Des Moines, Iowa — 135,000.
That’s the “magic number” to watch Monday night as Republican caucus-goers gather around the Hawkeye State to choose their presidential nominee, according to data collected and analyzed by numerous GOP campaign officials.
Four years ago, a record-breaking number of Iowans — 121,503 — participated in the Republican caucuses. If turnout exceeds 135,000 this year, GOP insiders agree, it will be an indication that Donald Trump has attracted a significant number of new voters to the caucuses. And if the increase is even more drastic — say, upwards of 150,000, which some Republicans believe is possible — then Trump will likely win.
But if turnout is below 135,000, Iowa will be Ted Cruz’s to lose, for two reasons: Firstly, both public and internal polling shows that Cruz’s supporters are, by and large, veterans of the caucus process, meaning their support can be counted on no matter what. Secondly, the Cruz campaign has poured massive resources into a field operation to successfully identify, persuade, and recruit voters. Cruz’s team, with the help of advanced analytics and micro-targeting, has a very good idea of exactly who is going to show up and vote for them Monday night.
The same cannot be said for Trump. The question of whether the enthusiasm for his candidacy will translate into caucus attendance has loomed over Iowa’s campaign for months. Republicans here have watched closely for signs of increased voter registration, but a report from the secretary of state’s office on Thursday confirmed that there has not been any meaningful spike in the GOP voter rolls — registration is up by nearly 3,000, but the total number is nearly identical to what it was in January 2012. (It’s worth noting that voters can still register at their caucus precincts on Monday.)
“Ted Cruz’s support is going to be there,” says Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann. The same can’t necessarily be said for Trump supporters, he adds, “because they don’t have a caucus history.”
That hasn’t stopped some Republicans from forecasting an enormous uptick in voter participation. Kaufmann has asked GOP officials around the state to prepare for as many as 170,000 caucus-goers, though he says he expects 150,000 or slightly less. The latter figure is being floated by Governor Terry Branstad, who has told allies that he expects shocking levels of participation on Monday.
Those are high-end estimates, however. Officials from many of the campaigns predict the number will fall somewhere between 125,000 and 140,000. A few even think the figure could remain relatively static at 122,000, arguing that Ron Paul drew many first-time caucus-goers in 2012 who won’t be back this time.
“With all these candidates, all this turnout effort, it’s logical that we’ll have a record turnout. But it’s illogical to think we’ll double the record turnout or that it’s going to go to 170,000,” says Iowa representative Steve King, a Cruz supporter. “I think Cruz wins this in a close race, with a 135,000 turnout number as the over/under, and I think we go under that.”
That logic holds for Cruz all the way up to 175,000; if turnout is higher than that, his allies concede, a Trump victory is likely assured.
Turnout projections from pollsters, while varying, demonstrate the danger a massive spike in caucus-goers poses for Cruz. Monmouth University, for example, released a poll this week forecasting a turnout of 170,000 Republicans, and showing Trump ahead of Cruz, 30 percent to 23 percent.
Turnout projections from pollsters demonstrate the danger a massive spike in caucus-goers poses for Cruz.
Cruz’s team shrugged off that poll, arguing that a 50,000-voter increase is highly unlikely. Then came Saturday’s release of the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, which showed Trump leading Cruz by five points, 28 percent to 23 percent. Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe blasted the survey on Twitter, saying it forecasted a “386,000 turnout for GOP.” Cruz’s campaign has similarly criticized other recent polls with models projecting an electorate twice the size of what it was in 2012. “For the record, we may be leading at 250K–300K,” Roe tweeted. “I would have no idea because we would never test at that turnout range.”Such a gigantic jump would not be unprecedented in Iowa: Democratic caucus turnout jumped from roughly 124,000 in 2004 to nearly 240,000 in 2008, thanks to Barack Obama’s ability to new participants to the process. But in that case, the massive spike was predicted by an enormous increase in voter registration, from roughly 533,000 registered Democrats in 2004 to more than 606,000 four years later.
So far there has been no such spike in the GOP numbers ahead of the 2016 caucuses. There were 614,913 registered Republicans in January 2012, according to the secretary of state’s office. When the up-to-date figures were released Thursday, GOP registration remained virtually unchanged at 615,066.
— Tim Alberta is the chief political correspondent for National Review.