Iowa sits between reliably blue states to the east and solid red states to the west. Accordingly, Iowa is divided east and west, Democratic and Republican. This makes turnout for liberal Democrats (Sanders) and moderate Republicans (Rubio and Bush) important in the city centers and eastern counties, while conservatives (Clinton, Trump, and Cruz) will generally pull in votes from the central and western rural areas of the state. In 2008, Obama swamped Clinton in eastern Iowa. Expect Sanders to similarly perform well there; however, Clinton lost many votes in central Iowa to dreamy-eyed John Edwards, a set back she does not face this time around.
Cedar and Boone counties are rural counties located next to major urban areas (major by Iowa standards), each has a population with fewer than 25% college graduates, and both had close to 50/50 Obama/Romney vote totals in 2012. Cedar registered a total of 712 votes in 2008 in the GOP caucus, a typical sample size of a public opinion poll, and Boone hauled in a whopping 1282 ballots cast. But their size means they report quickly, and their early vote totals will tell us for whom evangelical and Tea Party voters are caucusing across the state.
Boone is more evangelical, being a central county, and has most recently voted for Huckabee in 2008 and Santorum in 2012, both on the ballot again this year. However, Iowa caucus goers are informed voters (at least of who’s winning the horse race), and they will gravitate toward Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Cedar is more eastern and Tea Party-dominated for the GOP, going strongly for Ron Paul in 2012 and the more conservative edition of Mitt Romney™ that Romney and Co. released as their 2008 model. How these small Republican populations break toward Trump or Cruz will be very telling.
On the Democratic side, Bernie should do well in eastern counties like Cedar, and Clinton should have the advantage in Boone. If, however, one candidate wins both of these early reporting counties, the contest could be shaping out to be rather one-sided.
The university towns of Ames and Iowa City, with dormitories full of votes, tend to be more chaotic and correspondingly slow to return results. In Iowa, you can register same day at your caucus location, and college and graduate students tend to just show up and make lines a little long. In a close election, as the rest of the map gets painted in and precinct totals approach 99% reporting, eyes will turn to Story and Johnson counties as the last deep wells of votes still outstanding. These counties are where Bernie’s legends are massed, so expect an early Clinton lead to dwindle as the snow starts accumulating in western Iowa and we approach the small hours of the night.
Ann Selzer of the Des Moines Register released her final pre-caucus poll showing Trump +5 over Cruz and Clinton +3 over Sanders. Selzer knows the Iowa electorate better than every other pollster, and her recent predictions have been rarely inaccurate. Then again, her model of predicting likely voters for an hour and a half caucus process on the eve of a major snowstorm has never faced a candidate less predictable than the Donald.
Remember, Iowa tends to be more impactful on the Democratic race than the GOP. Additionally, Iowa cannot, by itself, grant candidates the nomination, but it can and does eliminate them.
If Trump wins, my God, what will the country say?