Did Donald Trump win or lose by not showing up the Fox debate? Did hosting a $6 million fundraiser for veterans instead convince fans that he was the tough guy who can “get things done” or show many more that he is thin-skinned and lacks the temperament to be president?
No one has a clue – not the pundits, not the polls – not even The Donald himself. The Trump candidacy has defied every convention and upended all normal rules of the road.
The big question today, away from all the noise over the debate, is whether Trump’s Iowa supporters will show up and caucus on Monday. There are reasons to think they will not, and that the Trump bandwagon could lose a wheel. Not because he didn’t participate in the Fox News debate, and, not because a bunch of smart conservatives recently wasted a lot of time and effort pointing out the obvious – that Trump is not one of them.
Rather, Trump could hand Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio a victory in Iowa because he believes it when he says he could shoot someone right in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a single voter. That arrogance, which has fed off his remarkable success in recent months, has convinced the New York billionaire that he does not have to do the grunt work required of lesser mortals who want to win the nation’s first election showdown – and it might well do him in. Data points:
According to reports from the Iowa Secretary of State, the number of registered Republicans in Iowa has actually declined over the past year. With a great many Trump supporters indicating they have never before participated in the caucuses, we should have seen a build-up of registered voters. That has not happened.
It is true that would-be participants have until Monday to register, and that there might still be a last-minute surge in sign-ups. But, the lack of a concerted effort by the Trump team to get people registered signals a lack of focused effort. In 2008, there was a substantial surge in newly registered Democrats organized to vote for Barack Obama, which gave him the win. As Bernie Sanders said a few days ago, Iowa is all about turnout.
The lack of new voters signing up to caucus could confirm what several news outlets have reported -- that the Trump field operation is undernourished. That contrasts sharply to the famously disciplined operation behind the campaign of Senator Ted Cruz, Trump’s must-beat rival in Iowa.
A report in The New York Times noted recently, “At the state headquarters of Mr. Cruz, there were 24 volunteers in a room beneath a sign proclaiming a daily goal of making 6,000 calls.” Reports are that Trump’s campaign has few phone banks set up. The calling effort is vital in a contest where some 39 of Iowans say their minds are not made up. Those folks are going to hear from the Cruz team, the Bush backers and everybody else who wants to remind them to caucus for their guy – that guy won’t be Trump.
It has also been reported that the Trump team has not hired a single van to carry voters to the caucus sites. Transportation is a courtesy that campaigns traditionally offer (as well as one last pitch) to backers.
Taken individually, these are minor issues. Together, they represent the kind of sloppiness that many expected from Trump’s campaign, which has thrived on a hearty diet of free media exposure, boisterous rallies and little else. Because of his war with Fox News, the real estate developer is again dominating the airwaves. But, he has come in for substantial criticism for the showdown. Observers wonder, can he possibly be that thin-skinned?
Meanwhile, Trump seems concerned enough about tightening polls to have added three campaign stops to one rally already on his itinerary – in Sioux City, Waterloo and Cedar Rapids. By comparison, in one day last week Cruz made seven appearances at voter gatherings.
The tightness of the contest also prodded Trump to haul Sarah Palin out to campaign on his behalf. The former governor remains popular in some conservative circles, but her shrill and combative presentation was hard on the ears. One wonders whether the Trump organization had done their homework in preparing her for the endorsement.
Iowa is the first test of whether Trump’s substantial advantage in the polls and rousing rallies will translate into actual votes. Many continue to question Trump’s durability, expecting voters to begin doubting the feasibility of his sound-bite programs and policies. But, the months tick by and his expected slump fails to materialize. That makes Iowa, already an improbable focal point for the nation’s political establishment, even more fascinating.