DES MOINES — When Donald Trump held one of his boisterous rallies at the state fairgrounds this month, Bonnie and Randy Reynolds arrived two hours early to make sure they could snag seats. They bought “Make America Great Again” hats, put on campaign T-shirts and passed through a security checkpoint.
The West Des Moines couple, who have two grown children, had never been to a political event before. Bonnie works in a mailroom; Randy is a press operator. They don’t live paycheck to paycheck, but it would take just one small catastrophe to push them there.
“In the end, everything that he’s saying might not happen if he is elected — but I’m willing to give it a shot,” said Randy Reynolds, 49, who used to vote for Democrats but switched to Republicans a decade ago. “I will give him 100 percent. . . . It would be amazing if the majority of things that he said would actually happen. That would be amazing.”
So, obviously, the couple plan to caucus for Trump on Feb. 1?
“We’re going to see,” Reynolds said. “With kids and grandkids and all this, it’s kind of hectic. . . . We’ll look into it. If our time is available, then yeah, maybe we’ll do it. Maybe. We’ll have to see.”
Trump’s unexpected and sustained popularity has, at least in part, been fueled by his appeal to a voting bloc that seems to be emerging: blue-collar workers without college degrees who are slightly younger than the traditional Republican voter. Many say they haven’t cared about politics until now, as they flock to Trump rallies like groupies to a rock concert, read his books, buy his products, quote his jokes and follow his social-media accounts.
But is their devotion to Trump deep enough to vote?
For those who don’t regularly vote in primaries, doing so for the first time is a hurdle — especially in Iowa, which uses a caucus system that can intimidate first-timers.
In states with early primary contests, Trump’s staffers are trying to teach their supporters how to vote and get a commitment that they actually will. Before each rally here, Trump’s state co-chairs walk the crowd through how the caucuses work and urge them to attend. But they are also hoping word will spread through social media and in conversations after church, at the school bus stop, during coffee breaks and over holiday dinners.
Bonnie Reynolds, 47, said she didn’t know much about caucusing until her co-worker explained it to her and encouraged her to get involved. When the couple showed up at Trump’s rally on Dec. 11, a campaign volunteer asked them to sign a sheet committing to caucusing. Reynolds signed them up, although she’s not sure whether she will follow through.
In the past few weeks, Trump himself has started talking about the importance of voting in early states. At a rally in western Iowa in early December, Trump said there’s no excuse not to vote.
“You’ve got to get there,” he said. “Even if you’re not feeling good, if you’re feeling horrible, if you had a horrible fight with your wife or your husband. . . . If you caught your husband cheating the night before, you’ve got to go to the caucus.”
Trump’s campaign strategy is far from traditional, although his ground game in early voting states has followed a relatively standard playbook in some respects. Over the summer, he hired 10 staffers in Iowa, who traveled around the state in a Trump-branded bus to hand out T-shirts, bumper stickers and hats in exchange for contact information.
But just as Trump doesn’t spend money on pollsters or focus groups, the campaign has yet to purchase databases of potential voters, a key organizing tool used by most campaigns. Instead of buying such a tool from a private contractor, the campaign has compiled its own database using contact information from every rally attendee, either when they registered online or showed up at the door.
With just five weeks until the Iowa caucuses, other Republican candidates have started to flood the state with more staffers and volunteers. Trump’s campaign now has an Iowa staff of 15, who organize at least one large rally per week in addition to continuing to recruit “caucus leaders” who can be the voice of the campaign at caucus locations.
Trump’s Iowa team remains confident that his rally crowds will serendipitously translate into caucus support. Sam Clovis, Trump’s Iowa co-chair, pointed to a rally Trump held in Clay County in northwest Iowa in early December. Only 16,500 people live in the county, but 1,500 showed up at the rally in Spencer, and Clovis said he asked the crowd how many had never caucused before.
“Twenty percent of the hands went up,” Clovis said. “And I said: How many of you are going to caucus this time? Same 20 percent of hands went up, because he has done something. This is something that’s not reflected in the polls. It’s not reflected in any of the ways that you go out and count things.”
There are few gauges right now to measure which candidate might do better in Iowa among the most likely voters. Nationally, a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this month found that 38 percent of registered Republicans support Trump. Among those who said they are certain to vote, 41 percent said they would pick Trump.
Unlike a general election or traditional primary, only a small fraction of Iowans attend the caucuses. In 2012 and 2008, roughly 20 percent of registered Republicans caucused. In low-turnout elections like this, voters tend to be older people who vote regularly and are more likely to have a college degree — not necessarily the group Trump seems to have fired up.
It takes a higher level of commitment to caucus. In traditional primaries, voters have most of the day to show up at the polls. To caucus, Iowans have to be in line at their local precinct by 7 p.m. and will spend most of their evening there, listening to speeches and casting their vote.
Feb. 1 is a Monday night, likely to be cold, perhaps snowy or icy. The caucuses have to compete with the logistics of everyday life: evening work shifts, children who have after-school activities or need help with their homework, making dinner and preparing for the week ahead. And campaigns only have one shot at getting supporters through the door — there’s no early voting and a limited time to monitor who has yet to show up.
“This is a struggle for all of the candidates, because a caucus is different from voting. . . . A caucus is very inconvenient,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP official who now runs the blog TheIowaRepublican.com. “It takes a commitment of time.”
But Robinson noted that it also takes a commitment of time to attend a Trump rally, and thousands of Iowans have already done that, while other campaigns struggle to attract a couple hundred. He attended a Trump rally in eastern Iowa this fall and was surprised to see so many fans show up already wearing campaign T-shirts, suggesting a level of planning that could translate into the willingness to caucus.
“There is a committed base of support that no doubt will caucus for him,” Robinson said.
At Trump’s rally in Des Moines on Dec. 11, a couple in their early 30s said they have no plans to caucus, even though they hope Trump will be president and wanted their two young sons to see the candidate speak. A 25-year-old graduate student said he would probably caucus for Trump, but he just moved to the state and has no idea how to do so. A group of high school students said they won’t be old enough to vote. A retiree who said he’s “not a political sort of guy” is still surveying his options.
Linda Stuver, 61, said Trump is her top pick, although she also likes Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. During the last election cycle, she went to a rally for Mitt Romney, her first political event. The Trump rally was her second.
“This is only my second time I’ve ever been to one of these — that’s how annoyed I am with what’s happening to our country,” said Stuver, who lives in Des Moines and says she raised four children by cleaning houses and working other low-level jobs. “I can’t even have Obama be on TV anymore — I have to shut it off, that’s how irritated I am. Us old folks have seen a lot, and what’s happening in our country is not right.”
Is she annoyed and irritated enough to caucus?
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “I never have.”
As Stuver waited for the rally to start, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” blared and a Trump staffer with a clipboard stopped by the small section of bleachers where she was sitting.
“Is there anybody up here that’s 100 percent sure that you’re caucusing on February 1 for Trump?” the staffer asked, then waited, holding the clipboard over his head. “Anybody? No?”
With no takers, the staffer moved on to the next section of cheering fans eagerly awaiting Trump’s arrival.
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.