Four things to watch in the Iowa caucuses and later
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Beyond who simply does or doesn't do well in the Iowa caucuses Monday night, there are things to watch inside the results that can provide important clues as to how the rest of the presidential campaign will play out.
By design, the national political parties created a presidential primary nominating calendar meant to extend deep into March or April. This means that, in theory, well over half the states will vote before a nominee is decided. Each state has its own particular key to victory.
Iowa's caucuses are first on this calendar, but the state's results can yield clues on how a candidate might be able to perform in Georgia or Colorado, for example. However, the number of candidates will probably dwindle considerably before those states vote in March.
To be sure, if Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton pull off commanding performances in Iowa, they will both likely be on their way to winning their parties' respective nominations. Both would just add momentum to their already large leads in states beyond New Hampshire.
But if either Trump or Clinton has a slim win, or someone else wins the Iowa caucuses, the race gets more complicated.
Here are a few things to watch for:
Iowa will be the first test of whether Sanders or Trump is actually leading a major political phenomenon. Yes, their crowds are larger than those that show up for other candidates. But there has been some question whether they can change the electorate by having nontraditional voters show up on caucus night. If Sanders and Trump bring out a lot of voters, as Barack Obama did in the 2008 caucuses, then that might be a signal they could be hard to stop.
2. Which Republican can win over evangelicals?
In years past, this question only really mattered in Iowa. More than half of GOP voters in the Hawkeye State are evangelicals, and their pick for president typically determines the Republican winner.
This year, however, the evangelical pick matters more. On March 1, a month after Iowa, there are a number of Southern states holding what could be a decisive day of contests. These states — from Georgia to Texas — are full of evangelical voters who could also decide a Republican primary. Heading into the Iowa caucuses, Trump and US Senator Ted Cruz are essentially tied among this group. Some Republicans believe the entire GOP contest could come down to those two contenders, and if that is the case, evangelical voters could make all the difference.
3. Which Democrat can win blue-collar small cities?
In Iowa, Bernie Sanders is expected to do well in the large college towns, and Hillary Clinton is expected to do well in the rural areas. They will both battle for Des Moines, the largest city in the state.
The interesting point of contention between Clinton and Sanders are blue-collar small cities like Mason City, Dubuque, Ottumwa, and Burlington. These are cities that have been hit economically with the loss of manufacturing jobs. They are union-heavy, somewhat culturally conservative places that are friendly to Democrats, particularly Dubuque. These cities could be Clinton country because of their moderate tendencies, but so many voters are upset with the status quo, they could go to Sanders.
This matters because as the race moves beyond Iowa, Sanders and Clinton will have to compete in many areas where the argument for both is complicated. Does Sanders have a message that meets the moment or can Clinton out-organize him?
4. Which Republican can win Dallas County?
Des Moines, the state's largest city, has grown westward in the last 20 years. First it was West Des Moines, and then Clive and Urbandale, all within Polk County. But this growth has now spilled into the newer exurbs further west in Dallas County. That area is a fascinating place to watch the fight for the GOP primary.
In Dallas County, there are business-minded white-collar types in Waukee and evangelical types in Adel and Van Meter. In other words, there are Jeb Bush voters and Ben Carson voters aplenty in the area, some of whom will caucus at nearby precincts.
The one who wins Dallas County could be a good predictor for the Republican Party's most palatable candidate nationally right now.