It All Comes Down to Turnout

As we get closer to the first actual voting in this 2016 primary, we’re seeing a lot of variation in the polls. Just yesterday two polls in Iowa came to drastically different conclusions:

Monmouth: Clinton 48 and Sanders 39.

CNN: Sanders 51 Clinton 43.

Who gets it right? A couple of tweets from CNN’s political director spell out the difference.

It all depends on how you define “likely voter.” Will it be people who have attended caucuses previously, or have the campaigns done enough at the grassroots level to turn out new caucus-goers? Apparently CNN has a “looser” screen on that question. Here’s what Nate Silver tweeted in response:

What all this tells us is something we already know – especially in Iowa. It all comes down to ground game and turnout. That’s why I found Joshua Darr’s look at what the Sanders campaign is doing in Iowa to be particularly interesting.

If Bernie Sanders hopes to pull off this upset, he will need those “probable” caucus-goers to turn out near 2008’s historic levels, when turnout in the Democratic caucuses (235,000) almost doubled 2004’s (125,000).

Barack Obama’s Iowa organization in 2008 — 37 field offices in 34 of Iowa’s 99 counties — is the stuff of political legend…

Sanders has not organized as thoroughly as Obama did: The Vermont senator’s 23 field offices in Iowa do not quite measure up to Obama’s 37 (or surpass Clinton’s 26 offices this year). Sanders, like Obama, seems to be focusing resources on heavily populated, Democratic-leaning counties in order to “run up the score” in friendly areas of the state.

But according to a report from Gabriel Debenedetti, Sanders is aware of this and is attempting to expand his outreach.

Bernie Sanders’ Iowa rise is powered in part by the college towns where he’s killing it in the progressive communities clustered around some of state’s biggest universities.

But that won’t be enough for him to carry Iowa in the Feb. 1 caucuses, which explains why the senator who describes himself as a Democratic socialist spent Tuesday in some of the most conservative territory in the state.

His goal was simple: to shore up support in rural western Iowa amid concerns that statewide polls are masking a potential geographical vulnerability.

As many have noted, winning Iowa is necessary but insufficient for Sanders to win the Democratic nomination. And while I agree with critics who suggested that his latest ad was too rural and white, perhaps the fact that his challenge right now is to appeal to rural white (more conservative) Iowa explains why.

In an interesting turn of events, Hillary Clinton’s challenge is to turn out the record number of caucus-goers that Obama mobilized in 2008. Perhaps that is why she penned an op-ed titled: What President Obama’s Legacy Means to me.

Game on!

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.