Republican senators, the pillars of the party establishment, are anxiously awaiting the Iowa caucuses on Monday to find out if Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTom Perez embodies the Democratic Party. This is why he should lead it. Trump turns his fire on the FBI What Trump's 'expedited removal' really means for immigrants in US MORE is the real deal or simply a media-hyped mirage.
GOP strategists expect between 150,000 and 185,000 voters will turn out, according to one senator who reviewed campaign projections. A big turnout would bode well for Trump who is expected to perform strongly among first-time voters.
Only a few months ago GOP senators were predicting that Trump would fade away, but with the first contest of the presidential primary only days away, they admit he has a good shot at winning the nomination.
“There’s been this question all along of how accurate the polls are. Who’s showing up and who’s not,” said Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), who hasn’t made an endorsement. “I think the polls are probably quite accurate.”
Lawmakers and strategists say the accuracy of polls depends largely on how many people vote.
A Monmouth University poll released Wednesday shows Trump with 32-percent support in Iowa compared to 26-percent support for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), his second-place rival, under a scenario in which 200,000 people vote.
When the projected turnout drops to 130,000, Trump and Cruz are tied at 26 percent, according to the Monmouth survey.
The Monmouth poll projected a turnout of 170,000 for Monday, significantly higher than the 122,0000 Republican voters who showed up four years ago.
One Republican senator, who requested anonymity to discuss the race, said Trump could outperform the polls because prospective voters have been more likely to announce their intention to vote for him when surveyed by a computer instead of a live pollster.
“You could make an argument that he’s going to way overperform because there’s a huge [polling] spread between if a person calls and a computer calls. People are far more likely to say they’re going to vote for Trump if a computer calls. They support Trump but are embarrassed to admit it,” he said.
The lawmaker noted that Ronald Reagan outperformed the polls in the 1966 California gubernatorial race because people were embarrassed to admit they planned to vote for a candidate who at the time was regarded as a B-list actor.
Trump’s campaign could also be set back by a brewing snowstorm moving in from Colorado expected to drop snow and sleet across Iowa starting Monday night.
Political handicappers such as Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report, say either Trump or Cruz atop the GOP ticket in November will hurt the party’s chances of keeping the Senate majority.
But a growing number of GOP senators say having Trump as the nominee would be survivable. They say Cruz as party standard-bearer would have a more negative effect on vulnerable Republican senators running in swing states.
“Donald Trump has a better chance of winning than Cruz,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “But it’s going to be difficult because he’s slammed a lot of different people.”
Some supporters of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), two of the most viable establishment-backed candidates, are already downplaying Monday’s results.
They argue that Iowa in recent elections has not had much impact on who ultimately won the nomination, pointing to former Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) victory in the 2012 caucuses and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) win in 2008.
“I just don't think Iowa decides anything. It’s a caucus, it’s not really a primary. I wouldn’t judge anything by it,” said one senator who backs Bush.
Caucus elections typically have lower turnout because they require voters to gather in a room and listen to speeches from the precinct captains of various campaigns before voting. It’s a bigger time commitment than a primary and for that reason tends to draw smaller crowds.
McCain, who barely campaigned in Iowa in 2008 and got crushed there before going on to win the nomination, said the state is more important this year.
“Generally speaking it does not really matter very much, it’s almost a one-day story. But now that we have all this talk about Trump versus Cruz and about whether Rubio has a chance it probably has more meaning that in the past,” he said.
McCain said it’s probably not possible for a candidate to largely skip the state has he did eight years ago.
Nevertheless, he added, “it’s more important than it used to be, but the first real test is New Hampshire.”