IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

12 tips for watching the Iowa caucuses

What to watch as the Iowa caucuses approach. By Chuck Todd

Who doesn't love a good writer's crutch? And Saturday provides a great one, 12 days to the Iowa Caucuses with Christmas falling in the middle making for a perfect theme column. So without further ado...

Here are 12 things (rather than 12 gifts) to watch for while we wait until that cold wintry night to see which candidate's been naughty and which one's been nice.

1. Turnout: this is the biggest wild card and the easiest crutch for even the most well-informed observer to lean on. The fact is, two of the three major Democratic campaigns are counting on turning out new caucus-goers to win. Obama's trying to turn independents and younger voters into likely caucus goers while Clinton is trying to turn out women of all ages. Only Edwards is trying to go old school and sticking to folks familiar with the process.

On the GOP side, the turnout battle is slightly different. Huckabee is trying to tap into the large minority of GOPers who are evangelicals, something that in a true two-way primary would be a recipe for defeat, but not in a multi-candidate race. Romney, meanwhile, has basically become the GOP's establishment candidate in the race. Romney would be in great shape if the GOP's caucuses had a threshold component because he probably could win more second-choice support from the rest of the Republican field than Huckabee. Then again, up until the last week, I thought Huckabee was doing a good job at figuring out how to meld evangelicals with rank-and-file Republicans. The pardon and soft-on-crime attacks have hurt him with the more mainstream Republicans.

2. Shenanigans: In the '88 caucuses, folks from both the Gephardt and Simon campaigns were convinced the other one was cheating or inflating caucus totals. To this day, there are Simon veterans who swear they won. What are the shenanigans to watch out for this year? Think midnight phone calls on Christmas or Christmas eve. In 2000, some Gore folks believe they lost West Virginia because someone "accidentally" called thousands of voters in that state urging them to support Gore via an automated voice message. The problem? The calls came at 2 a.m. The other "shenanigan" to watch out for is not necessarily dirty but strategic and that's campaigns attempting to slow another candidate by sending their supporters to a third candidate. For instance, rumors have been flying that Clinton's folks would rather lose to Edwards than Obama. And on the GOP side, all of the candidates not named Romney would love to see him lose and need Huckabee to win. Translation: those other candidates may band together and attempt to get their supporters to influence the final outcome. On paper, it seems like a plausible thing to do. In reality, it's very hard to "order" someone to go support another candidate because they are being told it's the best way to support their first-choice candidate.

3. Wild card candidates: So what about Richardson, Biden, Thompson, Giuliani and McCain? These five candidates don't appear to have any shot at winning Iowa but all of them still believe they can finish in the top three and make something happen in other states. Right now, as the rubber meets the icy road in Iowa, it appears Iowans are starting to gravitate to the candidates with the best chance of winning. But as Iowa gets closer and these wild card candidates suddenly begin staring losing in the face, they suddenly get desperate. They could launch attacks on one or more of the frontrunners that could throw these folks for a loop. Earlier this week, Richardson pounced on Clinton on Iraq; it caused a mild stir but served as a warning of what the next 12 days are going to be like. Very unpredictable, particularly with these more desperate candidacies.

4. First-time caucus-goers: As I noted in the turnout section, this is perhaps the biggest unknown of all. How many of them will turn out? Will turnout exceed all expectations on the Democratic side? A few months ago, I had one Iowa Democrat tell me they were preparing for a turnout of 200,000 but that was before the caucuses ended up two days after New Year's. Had the caucuses been on Jan. 14 as originally planned, I think turnout might have gone well over 150,000 simply because many of the universities would have been back in. The other thing about first-time caucus goers, especially among the Democrats is the patience they'll need to stick through the whole threshold thing. Some of these caucus meetings could take an hour to sort out. Will these newcomers stick around? You never know... depends on the... (see below)

5. Weather: ... the weather. That's right, there's no one thing the candidates have less control over than mother nature. If there's an ice storm in Iowa on Jan. 3, then Edwards and Huckabee probably will be feeling pretty good about the results. Their supporters appear to be the most committed. The weather, by the way, could end up an issue POST-Iowa as well. Eight years ago, it took many of us in the press corps four days to get from Iowa to New Hampshire; obviously, if a candidate doesn't have media to cover their bump, then will the bump happen?

