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2012 Iowa caucuses: The 6 counties to watch

at 06:30 AM ET, 01/03/2012

It’s caucus day!

After months of campaigning, debating and spinning, the moment of reckoning has arrived, as the Iowa caucuses officially kick off the Republican presidential nomination fight tonight.
The sun sets over a farm Sunday in Johnston, Iowa. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

We’ll have tons of coverage throughout the day — both on The Fix as well as our Election 2012 blog — and a live blog tracking all the results right here beginning at 8 p.m. eastern time.

In the meantime — and, yes, the wait for results will be interminable for all of us — here’s six counties to keep an eye on as the results roll in. They’ll tell us where the race is headed before it gets there.

1. Dallas County

Why to watch it: This is the big suburban county in Iowa, and is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States. It was the closest county in the state’s GOP caucuses in 2008, going for Romney by a mere four votes out of nearly 4,000 cast. It also happens to be the only county near Des Moines that Romney won, while Mike Huckabee racked up huge margins in the central part of the state.

What to watch for: Romney needs to expand his margin of victory here and hope that growing population means growing turnout. Particularly if he loses neighboring Polk County (see below), he would love to be able to make up a lot of those votes in Dallas County and then focus on his more traditional bases of support in the eastern and western parts of the state.

2. Dubuque County

Why to watch it: An eastern Iowa county firmly in Romney’s wheelhouse, Dubuque is heavily Catholic and pro-life. In fact, it was one of Romney’s best counties in the state, giving him 42 percent of the vote despite qualms in other parts of the state about his Mormon religion.

What to watch for: Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has made much of his Catholic faith and consistently pro-life record. Somehow upending Romney in Dubuque — or making it close — would be a very good sign for Santorum.

3. Johnson County

Why to watch it: Johnson is the home of the University of Iowa and, with it, scads of young voters. (A corollary: Story County, which includes Iowa State University). Young people turned out for then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama in 2008, but will they come back early from winter break to take part in the Republican caucuses?

What to watch for: Given his reliance on young voters, Texas Rep. Ron Paul must do well in Johnson (and Story) if he wants to have a chance statewide. He took 15 percent in Johnson and 12 percent in Story in 2008 and must do much better this time to win. He probably needs to win both to have a chance at victory.

4. Polk County

Why to watch it: No list of counties to watch would be complete without the biggest county. Des Moines-based Polk County will account for upwards of 20 percent of the statewide caucus vote, and has recently been a pretty decisive electorate, giving one candidate a significant margin of victory (i.e. more than 10 percent). It gave then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush a 2,400-vote win out of less than 15,000 votes cast in 2000 and netted Mike Huckabee a near-3,000-vote margin in 2008.

What to watch for: This was one of the few more urban areas where Romney struggled in 2008, taking just 23 percent of the vote. Given the sheer number of votes at stake, he’s got to at least make it close. A win here would be a really good sign for him, virtually guaranteeing a victory statewide.

5. Sioux County

Why to watch it: Sioux, located in the far northwestern corner of Iowa, has the highest Republican registration (by percentage) of any county in the state. It’s also widely regarded as the home county of Iowa’s social conservative movement. In 2008, Huckabee carried it with a massive 53 percent.

What to watch for: Sioux has to be Santorum country today. While it’s hard to imagine Santorum matching Huckabee’s lofty percentage from four years ago, the higher he can get his number, the better indicator it will be that he has unified social conservatives behind his candidacy.

6. Woodbury County

Why to watch it: This Sioux-City based county in western Iowa is Romney’s base. He netted more votes here (500-plus) in 2008 than in any other county, despite the fact that it’s just the sixth-biggest county in the state. But Rep. Michele Bachmann and Santorum have both been making a serious play for this part of the state.

What to watch for: Romney has only visited the northwest part of the state a couple times this year, and he’s spending his last few days elsewhere in the state. But if his base holds in an area where he hasn’t really spent much time and he wins by as much as he did last time (15 percent) that’s a very good sign for him.

DGA raised $20 million in 2011: The Democratic Governors Association will announce today that it raised more than $20 million in 2011, including around $9 million in the second half of the year.

The DGA raised more than $11 million in the first half of the year and will soon file its report for the second half.

The DGA is routinely outspent and outraised by about a two-to-one margin by its GOP counterpart, and it looks as though that will continue. The Republican Governors Association, which hasn’t yet announced its second half totals, raised more than $22 million in the first half of the year and spent more than twice what the DGA spent in key 2011 governor’s races in West Virginia and Kentucky.

DGA Chairman Martin O’Malley noted the Democratic wins in those two states in a statement announcing the fundraising total.

“2011 was truly a banner year for Democratic governors and the DGA,” O’Malley said. “Democratic governors prevailed in tough contests in Kentucky and West Virginia because they focused on what matters most to the American people: creating jobs and expanding opportunity now.”

Fixbits:

Romney will make a rare trip to South Carolina later this week.

Gingrich states the obvious and says he probably won’t win Iowa. But he will run an ad defending his work for Freddie Mac in either New Hampshire or South Carolina.

Rick Perry says he’s in it for the long haul. But really, what else would he say?

Santorum compares Paul to Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Remember when Santorum endorsed future-party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in his 2004 reelection campaign? So do a lot of other people.

Santorum says his tone has been a little too harsh at times.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) won’t endorse anyone after all.

Obama will do a teleconference with Iowa voters tonight.

A memo sent by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s (R) staff makes the case that he has been more successful than other first-term GOP governors, and it names names.

Must-reads:

After endorsing Romney, S.C. governor feels heat” — Samuel P. Jacobs, Reuters

As New Hampshire waits, GOP battle plays out in TV ads” — Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times

 
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