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First Read: All About Turnout in Iowa

First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
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First Read is a morning briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.

All about the turnout in Iowa

Yes, it’s a cliché, but it’s also true: Turnout -- in terms of size and new participants -- will determine who wins Monday’s Iowa caucuses, on both sides. Just look at our new NBC/WSJ/Marist poll: Donald Trump now has a seven-point lead over Ted Cruz among likely caucus-goers, 32%-25%, with Marco Rubio at 18%. (Earlier this month, it was Cruz 28%, Trump 24%, Rubio 13%.)

It’s a closer race among past Iowa participants, Trump 29% and Cruz 25%. But among new participants, Trump has a 14-point advantage, 39%-25% -- meaning a larger, newer turnout benefits Trump, while a smaller, older turnout helps Cruz. It’s that simple.

A similar dynamic is playing out on the Democratic side. Our final NBC/WSJ/Marist poll before Monday’s caucuses shows Hillary Clinton ahead of Bernie Sanders, 48%-45%, which is unchanged from earlier this month.

Among past caucus participants, Clinton is up 12 points, 52%-40%. But among new participants, Sanders is ahead by 15 points, 56%-41%. There’s also the intensity factor, with Clinton leading Sanders among “strong” supporters by a 51%-46% margin.

So are tons of new people going to turnout in Iowa?

We haven’t seen the evidence -- yet: Are new participants going to flock to the caucus sites on Monday? So far, we’re not seeing it, though participants have until the night of the contest (Feb. 1) to register. In fact, party registration now is DOWN from where it was in Jan. 2015 – in both parties, as the Daily Beast noted yesterday. Here are the party registration statistics, per Iowa’s Secretary of State office:

Jan. 2015

  • Dem: 603,469
  • GOP: 623,465

Jan. 2016 (one month out)

  • Dem: 584,111
  • GOP: 612,112

Now compare that with the last two cycles…

Jan. 2007

  • Dem: 609,633
  • GOP: 590,187

Feb. 2008 (after Jan ’08 caucuses)

  • Dem: 664,658
  • GOP: 583,192

Jan. 2011

  • Dem: 664,588
  • GOP: 622,042

Feb. 2012 (after the ’12 caucuses)

  • Dem: 633,747
  • GOP: 629,269

To sum up: In 2008, we saw Democrats increase their rolls from about 610,000 in Jan. ’07 to 665,000 after the caucuses (+55K). And in 2012, we saw Republicans increase their rolls from 622,000 in Jan. ‘11 to 629,000 after the caucuses (+7K). But in the past year -- from Jan. 2015 to Jan. 2016 -- both Democrats (-19K) and Republicans (-11K) have lost substantial members from their rolls. Again, we could see a flood of new registrants for Feb. 2016. But right now, the numbers don’t suggest new registrations. As NBC campaign embed Danny Freeman notes, the Sanders team has ALWAYS eyed registering new participants on Caucus Day. “You’re in a state where you’re allowed to register on Caucus Night. We don’t need to add that piece to non-registered caucus-goers, we don’t need to take the time to have a program for that because all we have to do is identify them to get them to caucus so they can register them that night," Sanders Iowa strategist Pete D’Alessandro told Freeman last month.

More results from our new NBC/WSJ/Marist polls

Iowa wasn’t the only state we polled. Below are the likely-voter numbers out of New Hampshire and South Carolina:

New Hampshire

It was Trump 30%, Rubio 14%, Christie 12%, Cruz 10%, Kasich 9%, Bush 9% earlier this month.

It was Sanders 50%, Clinton 46%, O’Malley 1% earlier this month.

South Carolina

Among African-American voters, it’s Clinton 74%, Sanders 17%; among whites, it’s Clinton 52%, Sanders 41%.

Sanders “If there is a large voter turnout, we’re going to win.”

In an interview last night with NBC’s Lester Holt, Bernie Sanders acknowledged the turnout issue we noted above, saying “if there is a large voter turnout, we’re going to win.” But he also wouldn’t say that a second place finish in the caucus would halt the campaign’s momentum, arguing that an Iowa win is more “psychological” than significant in the larger delegate count in the race to the nomination. As pollster Lee Miringoff said of our new poll numbers, the data shows that a win for Clinton in Iowa would probably ensure that she can absorb a Sanders victory in New Hampshire before marching to a strong firewall in South Carolina. “But, if Sanders carries Iowa and then New Hampshire, this contest will, indeed, be a marathon,” Miringoff added.

Trump’s lead, and the skepticism that still hasn’t gone away

Trump’s lead in Iowa and in other states made us stop and think for a minute about how the political world would be covering the polls if the frontrunner was anyone NOT named Trump. If it were Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, or even Ted Cruz ahead in Iowa by seven points and by double digits in New Hampshire, we’d be saying the leader was “pulling away,” and there would be a sense that the GOP race was close to, well, “done.” But because of all the factors surrounding Trump – his unpredictability, the uncertainty about whether his supporters will show up, the daily drama and the unconventional campaign strategy – everyone remains a little hesitant to characterize the race that way quite yet. But if Trump wins in Iowa, that’s when we might see the conversation change.

GOP debate vs. Trump’s own event

Today isn’t just four days out until the Iowa caucuses; it’s also the final GOP debate before Monday’s contest. But as you know by now, there’s a TAD bit of drama on that front. After refusing to participate in tonight’s debate, Trump is holding a competing event in Des Moines to benefit veterans organizations. The short-term result: Without Trump on the stage, there will only be so much oxygen for attacks on him before the candidates start turning their fire on each other, which means that Cruz and Rubio are definitely going to be in the crosshairs. Meanwhile, Cruz is trying to leverage Trump’s absence by proposing ANOTHER debate on Saturday night in Sioux City between the two Iowa frontrunners, and the superPACs backing Cruz now say they’ll give $1.5 million to veterans charities if Trump takes the bait. Here’s the thing though: Candidates don’t try these kind of stunts when they’re confident they’re winning. If Cruz thought he had the upper hand, he probably wouldn’t be issuing this kind of challenge. Plus, news cycles in the Trump era move so fast that it’s not really clear that voters are going to care about the debate-over-debates by Saturday. After all, it’s not like there’s been a shortage of debates on the GOP side.

And speaking of debates

On the Democratic side, the debate over debates rages on, with Sanders proposing three more debates in March, April and May. Campaign manager Jeff Weaver said that if Clinton agrees to that schedule, they will “ask the DNC to arrange a debate in New Hampshire on Feb. 4.” So, we’re maybe a step closer to having the candidates on stage together a week from today, but both campaigns are certainly playing some chess to try to maximize their own advantages on their respective favorable turf.

On the trail

Hillary Clinton makes two stops in Iowa, while husband Bill makes four… Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina also campaign in the Hawkeye State… And so does Bernie Sanders, who makes four stops in the state.

Countdown to Iowa: 4 days

Countdown to New Hampshire: 12 days