Politico recently reported that Trump’s campaign is confident that it will turn out 45-50,000 supporters on caucus night. Though no on-the-record comment has been made, such an estimation dramatically raises the stakes for Donald Trump: if the man whose campaign is premised on winning loses and falls far short of his goals, might his entire apparatus tumble down and his support evaporate?
To reach the 45-50,000 benchmark, Trump needs a substantial increase in voter turnout from years prior – in 2012, Rick Santorum squeaked out a caucus victory with fewer than 30,000 votes, or 24.6 percent of the vote. That places total turnout in the vicinity of 122,000. Four years earlier, Mike Huckabee nabbed an Iowa victory with over 40,000 votes cast of around 118,000.
Based on Trump’s current standing in Iowa – according to the RCP average, he’s at 27.3 percent – he would need between 164,000 and 183,000 caucus-goers (the number goes down if you spot Trump a couple of extra percentage points). These numbers represent more than a 25 percent voter increase from 2008 and 2012. Can Trump pull this off?
There have been many doubts about Trump’s ground game in Iowa and about the propensity of his supporters to actually vote. Anecdotal journalist accounts find Trump’s Iowa offices empty, quiet, and slow, compared to the vibrancy at rival outposts. Trump also hasn’t invested time in tradition retail politics, opting instead for showy rallies and the cult of his personality. The campaign is relying on an email-driven data operation to turnout supporters, and it may be working. A recent Bloomberg poll that screened for likely voters found 29 percent would be first-time caucus-goers, a group likely swayed by Trump’s charisma and motivated to hand him a victory.
Having such high expectations can be dangerous, however. If Trump fails to win Iowa and falls well short of his campaign’s goals, the his “winning” persona comes under serious doubt. Trump support is hardly fickle, but what happens if his campaign’s premise is proven false? Will that have a spillover effect in New Hampshire and South Carolina? Will people suddenly doubt the viability of a candidate whose only promise is an abstract characteristic up to which he might not be able to live?
The answer to those questions remain to be seen. It’s clear, though, that February 1 will be a pivotal moment in the election and may determine whether the elite hope of a Trump implosion occurs due to natural forces.
If you don’t support Trump, you better hope for a low turnout.