DES MOINES — Real estate mogul Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made a final push Monday to coax non-traditional voters to the caucuses here, even as their chief rivals suggested well-tested organizing tactics would give them the crucial margin of victory instead.
As the first nominating contest of the 2016 election approached in Iowa, Trump expressed cautious optimism and launched a harsh attack against his chief caucus rival, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). Republican officials anticipate a record turnout given the enthusiasm surrounding Trump’s candidacy.
“You have to be a little bit nervous, and you know I like to win,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” show Monday morning. “This is actually my first election night. I’ve gone through many election nights, but it was always for somebody else.”
“This is a little bit different for me,” he added.
Speaking in Waterloo, Iowa, several hours later, Trump blasted Cruz as a politician indebted to special oil interests. He told voters that his chief caucus rival would, without a doubt, end the federal renewable fuels standard, a key issue in the state.
“I don’t want to use names, but I will, okay? I’m looking at the money put up by Ted Cruz, for Ted Cruz. It’s incredible, the people there. It’s controlled. And he will destroy your ethanol business 100 percent. One hundred percent,” he said. “He’s financed by oil people, and the oil people don’t want ethanol, it’s very simple. Your ethanol business, if Ted Cruz gets in, will be wiped out within six months to a year.”
Cruz and his team ignored the attacks and focused on rallying their supporters to get out to the caucus sites. Cruz appeared at a community center in Jefferson, Iowa, to complete a tour of all of the state’s 99 counties, a strategy his aides believe will pay off.
“This race is a statistical tie between me and Donald Trump,” Cruz said. “It all comes down to turnout, who shows up at 7 p.m.”
Cruz’s Iowa director, Bryan English, said many of the senator’s 12,000 volunteers here are calling their friends and neighbors who may be on the fence for Cruz, hoping the personal touch persuades them to caucus for him Monday night.
With a massive winter storm looming for the Hawkeye State on Monday night, the campaigns in both parties have closely monitored weather conditions to estimate how voter turnout might be affected. Front-runners and long shots alike are counting on their supporters to push them over the top in Monday evening’s caucuses, which will come just hours before a massive winter storm is expected to descend on the state.
“We’ve got such a great campaign organization. We’ve got thousands of volunteers. We knocked on 125,000 doors this weekend. There’s just so much excitement,” Clinton said on NBC’s “Today” show Monday morning. “We hope that even though it’s a tight race, a lot of the people who are committed to caucusing for me will be there and standing up for me. And I will do the same for them in the campaign and in the presidency.”
There is no question that the lack of an incumbent candidate, coupled with the unconventional style of several candidates, has sparked Iowans’ interest in the race this year. Jeff Kaufmann, who chairs the Iowa Republican Party, said his office has been receiving five to six times as many calls compared to past years.
“The phone calls at the Republican Party of Iowa headquarters are absolutely unprecedented. I mean, we’re looking at 100 an hour, literally,” he said. “Now, obviously, not all of that is tied to Donald Trump. There’s also a lot of these calls that are going to a variety of candidates. But I think that’s a sign of the enthusiasm.”
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) echoed that assessment in an interview, saying Trump has “turned out bigger crowds than we’ve ever seen before.”
“I know everybody is saying, ‘Are they just coming for curiosity?’ But I think they’re for real; they’re committed and will show up for caucuses. I do,” Branstad said. “I’ve been pretty impressed with what they’ve done.
“Of course we saw this phenomenon eight years ago with Obama,” he said, referring to President Obama’s first White House bid. “It was beyond what anyone could have imagined, and I think Trump is a phenomenon, too.”
The Democratic field is much smaller but no less competitive. Clinton, whose comfortable lead in Iowa evaporated earlier this year, has scrambled to try to fend off Sanders, who has attracted massive crowds and an intense grass-roots following that has put an Iowa upset within reach. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is far behind and could see his candidacy come to an effective end Monday night.
Sanders was encircled by volunteers and a crush of reporters as he arrived late Monday morning at his Iowa headquarters in a strip shopping center outside downtown Des Moines.
“We have come a long, long way in the last nine months,” the Vermont senator told his supporters. “You’ve got a tied ball game, that’s where we are.”
Sanders also pushed back against critics who’ve suggested his agenda is too radical. “Our platform, our agenda, is precisely what the American people want,” he said.
Clinton sought to bolster a group of 60 volunteers in her south Des Moines office by dropping by Monday morning — accompanied by her daughter Chelsea — with glazed doughnuts and coffee.
“I had to stop by and tell you how much I appreciate your hard work,” Clinton told them, before taking a few selfies, signing some books and taking a picture with two young women for Snapchat. “I thought I’d bring you some unhealthy snacks!”
Former Iowa senator Tom Harkin, a Clinton supporter, said in an interview Monday in Des Moines that the former secretary of state “has a tremendous organization, better than even Obama had.”
“We have 1,681 precincts in Iowa, and Hillary has a precinct captain in each one. Obama only had about 1,200 of them covered,” he continued. “Yes, Sanders has a strong message and a strong persona, so the tide maybe went to him early on. But the tide has come back our way.”
While Democratic activists tend to flirt with the idea of picking a liberal firebrand as their nominee, Harkin said, they always settle for a more pragmatic candidate.
“You remember 2004? People said they wanted to dance with Howard Dean and marry John Kerry,” he said. “That’s how it is this year. People wanted to dance with Bernie, have some fun, but it’s time to marry Hillary. It’s time to get behind her. When it comes down to it, they want their vote to count.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) appears to be solidly in third place in the polls, though it remains to be seen how strong a finish he will have. He began the day by making a pitch to the supporters of long-shot candidates on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I hope people tonight, when they go to their caucus site, perhaps they are supporting someone that is not doing as well, they would consider caucusing for me because we can win,” he said, before heading off to three caucus sites in the Des Moines area.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose campaign has stalled but who is still drawing about 10 percent in Iowa polls, remained determined Monday to hold onto his devoted base here, which sees Carson as a unique spiritual and political leader who could calm what they see as a volatile culture.
Carson campaign chairman Robert F. Dees said Monday that turning out supporters of Israel was a prime target. “I went to Maccabee’s yesterday, and we had a huge crowd,” he said of Des Moines’ lone kosher deli. “I said, ‘You will know a tree by its fruit.’ Just look at the life of Ben Carson.”
Beyond the top three sits a crowded pack of Republican candidates who have failed to pick up much momentum in Iowa. They include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, and the last two Iowa caucus winners, former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Nonetheless, how well they do could determine how well Cruz and Rubio do, since all will attract some support that could bolster the two senators.
Sensing that they stand virtually no chance of a strong showing, Kasich, Bush and Christie will spend caucus night in New Hampshire, the next state to vote and where their prospects are better.
Eilperin reported from Washington. Also contributing to this story: Sean Sullivan, Robert Costa, Katie Zezima, Philip Rucker and John Wagner in Des Moines, and Abby Phillip in Council Bluffs, Iowa.