There's far too much talk about turnout on election days, largely because there's little else to talk about until the results come in. Most of the discussion on TV is sound and fury, signifying nothing. The total number of voters who show up to the caucuses is far less meaningful to the campaigns than the makeup of electorate--which particular voters show up to cast a vote.
To help fill some of the airspace between now and then, here's a guide to interpreting tonight's results from Iowa as they're coming in:
1. Geography. First, pay attention to the big population centers. That's where the votes are. Polk County, home to Des Moines, was responsible for nearly 20 percent of the Republican vote in 2008, and Mike Huckabee won it by a substantial margin. If Romney is significantly besting the 23 percent he received in Polk County four years ago, that will bode well for his evening. He likely needs to do the same in neighboring suburban Dallas County.
Sioux County has the greatest concentration of Republican voters in the state. Watching the returns come in from this county in the northwest corner of the state can provide offer a clue to just how split or unified social conservatives may prove to be. The Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann campaigns will be looking here first to see if Rick Santorum was able to coalesce his support in the final 72 hours of the campaign.
Romney owned the eastern portion of the state in 2008, including populous Linn County (Cedar Rapids), Scott County (Davenport), and Dubuque County. About 47 percent of the overall electorate came from eastern Iowa in 2008. Watch to see if he can increase his support beyond what it was four years ago in these areas, which served as the core of his Iowa base. Dubuque is heavily Catholic and may be particularly interesting to watch now that the Catholic candidate in the race, Rick Santorum, is finishing strong.
2.Demography. In 2008, 60 percent of the Republican caucusgoing electorate described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, and Mike Huckabee's ability to win 46 percent of those voters propelled him to victory. The Perry, Bachmann, and Santorum campaigns are hoping that evangelical Christians will make up a similar proportion of the overall electorate tonight, too. If these voters account for significantly less than 60 percent of the electorate tonight, the Romney campaign is likely to see that as a very hopeful sign.
The two additional demographic indicators of most interest to the campaigns tonight are age and party identification. One overlooked statistic from 2008 is that Mike Huckabee trounced Ron Paul and Romney among younger voters. Paul and Romney drew an equal level of support from voters between the ages of 17 and 29 four years ago. (If you're 17 but will turn 18 before Election Day in November, you can participate in the Iowa caucuses.) These caucusgoers, however, made up only 11 percent of the electorate. If the Paul revolution is to win its first caucus or primary on Tuesday night, the campaign will need to increase participation among 17- to 29-year-old voters.
Also, many self-identifying independent voters tend to participate in the caucuses; they can change their party affiliation and register as Republicans just before they vote. In 2008, 13 percent of the Republican caucus electorate identified as independents. Ron Paul won nearly a third of these voters. With John McCain no longer in the field, the Paul campaign is looking to take a much larger share of their votes this time.
3. Electability: There's always a lot of chatter in the news media about the importance of electability, voters' desire to nominate someone who can win in the general election next November. But electability rarely proves to be a huge factor in how people vote.
In 2008, only 7 percent of the Republican caucusgoers cited electability as the quality that mattered most to them in deciding whom to support. Romney won an overwhelming 51 percent of these voters, but there were too few of them to make a real difference in the outcome.
Santorum and Romney have been making electability a part of their closing pitches on the trail this week. Perhaps the strong desire among Republicans to oust President Obama from office will spark an uptick in the number of these voters.
4. Message: You won't want to miss the candidates' speeches tonight after the results. A caucus victory creates a huge national spotlight for the winner, who tries to begin sounding like an eventual nominee (see: Obama, Barack 2008).
But listen carefully to what the other candidates say, too. If Newt Gingrich places fourth or fifth, will we hear a newly formed message tonight about how he plans to aggressively attack Romney going forward? Will Michele Bachmann say anything to indicate that she may be rethinking her plan to stay in the contest? The most nimble candidates and campaigns will hint at adjustments to come.
5. Narrative: The interpretation of Tuesday night's results from the collective political punditocracy is likely to have a greater impact on the race than the results themselves. There are many story lines that could possibly emerge from tonight's results, but the larger overall narrative driving the race forward from Iowa will be either "Romney Takes A Big Step Toward The Nomination" or "Results Expose Significant Romney Hurdles." Whichever emerges as the dominant theme will tell us a lot about whether we are in for a long, protracted contest or one that gets all but wrapped up in a few weeks.
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