David Plouffe tells a great story in his book about the 2008 Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win. Team Obama knew that if there was a typical turnout among Democrats on Iowa’s caucus night, they could not beat Hillary Clinton. Their only chance was to identify voters who did not typically participate in caucuses and persuade them to attend.
On caucus night, Team Obama took one look at the turnout across the state and knew they had won even before the final results were even tallied. Nearly 239,000 people voted that night, about double the historic Democratic turnout. They won by approximately 8 points. The rest is history.
With 46 days until the first ballots are cast in Iowa, here’s where this race stands right now: Donald Trump is the favorite to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. With the numbers that he’s been getting, it’s increasingly unlikely that he won’t win at least one of them.
At that point, we could be treated to the hilarious sight of a panicked GOP establishment actually trying to cause the thing they fear most every four years: a protracted primary campaign, maybe even one that runs all the way to a bloody convention in Cleveland.
The defining question of the next six weeks is: Will the Trump supporters actually come out and vote?
One reason state polling has been so volatile is because pollsters don’t agree on the best method of deciding who should be in the sample. A large pool of Trump’s backers aren’t showing up in some of the primary polls we are seeing because they do not usually vote in GOP primaries. That’s why if Trump wins the nomination, it’s going to be Pearl Harbor for the consulting class: the “experts” will never see it coming because many of their poll samples don’t include these new voters.
Let’s think about Iowa for a second: Around 120,000 Republican caucus-goers voters voted in 2012. Longtime Iowa activists will tell you that about one-third of caucus-goers are typically first timers, and we don’t fully know where they come from.
In New Hampshire, about 250,000 voters turned out in 2012. Voters of any party are allowed to vote in the GOP primary there. So what happens if a bunch of Democrats who think Hillary is inevitable (or just want to mess with the GOP) come in and vote for Trump? It wouldn’t take too many of them to seriously change the math in a field this large.
That’s where Trump has to change the math. His strategy should be to pull off the same kind of moonshot that Obama did. He needs every guy in Iowa and New Hampshire with a gun rack on his truck and a subscription to Juggs magazine to go vote. That doesn’t typically happen. But if it does, look out.
Here’s an even scarier thought: It’s possible that the polls are actually understating Trump’s strength. There have been well-documented cases in the past where voters were embarrassed to tell pollsters they were supporting a candidate but still voted for him on Election Day. Jesse Helms was left for dead more than once by pollsters and won anyway.
Ironically, the smartest thing Trump and his unconventional campaign could do would be to get very conventional right now — by putting a modest amount of money into identifying and turning out new voters who don’t usually participate in early-primary states.If Team Trump does the basic blocking and tackling that regular campaigns do, they could be hard to stop. There’s no way to know if they’ll actually do it, but it’s worth noting that Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is a former Americans for Prosperity state director. That means he knows a thing or two about grassroots organizing.
Coming off a victory in one of the first two states, Trump could be unbeatable precisely because he will have won by turning out a new coalition loyal only to him. In that scenario, Trump would have the momentum to keep getting 30 percent of the vote in primaries across the country — and as long as the field stays even a little fractured, that’s more than enough to win handily in proportional early states and keep rolling up victories in winner-take-all states. Pretty soon, the media would be treating him as the putative GOP nominee. At that point, all hell breaks loose.
Is this likely? No. Is it possible? Absolutely.
Stay tuned. Things might be about to get weird.
— Jordan Gehrke is a Republican political strategist who served as senior adviser to Senator Ben Sasse’s campaign in 2014. He can be reached at [email protected].