Essential Politics: The countdown to Iowa begins

Essential Politics: The countdown to Iowa begins
We have a bit more than 72 hours until results begin to flow in from the Iowa caucuses, the first voting of the 2016 nominating process. But for many political insiders, there's another event 24 hours from now that is almost as eagerly awaited.
That would be the release of the Iowa Poll, conducted by Ann Selzer, who has an unmatched track record of accurately forecasting the caucus results. The poll, sponsored by the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg, is scheduled to be released at 5:45 p.m. CST on Saturday.
Good afternoon, I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of the Essential Politics newsletter, where we look at the major developments in the presidential race and highlight stories during the week that provided insight beyond the main headlines.
Selzer's numbers should give us a sense of the answers to some key questions in the Iowa race: How much have Donald Trump's repeated attacks worn away support for Sen. Ted Cruz? Is Sen. Marco Rubio consolidating the non-Trump, non-Cruz vote, and if so, how far can that take him? Has Hillary Clinton managed to reestablish a stable lead over Sen. Bernie Sanders, as both campaigns have been signaling? Are there signs of a surge of first-time voters, which would favor Trump on the Republican side and Sanders in the Democratic race?
The stakes are high on both sides. A convincing win for Trump in Iowa, coupled with a victory in New Hampshire, where he has led public polls for months, would not guarantee him the nomination, but it would establish him as a clear favorite. Conversely, if Cruz wins despite Trump's assault, it could dent the New York billionaire's image as a winner, with unpredictable results.
On the Democratic side, Sanders badly needs a victory in Iowa -- a state, like New Hampshire and Vermont, where white liberals dominate the Democratic electorate. Those voters are Sanders' strength, and if he can't beat Clinton in Iowa, the remaining primaries will be much harder.
Conversely, if Sanders can pull off a win in Iowa, he has a hope of going a lot further. For example, a survey released Thursday by Marquette University, which runs a high quality poll of Wisconsin, showed Sanders just two percentage points behind Clinton, 45%-43%, among Democrats who say they plan to vote in the state's primary in April.
As we await the Iowa numbers, here are some excellent stories that my colleagues have done in the last week for you to peruse if you haven't already:

Trump has dominated the Republican field for months, drawing on voter anger and the media access he gets from his celebrity. But Trump wields another weapon -- his keen sense of showmanship. Michael Finnegan took a careful look at Trump as entertainer. It will tell you a lot about how the GOP front-runner achieved that status.

Meantime, on the Democratic side, Sanders hopes to follow the pattern of then-Sen. Barack Obama, whose campaign generated a surge of new voters en route to winning Iowa. Most candidates who have tried that, however, have ended up failing, as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean found out. Which model better fits Sanders? Evan Halper and Chris Megerian set out to answer that question. Here's what they found out.

A key formative experience for Cruz was his years as Texas' solicitor general. As Noah Bierman writes, it was during that period that Cruz resuscitated a flagging career and built the political platform that has propelled him at to the front ranks of the GOP field.

Martin O'Malley has had virtually no success on the campaign trail, but his small, hardy band of followers could determine the winner of the race between Sanders and Clinton because of the quirky rules of Iowa's Democratic caucuses. Seema Mehta explains why.

Rubio, who began his campaign as the sunny optimist of the race, has taken on a harder edge and a harsher tone in recent weeks. Lisa Mascaro looked at why that transformation has happened and whether it is helping or hurting.

Latino activists have predicted that Trump's often-harsh rhetoric on immigration wold spur a big mobilization of Latino voters, much the way the fight over Proposition 187 did in California two decades ago. In Iowa, there's evidence that mobilization has started, Kate Linthicum reported.

And Javier Panzar has that long awaited Tommy Chong video supporting Sanders. The comedian is releasing the 2-minute spot on social media Friday afternoon.  

What we're reading:


On BuzzFeed, Ruby Cramer took a long look at a side of Hillary Clinton that has often been obscured by the political fights she has engaged in -- an idealistic streak that stretches back to the commencement speech at Wellesley that first brought her to public attention. Even for those who know Clinton's record well, the piece is worth the time.

That wraps up this week. My colleague, Christina Bellantoni, will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in the 2016 campaign with our Trail Guide, at our politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.

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