CLINTON, IOWA/DUBUQUE IOWA – For Donald Trump, Iowa’s caucuses will be the first test of whether the celebrity businessman and political newcomer will be able to transform the massive crowds he has drawn throughout the election into votes as the U.S. primary season gets underway Monday.
Trump’s outsider candidacy has upended the Republican establishment, largely dominating the polls in the race to nominate the party’s presidential candidate ahead of November elections. Meanwhile, establishment-supported candidates like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have failed to take off.
Trump spoke of the importance of Iowa for his campaign and, in a rare moment of introspection at a rally in Norwalk, acknowledged the potential “psychological” consequences of a loss here.
“They say bad psychological things happen if you lose,” he said. “I don’t know what the impact is.”
The outcome likely rests on turnout and whether Trump’s campaign is able to lure the nontraditional caucus-goers who may have never participated in the caucus process to the polls.
Some are skeptical Trump has the organizational structure to pull off a commanding win.
Doug Watts, a Republican strategist who recently parted ways with Trump rival Ben Carson’s campaign, said a win for Trump is “pretty critical.”
If he doesn’t win, Watts said, “people will start saying, ‘Hmm, well, maybe he’s not so inevitable. Maybe Marco Rubio can climb into a solid second in New Hampshire.’
Chuck Laudner, the architect of Trump’s Iowa campaign, expressed confidence the voters would turn out for his candidate.
“There’s nothing about this campaign that’s like all the rest or any of those in the past,” he said. “We do things different. And we reach out to people that wouldn’t normally be caught dead at caucus events. And so we feel really good about our chances, we feel really good about our reach and I think you’re going to have a surprise on a caucus night.”
Trump, who appears to have emerged from a dead-heat with rival Ted Cruz to re-capture his position atop state polls, has done little to minimize expectations, predicting again and again that he’ll do better than the polls suggest.
And as he traveled across the state in the final weekend before voting, Trump had a quiet air of satisfaction, with seemingly little worry about the outcome.
“We began this journey — it’s a journey, we did it together — and it’s been an amazing experience,” he told a crowd gathered in the auditorium of a middle school in Clinton Saturday. “Nobody thought it was going to turn out this way.”
“Turn to your neighbor and tell them why you’re going to caucus for Donald Trump,” one of the candidate’s men instructs the hundreds of people gathered in an airport hangar in the Iowa city of Dubuque.
The responses pour out:
“Because he’s awesome!”
“He’s the man!”
The Republican candidate had flown here in his private Boeing jet on Saturday, two days before the first contest Monday in the presidential nominating season.
He steps unaccompanied from the plane, without notes, strides across the tarmac and moves to the podium, drawing a standing ovation from a mixed crowd of young and old supporters, of disillusioned voters and conservative Republicans.
“Here’s the story: The United States has just ordered a $3 billion plane, 3 billion. Do you think I could have made a better deal than that?”
Trump is referring to the government’s recent order of a new, ultra-high-tech replacement for the president’s Air Force One.
“Yes!” the crowd shouts back in unison.
Trump’s one-man show will go on for 35 minutes. The real estate mogul offers to let children visit his plane. “Not the parents,” he quips, “because parents will damage it!”
Five high-school students, all wearing Trump hats, exchange bemused looks and laugh uproariously at each of his jokes.
When protesters interrupt the Republican front-runner’s speech, his supporters outshout them: “Trump! Trump! Trump” and direct security guards to the interlopers.
“Get them out!” Trump says.
Then the candidate points to the cameras in the back of the hangar and laments the “dishonesty” of the press.
“Can we talk about the competition for five seconds?” he asks.
He criticizes his closest rival, Ted Cruz, as Canadian-born, suggesting he might not be qualified to be president; dismisses Jeb Bush as being “at 2 percent in the polls,” and attacks Hillary Clinton, even while half-heartedly predicting that she will win the Democratic nomination.
“Hillary for prison!” a woman cries out.
The Islamic State group, Syrian refugees, politicians, China, Iran … Trump touches on all the headlines, in each case deploring the “incompetence” of American leaders.
“The Chinese send these geniuses, tough as hell, no game, no smile, they don’t say hello when they walk into the office, they want to work,” he says. And the “Persians are great negotiators.”
His listeners’ interest seems to flag a bit when he mentions Secretary of State John Kerry or when he says that he was once part of the establishment before becoming anti-establishment “in two minutes.”
But Trump knows how to rile the crowd again. The Republican debate on Thursday, which he boycotted? “Boring. Hard thing to watch. But if I had been there you would have liked it, right?”
He mentions a photo that showed the back of his head. “I checked: no bald spot,” he says drawing new laughs.
Some people came for the show, but most express their admiration in similar terms: “He says what he thinks.”
Matt Simon, one of the students who had been laughing so hard earlier, explains: “He’s straightforward, he doesn’t beat around the bush or anything; everything he says, I believe that he’ll do it.”
But is it a problem that Trump has laid out his agenda only in the vaguest of terms?
“He isn’t as detailed as Cruz,” concedes the 18-year-old Simon, “but he is a businessman and I would trust him to do pretty well on the economy.”
Trump’s goal is to mobilize Americans like this who, disappointed by politics and politicians, have stopped voting.
Farah Adams, who waits around for an autograph, has often voted Democratic. This year she says she probably would not be following the campaign at all without the presence of Trump, whose reality television show “The Apprentice” she admired.
The prospect of sending a man to the White House who has a reputation for blunt language does not bother her.
“When meeting foreign representatives, he’s going to have a different filter than when he is doing a debate,” says Adams, a 39-year-old nurse who has come down for the event from neighboring Wisconsin. “He’s an intelligent person.”
Trump’s supporters believe in his ability to manage any crisis. Never mind that his knowledge of foreign policy can seem superficial.
“He’s no dummy, he knows how to run a country,” says Laura Anmeth, a 62-year-old retiree. If Trump has released few details of his future program, she sees this as being cagey. “Why would you let that out beforehand?” she asks.
Her husband Jerry, a Vietnam War veteran, offers an example. The Islamic State “will be afraid of him more than any other president,” he says, “because they don’t know what he’ll be doing; he could bomb them one day, and maybe he won’t.”