6. The dreaded gaffe: these last few days are all about not making mistakes. And yet with candidates getting very little sleep and campaign staffs working 20 out of 24 hours each day, the likelihood of a mistake is as high as at any time in the campaign. Every little thing will get pounced on. Just ask Mitt Romney and his false memory claim he made regarding his father and Martin Luther King Jr. It's the type of gaffe that could have legs, then again, these next 12 days are so long, a gaffe made two days ago will seem like old news very quickly.

7. Knowing how to lose: The most significant moment of the Iowa caucuses last year was Howard Dean's disastrous "scream" speech. You'll recall it was first time Dean ever had to give a concession speech of any kind and he clearly wasn't prepped on how to do it. The eventual nominee of both parties may very well lose on Jan. 3, making their "concession" speech a very important moment. If the candidate can show they know how to lose or how to turn losing into momentum, then they may very well go on to New Hampshire and turn things around. My colleague, Mark Murray, has always wondered what would have happened had Dean not screamed. Would he have held his double-digit lead in New Hampshire? Many of us reporters may be under the false impression that Kerry's Iowa victory catapulted him to victory in New Hampshire, but maybe it was the scream that did it. And if Dean hadn't screamed, would he (or possibly Edwards) had done better in New Hampshire? This is why the concession speeches during the result period on Jan. 3 are as important as any the candidates will ever give.

8. Knowing how to close: A week ago, it appeared both Obama and Hucakbee had a ton of momentum. Right now, Obama appears to have hit a wall as has Huckabee. It's not clear either are losing, it's just that they are no long moving up in the polls. They are holding their leads but the rest are closing. Clinton had a very solid last week where she not only stopped the bleeding but seemed to find her own footing. For the first time in months, she actually looked and sounded comfortable in her own skin. For the life of me, I don't understand why she's been in the bubble for as long as she was, but better late than never. Edwards showed great closing skills in '04 so many of us are on the lookout now for him. Romney's unrelenting negative attacks on Hucakbee are working and he's moving north again. We'll see, though, once the spotlight is back on him whether he can fully get his mojo back. This whole father-MLK gaffe has me doubting his closing ability a bit. Romney's more mistake-prone than I think we realize.

9. Knowing how to read holiday polls: Are the campaigns (and the media) getting an accurate reading on the Iowa caucus electorate? Who knows. The state is hard enough to poll without the added distraction of the holidays. My advice to everyone, observers and campaign staff, don't over-react to your tracking polls; I think this is the year where we'll see quite a few GOOD pollsters get Iowa VERY wrong. Just a hunch.

10. Dealing with New Year's: Unlike Christmas, candidates can use the New Year to campaign and have fun and send a message. I assume all of the campaigns will have some form of "ring in the New Year of change" or something like that. It's truly an opportunity that the campaigns shouldn't miss; campaigns should skip doing a New Year's celebration at their own peril. This is a good night to rally the troops.

11. Ignoring New Hampshire (and other states): On Friday, the Romney campaign made a big deal out of rolling out a Michigan-centric TV ad. On a surprisingly slow news day, the ad was meant to be a symbol for the media to use to show Romney's more than just a two-state candidate. Well, too late. Romney's folks may think they can prop up his standing in Michigan but two less than stellar performances in Iowa and New Hampshire and any gains due to this first Michigan ad will be erased instantly. The lesson for all the candidates: success in later states is predicated on success in the first two states. Clinton's campaign is also trying to show that they are shoring up their campaigns in other states, subtlly sending the message that Iowa isn't the be all end all. Those that plan to lose Iowa lose Iowa.

12. Beware of the anecdote: anecdotes are the crack for campaigns and reporters in the final days of the caucuses. Here are some from four years ago that I remembering lingering on too long: "Edwards doesn't have enough precinct captains ... Kerry's crowds look stagnant ... Dean's getting the largest crowds ... Dean has more 55,000 'ones.'" Anyway, you get my point. The press has learned a thing or two from last caucuses. Notice there's no more false reporting about which campaign has the most "1s" or "2s." In case you're wondering, a "1" is a definite caucus-goer who is definitely going to support you. As campaigns learned from four years ago, Iowans are too polite to tell a nice young man or woman on the phone that they definitely WON'T support their candidacies. That's why you aren't seeing campaigns makes "1s" and "2s" claims this time around.

I hope these 12 tips or things to watch for make your caucus-watching a bit more informative and enjoyable. It's going to be the longest 12 days of the year, every hour is a day and every week is a lifetime. Happy caucusing.