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First Read: Setting Expectations in Iowa

Does Iowa have too much power in the process of electing presidents? 3:46

Setting the expectations in Iowa

Happy Caucus Day! It's finally here. Yet despite all of the poll numbers, all of the ground-game statistics, and all of the fellow reporters and editors who have congregated in the Hawkeye State, it's important to remember that Iowa doesn't determine who wins the nomination. (Just ask Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee!) But what Iowa does is shape how the rest of the primary season will go, especially by winnowing the field. Still, here's a helpful exercise to explain if a candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- can ultimately wind up as the nominee if he or she wins/loses tonight:

Donald Trump: Given the heavy concentration of evangelical voters, it's possible that Trump could lose Iowa and still end up the nominee. But his path is MUCH easier if he wins both of the first two states. While he could sustain a loss, it would be a blow after leading in all of the polls, especially Saturday's Des Moines Register/Bloomberg survey. (What happens to a man whose brand is about winning -- but who gets upset on Caucus Night?)

Ted Cruz: Cruz's path to the nomination has always been through Iowa -- win the Hawkeye State, overperform in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, and run the table in the March 1 contests. So a loss in Iowa would be crushing. It wouldn't kill his campaign (see his $18.7 million in the bank through Dec. 31). But it's hard to see how he wins the nomination without winning Iowa.

Marco Rubio: This is the tough one. Much like Cruz, it's difficult to envision how Rubio wins the GOP nomination without winning one of the first two states -- no Republican nominee in modern times has failed to win either Iowa or New Hampshire. But unlike Cruz, there is a plausible path if he finishes third in Iowa (and New Hampshire): He becomes the establishment alternative to Trump/Cruz and could consolidate the Bush/Christie/Kasich vote if/when they get out the race. That seems more realistic if he finishes a strong third (closer to second place) instead of a weak third (closer to fourth). But ask yourself what is more likely: Trump as the nominee after winning Iowa and New Hampshire, or Rubio as the nominee after finishing in third in both states?

Hillary Clinton: With her name ID, the fact that a majority of elected Democrats have already endorsed her candidacy, and her opposition (someone who hasn't been a member of the party until now!!!), Clinton could still wind up as the nominee even if she loses both Iowa and New Hampshire. But that is taking the most difficult, most expensive (Bernie Sanders raised $20 million in January alone!), and most time-consuming path possible. Yes, Hillary can win the nomination if she loses Iowa. But, boy, it's going to be miserable for her and her campaign. A lot is riding tonight on the Democratic side -- for Clinton and her party.

Bernie Sanders: With the exception of Trump, Sanders' campaign has been the story of the 2016 campaign cycle so far. The Vermont senator has gone from being quirky independent back-bencher to the candidate who's giving Hillary Clinton a neck-and-neck race. But it's hard to see how he becomes the nominee -- and begins to make up ground with minority voters -- without winning Iowa. As our colleague Steve Kornacki has noted, Barack Obama was either ahead or trailing in single digits in every South Carolina poll at this same point in the '08 cycle. But here are the results in the state from our NBC/WSJ/Marist poll last week: Clinton 64%, Sanders 27%. Those numbers don't change unless he wins in Iowa.

Bottom line: Two men -- Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders -- are probably not going to be your nominees if they lose Iowa.

Photos: Candidates Push to the Finish Line in Iowa

Brace yourselves for TrumpMania

If the polling is correct and Trump does win Iowa, the Washington Post's Dave Weigel is probably right: Trump will be a HUGE story, especially internationally. It will be a 7.5 on the political Richter scale. Again, winning Iowa isn't winning the nomination. But we can't emphasize enough how big of a story it will be if/when Trump and his family are celebrating on that stage tonight - in a state where evangelicals make up more than 50% of caucus-goers. It will be the biggest story in the world.

