DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump‘s high poll numbers here are raising eyebrows among the state’s veteran politicos, who doubt he will be able to translate his appeal as a celebrity and political renegade into voters who show up to caucus on a cold February night.
It’s a potential problem of which Mr. Trump is aware. He’s hired some of the best Iowa operatives to try to figure out how to get supporters of his anti-establishment message, who may not be regular caucusgoers, to come out for him on Feb. 1.
But those on the ground say they’ll be surprised if he’s successful.
“I don’t know one Iowa caucusgoer who is going to show up for Trump on Feb. 1,” said Laura Kamienski, a Republican Party caucus precinct representative for Hiawatha District in Cedar Rapids. “The people who are answering the pollsters’ calls, I don’t know [if] they are the people who will turn out on caucus night.”
It’s happened before: Democrats Howard Dean in 2004 and Jesse Jackson in 1988 both had strong showings in the polls, but their supporters failed to materialize on caucus night, which is usually frigid, and involves showing up to spend several hours at a set time at a precinct site.
Mr. Trump draws supporters by the thousands to his rallies, but they are not the die-hard party activists who reliably turn out on caucus night.
Ms. Kamienski said she expects a surprise in the caucus this cycle similar to former Sen. Rick Santorum‘s unexpected win in 2012. Mr. Santorum is back in the 2016 Republican race but is polling near the bottom of the crowded field in Iowa and nationally.
Mr. Trump‘s appeal has also tested pollsters, who put a good deal of thought into trying to identify likely caucusgoers. Often that’s based on past voting history — but Mr. Trump is counting on new blood that’s tougher to evaluate.
Pollsters defended their survey methods and stood by their numbers. But some credited Mr. Trump‘s dominance in polls to his near-universal name recognition as star of the hit TV shows “The Apprentice” and “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dismissed any doubt about the poll numbers. He said it was coming from the same “political pundits who have been wrong every step of the way” about Mr. Trump‘s candidacy, including predicting he would fade after the summer.
He also noted that they had hired the Iowa organizer from Mr. Santrorum’s 2012 campaign, Chuck Laudner, who is considered one of the most formidable grass-roots organizers and get-out-the-vote strategists in the state.
“You tell me another campaign who has the individual running it who won the last time. You can’t because we” have Mr. Laudner, he said, adding that the campaign also had the largest paid staff, with 13 operatives on the ground in Iowa.
Mr. Trump‘s poll numbers have been impressive. The billionaire businessman has been at the front of the pack in Iowa and nationally most of the time since he entered the race, though he has traded the lead recently with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson have polled in the low 20s and hold a double-digit lead over the next-closest competitor, with more than a dozen candidates in the race.
Both men have tapped into an undercurrent of anti-establishment rage in the electorate.
“There are always candidates in the race who strike a chord but [who] people don’t see as a serious presidential candidate,” said David Yepsen, an expert on presidential campaigns in Iowa. “I’m thinking specifically of Jesse Jackson on the Democratic side. I saw lots of good Democrats show up at his events and cheer, but on caucus night they went someplace else.”
Furthermore, he said Mr. Trump had the same heavy lift that then-Sen. Barack Obama confronted in 2008, when he was atop a groundswell of voters new to the political process.
“Finding and getting all these new people who are showing up [at rallies] and are fired up, and doing things that will get them turned out on a cold February night — that’s a challenge that Trump faces,” said Mr. Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
Of course, Mr. Obama handily won Iowa’s 2008 Democratic caucus.
Mr. Yepsen acknowledged that Mr. Trump‘s tough talk on immigration, trade and national security resonates with voters in Iowa and across the country. But he said that might not be enough.
“I just think you have to look like a president, you have to act like a president, and protest candidates, angry candidates ultimately don’t do very well because protest and anger are not presidential,” he said. “We expect our presidents to be upbeat and optimistic: Reagan, Roosevelt, John Kennedy. The hot populist, the angry candidate — Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Ross Perot — they may appeal to people and they may get some votes, but on caucus night it is oftentimes cooler heads that prevail.”
He pointed to polls showing a large percentage of Iowa Republican caucusgoers saying they would never vote for Mr. Trump.
A Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll last month showed that 25 percent of likely Republican caucusgoers picked Mr. Trump as the candidate they would most like to see drop out of the race, the highest share of any candidate.
“It’s wishful thinking from those people supporting traditional candidates, and I think they underestimate Trump a little bit,” said Mr. Robinson, who is not supporting a candidate in the race.
He said the huge crowds turning out to see Mr. Trump, such as the 3,500 at an event in Burlington, are not simply gawkers or fans of his TV shows.
At the Burlington event Mr. Robinson said he saw veterans wearing their military caps leaving with Trump yard signs. He also saw people showing up already wearing Trump hats bearing the campaign motto “Make America Great Again” — meaning they’d signed on even before hearing him speak.
“These are Trump supporters,” he said.
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