Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton enter final frenzy for voters on Iowa caucus day
Republican, Democratic candidates in last Iowa campaign push with hours to go until first voting
It was a fitting climax for two presidential frontrunners.
On the eve of tonight's first voting, Republican leader Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton converged Sunday on the same town on the edge of the Missouri River, both now sharing the same goal: to mount a last-ditch push to win over America's all-important Iowa caucus goers.
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Here in the western Iowa city of Council Bluffs, the candidates presented widely opposing schools of thought in public schools located just five minutes apart.
In the sun-filled atrium at Abraham Lincoln High, Clinton delivered a stirring defence of universal health care, taxation of the wealthiest and equal pay for men and women.
"Loose talk. Irresponsible talk. Inflammatory rhetoric will make our job harder," she told her audience, warning against alienating Muslim citizens in a bid to tighten national security. "So stick with me! Stick with the plan!"
At Gerald Kirn Middle School less than two kilometres away, Trump, the attention-hogging real-estate mogul and reality TV star, held court in a gymnasium where Stetson hats, wiry beards and hunting camo were more en vogue.
He reiterated his call for a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants. He blasted the Iran nuclear deal as "horrible." On the topic of Syrian refugees, he expressed skepticism about "thousands and thousands" of "young, strong men" seeking asylum in the U.S.
"We don't know, are they ISIS? Is this a Trojan Horse? We're not going to take any if I'm [elected]. And I have to tell you something. Anybody that comes in — sadly, I have to tell you — they're going back!" he said, as whistles and roars of approval erupted from the back of the room.
Several times, Trump reminded his audience of his lead position and favourability among Hispanics.
For all of that bluster, though, Monday night's caucuses are likely to play out as a classic nail-biter, says his former campaign manager and Republican operative Roger Stone.
The Iowa caucuses serve as a first-in-the-nation gauge of partisan preference for eventual nominees, with pundits believing the outcomes can sway subsequent state contests, thereby propelling a candidate to national prominence.
Turnout historically hovers around just 20 per cent of eligible caucusers.
"I think Trump is just like Reagan. Cautiously optimistic, to use an expression Reagan liked," said Stone, who reportedly quit the Trump 2016 campaign following the candidate's row with Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly.
Trump trying to convert support into votes
Stone said the ground game will matter in the 11th hour. Trump still needs to get out every single vote he can. Political scientists say his base comprises low-propensity voters.
"He has the support, but whether his campaign can get them to vote remains to be seen," Stone said. "Remember, many of them have never voted before. Many have stopped voting. Many are Democrats interested in becoming Republicans."
Trump stands at 28 per cent favourability in the latest Iowa Republican poll, with Ted Cruz trailing him with 23 per cent. Clinton maintains a three-point lead over self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders in the Democratic race, with 45 per cent to Sanders's 42 per cent.
With hours to go, campaigns are in overdrive, says Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University in Des Moines. Already, hundreds of out-of-state volunteers are in Iowa working phone banks and canvassing to get people to caucus.
"Ted Cruz has a whole bunch of people renting apartments down near the airport," Goldford said. "Their job is to canvas, and there's a lot of Texas accents among those people. They'll say, 'We know Cruz, and what do you want to know about him? We're from Texas.'"
The frenzy was felt at the storefront Des Moines headquarters of Sanders, where volunteer Amanda Loutris was in the last stage of "get out the caucus" efforts for the Democratic senator from Vermont.
'Disaffection' with American dream
"We don't have the time or the manpower to persuade a ton of voters right now," she said. "Instead, we're focusing on people learning strongly towards supporting him."
Sanders has pitched himself as the progressive leader of a "political revolution" in an ailing America that has become beholden to corporate greed and a dysfunctional Washington establishment.
Ideologically different though they may be, that theme of disillusionment also crops up in speeches by Trump and Cruz.
"Disaffection with politics as usual," Goldford says. "That's one of the few things that Cruz and Trump have in common with the Sanders people."
Trump supporters outside his rally at the school on Sunday said the discontent was palpable.
"Common people see that Washington isn't working. These are grown people who act like babies, and I think it's time to pull it together and act like big boys again," said Dave Simpson, a plumber in Council Bluffs wearing a "Make America Great Again" toque.
Competing versions of America
"The system is broken," added Justice Fitzpatrick, who lives on disability and has so far been unable to find employment. "Politicians are broken. And it does need to be fixed. And I do believe Donald Trump is the spearhead to fixing all of it."
The subtext, Goldford says, is that the American Dream is being eroded.
"They differ on what they think is causing that, and what the solution is," he said. "But there's a common thinking that dream is slipping away."
Clinton's supporters were decidedly sunnier.
After watching her speak at Abraham Lincoln High, some liberal-minded voters said they were confident she could extend the legacy left by President Barack Obama, or nudge things further to the left.
Rand Christiansen, a precinct captain caucusing for Clinton, noted Clinton could be the most politically credentialed candidate in either party running for the Oval Office.
"Being senator, a secretary of state and a First Lady, she's probably seen it all," said Christiansen, 61.
For him, that breadth of experience inspires confidence.
But one thing caucus organizers do worry about is something they can't control — the weather.
Caucuses are held on a fixed timeline, and require some personal commitments to be eschewed in favour of caucusing for what could amount to several hours on a weeknight in the depths of winter.
"The only jitters I'm feeling are whether there's going to be lots of ice and snow. A lot of precincts have older adults and it may be difficult for them to get out on caucus night," Christiansen said. "We need a strong turnout, so hopefully the weather co-operates."
With a blizzard forecast, caucus organizers are arranging car rides for people with accessibility issues. The latest forecasts have the system landing early Tuesday — good news for the Clinton camp, which is hoping a large caucus turnout will work in their favour. Caucusing in Iowa begins at 7 p.m. CT.
As the candidate noted in the closing of her speech on Sunday, "Thank God the storm won't start till after midnight."
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