Trump builds Iowa ground game

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DES MOINES — Political insiders in Iowa have a warning: Don’t underestimate Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: Clinton holds 5-point lead over Trump Poll: Voters don't trust media fact-checkers San Diego newspaper endorses Clinton MORE’s ground game.

Experts inside and outside the GOP tell The Hill it would be a mistake to think Trump’s organization is operating on a wing and a prayer when it comes to getting his supporters to caucus sites around Iowa on Monday night.

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“I think his campaign is better organized than people give him credit for,” said David Yepsen, the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, who covered the caucuses over several decades for The Des Moines Register.

“His campaign has got a couple of good leaders in it that have done this before.”

Trump got another boost on Saturday when the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg released their new poll showing him leading his top rival, Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzTech groups file court brief opposing internet transition suit Cruz criticizes federal law enforcement on terrorism Four states sue to stop internet transition MORE (R-Texas), 28 percent to 23 percent. The previous version of the same poll, released Jan. 13, had him trailing the Texan 25 percent to 22 percent.

Still, Trump could have particular challenges when it comes to his ground game.

Polls show an unusually high share of his supporters have never caucused before, and detractors question whether they will show up for the business mogul.

Voting in a primary is one thing. It merely involves casting a ballot, and maybe standing in line.

Iowa’s caucuses by their nature are more time-consuming and confusing.

On Monday, caucus-goers will need to show up at a location at a particular hour (7 p.m. local time) and, in many cases, sit through short speeches by a designated supporter of each candidate. Votes are cast in the Republican caucuses by secret ballot. Democrats have a different system, where supporters of each candidate gather around one another in the room. Either way, the process places a premium on organization. 

“It makes all the difference in the world,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa who is not aligned with any presidential candidate.

Trump clearly understands the danger of his poll numbers failing to translate to support at the caucuses.

At a Saturday evening rally in a theater in the eastern Iowa city of Davenport, he told the audience, "We really are on the cusp of something so big."

But, he added, "it all doesn't matter if you don't caucus on Monday. The polls don't matter, nothing matters."

Trump also told crowd members to go to his campaign website if they were unsure of their caucus location -- and said he intended to visit "three or four" sites himself on the night.

Robinson believes Trump’s organization is ready for Monday night because it has been effective in empowering local organizers.

“The Trump campaign is unique in that it appeals to all these new people but they’ve also done a really good job of getting organizers and letting them organize their own communities,” Robinson said. “The average age is over 40, it’s not just young kids.”

There is near-unanimity that the best campaign infrastructure among all the GOP candidates belongs to Curz.

The Cruz campaign’s communications director, Rick Tyler, told The Hill that the campaign had named chairpeople to every one of Iowa’s 99 counties “quite a while back.” He added, “today, we have over 12,000 volunteers averaging 2,000 door-knocks a day, 20,000 calls per day.” The Cruz campaign has a designated precinct captain in “almost all” the 1681 precincts across the state, Tyler said.

There is no other Republican campaign that can compete with those metrics. A spokeswoman for the Trump campaign declined to comment on its ground-game for this story. The campaign of Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioFlorida paper endorses Clinton, writes separate piece on why not Trump Overnight Finance: Lawmakers float criminal charges for Wells Fargo chief | Scrutiny on Trump's Cuba dealings | Ryan warns of recession if no tax reform The Trail 2016: Just a little kick MORE (R-Fla.), who is third in most Iowa polls, has four field offices in the state, according to an aide.

Tyler also emphasized that the Cruz operation is making full use of data-driven techniques. He said technology was not only being utilized to identify Cruz supporters. It was also helping staff and volunteers learn how to most effectively make the argument to persuadable voters on the Texas senator’s behalf.

“Some people like ‘just the facts.’ Others prefer a more aspirational message,” he said.

Cruz also enjoys a more traditional advantage: Evangelicals and other conservative Christians form a bedrock of his support — and they are among the most reliable of all GOP caucus-goers.

Yepsen noted that Iowa’s Christian political networks have been honed over a generation.

“They’ve really been at it since 1988, when Pat Robertson ran so strongly,” he said, adding that Christian conservatives in essence won the caucuses for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in 2008 and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) in 2012. 

Huckabee and Santorum are both running this year but have struggled badly for traction. Huckabee scores less than three precent support in the current RCP average and Santorum does even worse. Their low ratings are a big plus for Cruz, who has avoided any serious splintering of the evangelical vote — aside, that is, from Trump’s one-of-a-kind candidacy.

Steve Deace, an influential conservative radio host in the state, endorsed Cruz in August. He asserted that the Texan had the strongest ground game of any Republican candidate in Iowa “since at least George W. Bush.” 

Deace is also firmly in the skeptics camp when it comes to Trump. Asked whether the business mogul’s supporters will show up on Monday, he said, “That’s the great mystery. If Trump wins in Iowa, it will be with the most anemic organization I have ever seen.”

The wild card on Monday might be Rubio.

Buzz built Saturday that the Florida senator’s campaign is the one with the momentum.

He’s been a much more frequent visitor over the last month than he was during the earlier phase of his bid, and a campaign aide noted that, by caucus night, he will have been in Iowa for eight straight days.

Rubio is attracting growing crowds, and the more moderate, establishment-friendly GOP vote could finally be coalescing around him.

“We’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm,” a campaign aide said. “I think that our momentum is growing at the right time.”

Whatever else changes, one factor remains huge when it comes to turnout: the weather. 

As of Saturday afternoon, the Monday forecast for Des Moines projects a cloudy, mild day.