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Winter storms and biting temperatures collide with Iowa caucuses

Campaigns and groups are rushing to adjust their travel and turnout plans in response to heavy snow and the subzero wind chill forecast on caucus night.
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DES MOINES, Iowa — Republicans here were expecting a flurry of political activity in the closing days before Monday's caucuses. Instead, they got a "life-threatening" blizzard that, along with bone-chilling temperatures, imperils voter turnout.

"Twenty below [zero] is cold," said Will Rogers, a former chairman of the Polk County GOP who plans to caucus for former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. "It will keep people home on caucus night."

Rogers said he believes stay-inside temperatures will help former President Donald Trump, who has a highly committed voter base and has led by dozens of points in every major recent poll of the state.

Indeed, in nearly a dozen interviews with party officials, campaign operatives and surrogates for candidates, a consensus emerged that Trump is most likely to benefit if snow, ice, wind and cold combine to depress turnout across the state. A December NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of likely Iowa caucusgoers showed Trump voters were most prone to be enthusiastic about, and locked in on, their candidate.

"His people would literally drive their truck through anything," said David Oman, a former co-chair of the state Republican Party who backs Haley.

The concern for Haley supporters is that bad weather could arrest her momentum at a time when rising poll numbers and growing crowds suggest she has a chance to beat Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for second place.

Late Thursday, she was forced to convert several planned Friday rallies into virtual events. Americans for Prosperity Action, an outside group backing her, has had to consider tinkering with its door-knocking campaign.

“The reality is every candidate and every organization is asking themselves that question. Iowans are not quite as put out by the weather, but it’s definitely a factor in these closing days,” said Drew Klein, an Iowa-based senior adviser for AFP Action.

“We’re knocking. We’ll adjust our tactics, obviously, we want to keep our people safe,” said Klein, who added that the group would have 150 people knocking doors in Iowa this weekend. They’ll likely hit more dense neighborhoods where they can target the most homes in a short amount of time.

"We’ll jump out, get a cluster of houses then return to vehicles, jump back in and warm up," he said.

Haley, who is running a clear second to Trump in New Hampshire, has studiously avoided making promises about her performance in Iowa. That's in contrast to DeSantis, who pinned his hopes on Iowa early in the campaign and was saying as recently as December that he would win the state. He traveled to all 99 of the state's counties, boasted that he would beat Trump here, and watched an aligned super PAC, Never Back Down, build him the kind of expensive and extensive field operation that could make a difference on caucus night.

"Basically, the advantage goes to the one who built the organization," said DeSantis ally Bob Vander Plaats, the head of the Family Leader, a religious conservative group. "You ask any Iowan, 'Who has knocked on your door?' And they’ll say 'DeSantis' time and again. They will not say Trump, they will not say Nikki, they won’t even say Vivek [Ramaswamy]. ... He's got the best ground game I've ever seen."

It's not just DeSantis allies who say his turnout organization is top-level. It's a view held widely among Republican and Democratic operatives who have worked on campaigns in the state. His aides say it's built for the weather.

"Organization is going to be key and that has been a top priority since day one," deputy campaign manager David Polyansky said. "But subzero weather also matches our grind-it-out mentality — we look forward to forcing our opponents to try to match our campaign pace when it hurts to breathe outside."

Ramaswamy, who is running fourth in recent polling, also said he's convinced the brutal weather will boost him.

"Human beings come out a little bit less when they’re cold," he told reporters this week. "I think this is gonna work to our advantage. Many of my supporters are not tepid supporters."

For Trump, the fear isn't apathy but complacency. He would like to win with a majority of the state's vote to deprive his critics of fuel for the argument that Haley or DeSantis could beat him in a one-on-one fight for the nomination. But Trump's advisers have been careful to try to lower the bar, noting that a win of more than a dozen points would set a record for a contested Iowa Republican caucus.

Donald Trump Jr. said the media are pumping up expectations for his father's vote share in a bank-shot effort to deflate his turnout.

"I think they’re going to try to design it to get Trump voters to think that there’s such a lead that they don’t [vote], so that they can run the story of there was an underperformance, so that’s why I think people have to turn up," Trump Jr. said in an interview Thursday.

For some Iowans, going to caucus will be a game-time decision. For others, there's a plan in place, either to face the elements or stay home.

Steven Everly, the GOP chair of Marion County, said he’s still expecting decent turnout on Monday, having fielded more than 150 calls in the last four days from potential caucusgoers vowing they’ll attend. 

But he has also heard from some older voters who said they’d have to take a pass because of the expected outdoor peril.

“The 2016 caucus was the largest one Iowa had in recent history, and depending on the weather, this one could meet that or could exceed that,” Everly said. “Your most ardent supporters, whoever the candidate is, they will normally brave the weather.”

DeSantis spoke gamely of the weather at a Thursday night event hosted by Never Back Down.

“The temperatures are dropping; my Florida blood is adapting,” he told reporters after addressing caucusgoers inside the party room of a barbecue restaurant in Ames. “I’ve got more reinforcements and layers of clothes on the way. And we’re gonna be looking forward to going all the way through. Get as low as you need to go. We’re not stopping.”

When a reporter asked how the forecasts might affect turnout, DeSantis talked up commit-to-caucus efforts that have been largely led by the super PAC.

“Clearly organization-wise, this is something you plan for — to help get the people out that are committed to caucus for you,” DeSantis said. “So that will be done. And I think we’re the only one that really has that in place.”

If Haley manages to outperform DeSantis, despite the team he's put in place and the weather, it is sure to give her a shot in the arm heading into New Hampshire. But the snow and cold could also deprive her of that.

Oman, the former state party co-chair, pointed to the old Iowa saying that a successful candidate has to organize, organize and then get hot at the end.

"She's in that space right now," he said of Haley on Thursday.

But he also noted the difference that could stop a hot streak on caucus night.

"It’s always cold and dark in January," he said. "But not this cold."