races aren’t exactly textbook politicians, either.
Towering over the Republican race is, of course, Trump, who has run an unconventional campaign in every way. He’s issued far more insults than policy papers, for example, and the policies he has pronounced – deporting 11 million undocumented aliens, temporarily banning Muslims from the country, slapping duties on Chinese imports – are more typically talk-radio fodder than GOP proposals. Then there’s his fly-in/give-a-speech/fly-back-to-New York campaign style, which is at odds with Iowa’s four-decade press-the-flesh tradition.
Yet Republican voters seem to be loving the knock’em-sock’em nature of the Trump campaign, much to the detriment of Cruz, a politician who seems tailor-made for Iowa Republicans.
Cruz has struggled of late despite a hard-right platform that ought to resonate with Iowa’s many evangelical Christians, and despite his decision to run an up-close-and-personal Iowa campaign that has taken him to all of the state’s 99 counties.
Yet up-close-and-personal might not be all that effective a campaign strategy for a man that Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, called a “wacko bird,” and who endures periodic Twitter taunts from a college roommate who said he’d “rather pick somebody from the phone book” than see Cruz as president.
Of course, Republicans have other choices, too. Of the rest, only Florida Sen. Marco Rubio seems to have enough momentum in the polls to stand any chance of challenging Trump and Cruz in Iowa at this point.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, the unconventional politicians are Clinton and Sanders.
You might think Clinton is conventional, but there are all sorts of reasons why she is not.
First and most importantly, she would be the first woman president. Beyond that, she still seems unusually awkward on the stump, which may be one of the reasons she is not dominating this race as many expected her to. Then there’s her odd move, as secretary of state, to use a private email server, thereby giving voters of both parties reason to question her judgment and her penchant for secrecy.
Sanders, in many ways, is a living, breathing sign of Clinton’s weakness. Think of it: a former senator, first lady and secretary of state is in a tight race with an avowed socialist who looks more like an aging newspaperman than a president.
Then again, Sanders is also living proof that the Democratic rank-and-file is lurching leftward. After all, he wants to replace Obamacare – love it or hate it, definitely the biggest Democratic legislative accomplishment since the 1960s – with a Canadian-style national health care system, and he wants to raise taxes to pay for it.
The polls seem to be getting about as much attention as the candidates themselves, even though there is grave reason to doubt them.
On the Republican side, Trump leads the RealClear Politics polling average by 6.2 points, and those polls came before the Texas senator’s much-maligned debate performance Thursday night. Cruz has been trending downward, too, in many recent polls, but he is within 5 points of Trump in the widely respected Des Moines Register poll, which was released Saturday.
Meantime, Clinton holds a 3.3 percentage point lead over Sanders when poll results are averaged, while the Des Moines Register poll has her 3 points ahead.
It’s a mistake to get too excited about those polls, though, for two reasons: history and practical politics.
The history of the Iowa caucuses shows that the polls often miss the mark. In 1980, for example, the Des Moines Register poll put Ronald Reagan in the lead of a GOP race he eventually lost to George H.W. Bush. In 2004, several polls showed Howard Dean slipping but still leading the Democratic race, and he ended up finishing third. Similarly, Clinton led many Democratic polls before the 2008 caucuses only to finish third behind eventual President Barack Obama and Sen. John Edwards.
So why do the polls so often get Iowa wrong?
Because polling in a caucus state is like measuring volume with a yardstick.
A poll can measure voter sentiment, but it can’t measure how likely it is for any one voter to show up on caucus night. What’s more, most polls don’t measure second choices. And remember, a voter’s second choice can become his or her first choice in the Democratic caucus process in Iowa.
Add it all up, and it’s pretty safe to say that the polls will tell us who probably won’t win: those who are too far back in the polls, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on the Republican side and O’Malley on the Democratic side. But in a close race, the polls won’t necessarily tell you who will win.
The people, of course, will decide who wins the caucuses, but it’s hard to say exactly who will show up to caucus Monday night.
Both Trump and Sanders have attracted plenty of new would-be voters, but it’s yet to be seen if those people are willing to spend an evening at a caucus, which is considerably less entertaining than watching the candidates. And the New York Times reported a bad sign for both those insurgent campaigns: as of early January, there hadn’t been the kind of surge in new voter registrations like the one that pushed Obama to victory in Iowa eight years ago.
For Obama, it was all about the ground game, the unsexy process of identifying supporters and making sure they make it to the caucus sites.
Clinton and Cruz have tried to follow that game plan this year, organizing in every corner of Iowa, while Trump, according to the New York Times, “has fallen behind in the nuts and bolts of organizing.”
Sanders, like Howard Dean, seems to be relying on campus activists to pull economically anxious people to the polls.
The bottom line, then, is this: The candidates with the most highly motivated voters will likely win. After all, those who choose to caucus will have to deal with much more than a series of boring speeches from second-rate politicos who lack the fire of Trump and Sanders. They will have to contend with Mother Nature, too.
Forecasts call for 3 to 5 inches of snow in Iowa Monday night, and that’s something that no politician can promise to prevent.