DES MOINES — Real estate mogul Donald Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton each spoke with cautious optimism Monday morning as the first nominating contest of the 2016 election approached in Iowa, finding common ground on one unified message: Get out and vote.
“You have to be a little bit nervous, and you know I like to win,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” show on 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.
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. The two front-runners and their rivals 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.”
Republican officials predicted record turnout on their side regardless of the weather, fueled in part by Trump’s appeal to voters who have not traditionally caucused. 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.”
On the Democratic side, partisans were watching to see how Clinton’s elaborate ground organization would perform, given the massive crowds that her main opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has attracted across the state.
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.”
The candidates moved across Iowa over the weekend to make their final pitches ahead of Election Day. Trump reached out to voters in the heart of evangelical Iowa. Sanders went big and small, drawing hundreds to rallies and dropping in on canvassers in a pair of towns. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) continued to snipe at each other on TV, while holding dueling events in Davenport.
And all across Iowa, a slew of second- and third-tier candidates tried to pick up whatever support they could muster on the final day before the first votes of the 2016 election campaign were set to be cast.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) brought in his father, Ron Paul, who won more than 26,000 votes in Iowa four years ago, to make a pitch to young voters in Iowa City Sunday night. As Ron Paul grappled with a malfunctioning microphone, the libertarian icon asked the crowd, “Okay . . . remember how I used to say, ‘End the Fed’?”
“I feel like I’m being courted by several boyfriends to date me. And they are all nice!” said Sheila DeVries of Cedar Falls, who came to see Rubio campaign at a college campus here but is still deciding whom to support.
On the Republican side, Trump’s anti-immigrant, anger-driven campaign has catapulted him to the top of the polls in Iowa and ahead of Cruz, who has been badly wounded by attacks after he looked poised to win late last year. But uncertainty about who will turn out to vote has led some to believe that Cruz could still spring an upset.
Rubio, meanwhile, 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.
Cruz will head early Monday afternoon to Jefferson, Iowa, where he will mark visiting all 99 of Iowa’s counties, and then hold a rally at a church near Cedar Rapids. 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.
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.
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 rallied in Waterloo on Sunday and stopped to talk to smaller groups of canvassers in Marshalltown and Ames.
“I think the excitement and the energy is with our campaign,” the senator from Vermont told a crowd of about 650 people in Waterloo.
Sanders also took aim at a Clinton ad airing in Iowa that doesn’t mention him by name but that he said suggests he is attacking Planned Parenthood and protecting the interests of the National Rifle Association.
“Some protection,” a raspy-voiced Sanders said. “I’ve got a D-minus record from the NRA.”
Eilperin reported from Washington. Also contributing to this story: Sean Sullivan, Robert Costa, Katie Zezima and Philip Rucker in Des Moines, Abby Phillip in Council Bluffs, Iowa, John Wagner in Waterloo, Iowa, and Ed O’Keefe in Manchester, N.H.