Brace yourselves for controversy if Hillary narrowly wins

And if the polling is correct on the Democratic side, it's POSSIBLE that Bernie's Army could protest the results. We got a taste of that from this Alex Seitz-Wald dispatch: "The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is raising questions about the involvement of Microsoft in the Iowa Caucuses, now just days away, and has built an independent system to check the official results. For the first time this year, Microsoft partnered with the Iowa Democratic and Republican Parties to provide a technology platform with which the parties will run their caucuses. The software giant created separate mobile apps for each party, which officials at hundreds of caucuses across the state will use to report out results from individual precincts to party headquarters for tabulation." Our understanding is that this kind of thing is a non-issue: There are redundancies in the caucus data. But these potential complaints happen when someone from outside the party is taking that party on. Another thing to watch on this same front -- complaints from Team Sanders if the Clinton campaign props up Martin O'Malley to keep Sanders' delegate number low.

Brace yourselves for Democratic panic if Hillary loses

It's one thing for Hillary Clinton to lose to Barack Obama in Iowa in 2008; it's another thing to lose to a democratic socialist who hasn't even been a member of your party. Again, A LOT is riding on Iowa tonight. And if Clinton loses -- a BIG if, given the current polling -- we wouldn't be surprised if there's a campaign shakeup to quell the panic.

Caucuses Vs. Primaries: Winning Iowa Isn't Always a Good Thing 2:03

What you need to know about tonight

Caucusing begins at 8:00 pm ET… Eligible voters who will be at least 18 years old by Election Day 2016 can participate… Same-day registration is available at precinct caucus locations… There are a total of 1,681 precincts that will meet to caucus. (The Democratic Party in Iowa will also hold a number of "satellite" caucuses for those who are unable to travel to a caucus location. Democrats are additionally holding their first "tele-caucus" for Iowans living outside the state due to military or diplomatic service, as well as for students and others living abroad.)… Democrats and Republicans conduct their caucuses in two VERY DIFFERENT ways: Democrats move around the caucus site - Hillary Clinton supporters, for instance, will gather in one corner; Bernie Sanders backers in another. At most Democratic caucus locations, a candidate must get support from at least 15 percent of attendees to achieve viability. If that threshold isn't met, a candidate's supporters must realign to a different candidate or "uncommitted." By contrast, Republicans select their candidate via a simple, secret-ballot vote.

The turnout

Republicans are predicting a record-breaking turnout in their contest, shattering the 2012 cycle's 121,501 caucus-goers. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is hoping for a huge turnout akin to Barack Obama's in 2008.

Past GOP turnout:

  • 2012: 121,501
  • 2008: 118, 411
  • 2000: 85,761

Past Dem turnout:

  • 2008: 239,872
  • 2004: 124,331
  • 2000: 59,404

The 4th quarter numbers are in

Last night was the deadline for the campaigns to submit their 4th-quarter fundraising numbers to the Federal Election Commission. Here are the numbers:

Amount raised in the 4th quarter

  • Clinton: $38,092,325
  • Sanders: $33,559,367
  • Carson: $22,627,101
  • Cruz: $20,519,558
  • Rubio: $14,194,453
  • Trump: $13,576,294
  • Bush: $7,107,370
  • Kasich: $3,193,731
  • Christie: $2,950,344
  • Fiorina: $2,853,044
  • Paul: $2,077,407
  • O'Malley: $1,502,107
  • Huckabee: $703,945
  • Santorum: $247,627

Cash on hand

  • Clinton: $37,977,647
  • Sanders: $28,304,765
  • Cruz: $18,734,794
  • Rubio $10,398,592
  • Bush: $7,589,858.
  • Trump: $6,964,324
  • Carson: $6,567,647
  • Fiorina: $4,484,307
  • Kasich: $2,537,300
  • Paul: $1,270,071
  • Christie: $1,126,158
  • O'Malley: $169,442
  • Huckabee: $133,244
  • Santorum: $42,919

Countdown to NBC/MSNBC debate in New Hampshire: 3 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 8 days