DES MOINES, Iowa — Republican and Democratic presidential candidates face voters for the first time Monday in the Iowa caucuses where outsiders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders hope to translate voter enthusiasm into victories.
The contests in both parties were tight heading into the evening caucuses. Among Republicans, Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul, appeared to have a slim edge over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who was relying on a well-organized get-out-the-vote operation. Hillary Clinton and Sanders were locked in an unexpectedly close Democratic contest, reviving memories of the former secretary of state’s disappointing showing in Iowa eight years ago.
Candidates face an electorate deeply frustrated with Washington. While the economy has approved under President Barack Obama’s watch, the recovery has eluded many Americans. New terror threats at home and abroad have also ratcheted up national security concerns.
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Iowans were gathering Monday night at meetings in schools, libraries and even private homes in the first of the state-by-state nominating contests of the 2016 presidential race. Candidates will be awarded delegates to the parties’ national conventions in July based on the caucus votes. But given Iowa’s relatively small population, another prize is the boost of publicity and fundraising heading into next week’s New Hampshire primary and later contests. Candidates who fare poorly in Iowa will face pressure to drop out of the race.
Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described democratic socialist who has been generating big, youthful crowds across the state, urged voters to help him “make history” with a win in Iowa.
“We will struggle tonight if the voter turnout is low. That’s a fact,” Sanders told volunteers and supporters in Des Moines.
Clinton, the former secretary of state and first lady, was counting on support from the party establishment and a strong field operation to bring her supporters to the caucuses.
“Although it’s a tight race, a lot of the people who are committed to caucusing for me will be there and standing up for me and I will do the same for them in the campaign and in the presidency,” Clinton told NBC’s “Today” show.
On the Republican side, Monday’s contest will offer the first hard evidence of whether Trump can turn the legion of fans drawn to his plainspoken populism into voters. He has intensified his campaign schedule during the final sprint, including a pair of rallies Monday.
“The day has finally arrived where we begin this really incredible process,” Trump told MSNBC.
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Cruz has modeled his campaign after past Iowa winners, visiting all of the state’s 99 counties and courting influential evangelical and conservative leaders. With the state seemingly tailor-made for his brand of uncompromising conservatism, a loss to Trump would likely be viewed as a failure to meet expectations.
Cruz has spent the closing days of the Iowa campaign focused intensely on Marco Rubio, trying to ensure the Florida senator doesn’t inch into second place. Rubio is viewed by many Republicans as a more mainstream alternative to Trump and Cruz, though he’ll need to stay competitive in Iowa in order to maintain his viability.
Rubio, who previously lashed back at criticism, adopted the same reflective tone as many of his rivals on Monday, telling NBC that Cruz “has a very strong ground game.” He dismissed attacks against him as “politics as usual.”
Iowa has decidedly mixed results in picking eventual nominees. The past two Republican caucus winners _ former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum _ faded as the race stretched on. But Obama’s unexpected 2008 victory was instrumental in his path to the Democratic nomination, easing the anxieties of those who worried the young black senator would struggle to win white voters.
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The campaigns were anxiously keeping an eye on the weather. A snowfall forecast to start Monday night appeared more likely to hinder the hopefuls in their rush out of Iowa than the voters.
Unlike in primaries, where voters can cast their ballots throughout the day, the caucuses begin across Iowa at 7 p.m. CST (0100 GMT).
There are 30 delegates at stake for Republicans and 44 for Democrats in Iowa, and they’re awarded proportionally.
Turnout was expected to be high. The Iowa Republican Party expected Republican turnout to top the previous record of 120,000 people in 2012. Democrats also expect a strong turnout, though not nearly as large as the record-setting 240,000 people who caucused in the 2008 contest between Clinton, Obama and John Edwards.