No one knows who will emerge a winner in the Iowa caucuses tonight because Iowa voters still don’t know who they are going to vote for.
The GOP primary has been highly fluid, with candidates rising quickly then crashing and burning, leaving room for another candidate to emerge. A day before the caucuses, Public Policy Polling showed the three front-runners just 2 points apart, and the Des Moines Register poll showed 41% of caucus-goers will make up their minds at the last second. In an election this close, it could come down to who has the best ground game.
Each candidate can sign up precinct leaders or captains who have agreed to represent at the caucuses — an important aspect of the process which becomes crucial when so many voters will make up their mind at the caucus. Before votes are cast, each the precinct leader or captain present is allowed to make a short speech in favor of their chosen candidate. “It’s always going to come down to who has the precinct captains in all precincts,” says Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
So far, Rick Perry has reported having the most precinct captains with over 1,500 pledged to support him. That’s more captains than their are precincts because even though there are 1,774 caucus precincts, they are often combined so the actual number of locations will be around 900. Ron Paul has reported 1,480, also enough to have a captain present at each precinct as well. And Rick Santorum, who’s grassroots efforts have served him well thus far, says he has “over 1,000” captains. Romney’s campaign has not divulged how many pledged representatives they have. A few days ago, Gingrich’s campaign told the Washington Post they were close to 1,000.
Newt is looking at his precinct captains to swing the election in his favor. He told a crowd in Davenport Tuesday, “So I’m here to tell you, when you have 41% undecided in the Des Moines Register poll, that each of you in the next 24 hours will talk to every one of your friends. And if each of you will go to the caucus and make the best possible argument for nominating an experienced conservative with a national record of achieving things, we may pull off one of the great upsets in the history of the Iowa caucuses.”
It would probably take a miracle for Newt to win Iowa at this point, but he is right about the role the ground came and precinct captains will play. “It’s about persuasion. How do you get someone to vote for your candidate over everyone else,” says Larimer. Of course, now that it seems all the frontrunners (with Romney’s numbers unclear) will have a representative at the each caucus, it could come down to whose captains are most persuasive. That’s partly a game of luck, but also a reflection of the strength of the candidate.
For all the talk leading up to the caucuses about whether retail politics were dead, whether a ground-game could be replaced with millions spent in ads, the playing field is level enough that the ground game will likely decide it all.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.